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What's it like to live in the world's most violent city?

Criminal activity is widespread in Venezuela’s capital city, causing insecurity among both rich and poor.

THE VENEZUELAN CAPITAL of Caracas topped the latest ranking of the world’s most violent cities earlier this month.

The city has never been far from the top of the list, compiled on the basis of homicide rates by Mexican nongovernmental organisation Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice.

In fact, it has been in the top ten every year since 2008. In 2012, it came third, before climbing to second in 2013 and 2014, and leading the 2015 index with a homicide rate of 119.87 per 100,000.

So why do murder rates remain so high?

Crime has increased significantly in Venezuela since the 1990s, and while its origins are hard to pin down, it’s likely attributable to several factors.

Venezuela Troop In The Street A soldier stands guard on a street near a checkpoint in Petare, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Caracas. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

According to Alejandro Velasco, an expert in Latin America at New York University, ”the complete dysfunction of the judicial system” allows for a significant degree of impunity for some, usually high-profile, offenders, leading to “disregard for the law, because it’s selectively applied”.

The government of late president Hugo Chavez, in office from 1999 to 2013, viewed crime as something rooted in political factors and failed to address it with a dedicated law-enforcement effort, he said, which arguably “contributed further to this sort of increase in crime”.

Colombia’s longstanding civil conflict, and related drug-trafficking activity, has also driven crime and insecurity in Venezuela in recent years.

“As the drug war in Colombia has sort of phased down and some of that has bubbled over into Venezuela, [criminal elements] have really had sort of a field day, both institutionally with corruption in the military and in the national guard in particular, but also just in terms of socially with sort of easy access to weapons and all sorts of other things,” Velasco said.

The current Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, has used Colombia, and Colombians in Venezuela, as bogeymen for his country’s current crises, identifying the frontier as a source of economic instability due to rampant smuggling as well as violence because of Colombian criminal groups operating in the area.

Over the last year, the country’s government has closed the border with Colombia, deployed troops to the region, and expelled thousands of Colombians, some of whom were refugees, living illegally in Venezuela’s western border region.

The Venezuelan government has withheld official statistics on crime for several years, meaning there’s an element of doubt around many of the estimates of violence in the country.

Venezuela Chavez and Crime A street is deserted at night in the city's Petare slum. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

One of the most widely cited estimates for homicides in Venezuela comes from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), whose measure for homicide rates, as political scientist Dorothy Kronik has noted, is ”a forecast based on past trends”.

This makes for questionable results since, as the OVV has admitted, there isn’t reliable data for past years since the government stopped releasing statistics.

The Citizen’s Council’s measure is based on bodies registered in the Bello Monte morgue in Caracas.

Data gathered from Bello Monte also needs to be qualified, as the Citizen’s Council admits in its methodology: “We know that the morgue is not exclusively for the Metropolitan District of Caracas, but for an area much larger, and that 80% of the cadavers correspond to violent homicides, not 100%.”

Tabulations of corpses registered in Bello Monte are also questionable.

The country’s homicide rate, in Velasc’s view, ”just remains an extremely murky figure … there’s just too much uncertainty to really make a definitive statement one way or another”.

Though the exact numbers can be disputed, the high level of violence is undeniable.

Most, if not all, of Caracas’ residents have experienced the effects of the city’s violence, though a specific subset of the city faces the brunt of it.

Venezuela Violence Police officers conduct a routine patrol through a neighbourhood. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

There were, according to the Citizen’s Council’s calculations, 3,946 homicides among the 3,291,831 people in Caracas’ Metropolitan district in 2015.

According to Velasco, most “of the violence is targeted towards the poorer sectors of the city. The challenge is that … Caracas, [as in] many Latin American cities, poverty and wealth are sometimes close together … but most of it is concentrated among the so-called barrios”.

“And youth, it certainly targets youth much more so than others,” he added.

According to a Unicef report published in late 2014, homicide is the leading cause of death among young people in Venezuela.

For adolescents from 10 to 19 years of age, the homicide rate is 39 per 100,000 people; for males between of those ages, the rate is 74 per 100,000, while it’s just 3 per 100,000 for females in that age group.

Criminal activity in Caracas is widespread, which helps drive up the rate of killing.

Venezuela Violence A boy colors in the letter P with chalk after spelling the Spanish word Paz, or Peace, at an event against violence. Source: Fernando Llano/AP/Press Association Images

“One of the things that has gone up … is the incidence of break-ins that result in murder,” Velasco said, “and not necessarily planned in that way, but for whatever reason they end up in killings.”

Violent deaths of this kind indicate a cycle of violence that has afflicted the capital and its residents, who are known as Caraqueños.

The rise of violence in homes, caused primarily by break-ins, is in part “a response to people retreating back to their homes”, Velasco said.

With gangs often in control of poor neighborhoods, weapons readily available, judges and police officials often on the take, and low rates of prosecution, the sense of insecurity has become widespread in the Venezuelan capital.

Venezuela Violence An unidentified youth lays unconscious in the emergency room after strangers found him lying on the street in the Petare shantytown. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

The city has made headlines around the world for its deteriorating economic situation, but what is less noticed is how this exposes Caraqueños to crime.

Inflation and scarcity have made it harder for Venezuelans to get normal consumer goods. When the needed products are available, they come with exorbitant prices, and attract a crowd.

“More people have to be out on the streets longer and earlier during the day or later at night, and that has to do with people making lines to buy products that are scarce,” said Velasco.

So they have to spend hours and hours in line and they become easier targets for violence, especially if they’re going, they have a lot of cash in hand.

Lines have become so prevalent that a market for dedicated line-placeholders has sprung up.

“It’s boring but not a bad way to make a living,” Luis, a 23-year-old man, told Reuters outside a state supermarket just after sunrise in Caracas in early 2015.

Like the shoppers around him expecting to contend with inflated prices, Luis carries large amounts of cash.

“There’s a lady coming at 8 a.m. for this place. She’s paid in advance,” he said.

The combination of economic woes and widespread insecurity has influenced the everyday lives of Caraqueños in other ways as well.

Venezuela Chavez and Crime A drug dealer shows his guns and a scar on his stomach from an injury suffered during clashes with rival gangs in the Las Mayas neighbourhood. Source: Rodrigo Abd/AP/Press Association Images

Velasco referred specifically to changa tuki, a techno-inspired music and dance trend that’s popular in poorer areas of Caracas, like Petare, one of Veneuzela’s largest barrios.

“It gained visibility and reputation because people who would dance to it or practice it would do so at daytime dance parties, precisely because doing so at nighttime was so dangerous, especially in popular sectors,” he said.

You have the pop-up rave that happens, it happens during the middle of the day, or maybe after school or something. So that suggests one way in which social parameters are changing for youth who are, again, sort of the primary targets for this violence.

Among wealthier Caraqueños, insecurity has also changed habits.

Caracas Street Scenes Shoppers walk around the Paseo Bolivar area. Source: Fernando Llano/AP/Press Association Images

“People certainly don’t go outside as much as” in the past, Velasco said, “but if they do go out at night, especially if they’re a little bit wealthier, they keep bodyguards with them, which just increases the general presence of weapons.”

The increased use of private security, coupled with state security forces that the public doesn’t trust and a judicial system unable to serve the people, creates what the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (Coha) described in 2012 as a “violence trap”.

Insecurity has fuelled the private-security industry. “We noticed that the upswing began in 2003,” an executive at Caracas-based security firm Blindcorp said in April 2012.

“And it just keeps getting better,” he added.

Like poorer Venezuelans, wealthier residents of the country have had to adapt to a new way of life.

Venezuela Violence Police officers ask men for their identifications during a patrol. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

“You have chefs at restaurants, instead of holding late hours, they’ll close earlier, and then have private parties … where they basically do meals in these people’s homes that they would have in a restaurant,” Velasco said.

So it’s not even catering. It’s sort of like the whole experience of being at a restaurant, just not going out, because of either the unexpectedness of products being available or how expensive it is, or just the threat of going out.

Grish Gupta reported for Reuters in June of last year: “Crime has made diners seek ever-more private and secure settings, while shortages of ingredients make it difficult to maintain a steady menu.”

“Chefs and owners complain that operating a normal restaurant profitably has become increasingly problematic as state controls limit price increases despite roaring inflation and bribery is the only way to get permits in a timely fashion,” he added.

“Venezuela must be one of the hardest places to do gastronomy,” said the 21-year-old owner of the clandestine restaurant Gupta visited.

High prices make these private restaurants the domain of Venezuela’s elite, though government officials have been known to dine at them.

Insecurity and instability have affected Venezuelan youths in other ways. 

Venezuela Troops On Street A soldier frisks a man outside his car at a checkpoint that is part of a government anti-violence initiative. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

In what may be a long-lasting shift for the country, many working-age people have migrated elsewhere.

“I couldn’t raise a child there. Venezuela was bad, and it’s only got worse,” said Veronika Leniz, who works in marketing and left Venezuela for Miami after becoming pregnant.

At Caracas’ School of Chemistry, 63% of instructors earn less than minimum wage.

Students at the dentistry school often have to work outside jobs just to be able to afford basic supplies like gloves.

The country has also seen an outflow of energy-sector workers, a troubling development for an economy that gets 95% of its export earnings from oil.

“Venezuela is on the road to the total underdevelopment of the country,” Ivan de la Vega, a sociologist and expert on Venezuelan migration, told BuzzFeed.

The Venezuelan government’s response to crime in recent years has added to the violence.

Venezuela Congress Security forces search for evidence at the site of a small explosion outside the Venezuelan National Assembly. Source: Fernando Llano/AP/Press Association Images

After abortive attempts at police reform in the late 2000s (which were hamstrung by institutional turf wars), the Venezuelan government fell back on ”mano dura”, or “iron fist” law-enforcement policies.

In the months after Maduro’s election in mid-2013, he deployed the military and militarised elements of the country’s police force to deal with crime.

Even though “mano dura” policies have remained generally popular, human-rights abuses committed by security forces deployed to the streets have stirred unease.

A report by the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal in August 2013 documented the terror Venezuelans felt passing though roadblocks manned by “heavily armed but lightly trained soldiers.”

According to Velasco: “When the army is deployed to do citizen security, they follow the rules of engagement that are conventionally military.

Their rules of engagement are so discretionary and broad that we have seen a significant amount of deaths.

Ineffective crackdowns on crime in Caracas have created a kind of feedback loop that perpetuates insecurity and impunity.

Venezuela Economy People line up outside a supermarket to buy price-regulated toilet paper. Source: Fernando Llano/AP/Press Association Images

“As crime occurs, ill-equipped Venezuelan security forces respond, leading to more clashes. Over time, the government inevitably loses control and criminals face no liability for their actions,” Coha’s 2012 report noted.

The report cites the Enero 23, or 23 January, neighbourhood – named for the date on which dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez was deposed in 1958 - as a “micro-state” run by “about 300 armed paramilitaries who operate entirely outside of the government’s purview”.

Criminal groups that can operate with relative impunity can also strike back at police forces.

Over 100 police officers were killed last year in Caracas, many of them for their weapons.

The threat to police officers’ lives has led to many “doing only the minimum work required of them to fight crime while on patrol”, according to Insight Crime.

Efforts to counteract violence in Caracas and reform its weakened law-enforcement mechanisms have become mired in political gridlock.

Caracas Strike People line up at a bus stop in the city. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

“One of the reasons, these structural, underlying reasons why Caracas is such a violent city is because of its administrative disarray,” Velasco said.

So beyond economic crisis, beyond the crisis of impunity, beyond the rising levels of inequality and poverty — all of that stuff is true — but then there’s also this administrative dysfunctionality, where you have a city that has five different mayors, a super-mayor, and then now a super-super-mayor.
All of them have very competing political interests, and all of them also control their own police force, so it creates questions of jurisdiction and all these other problems.

The government’s response to crime and violence has hurt it politically, especially among groups that have traditionally supported the socialist “chavista” party of late president Hugo Chavez.

Veneuela Chavez Chavez supporters stand near the military museum as his body is taken there in March 2013. Source: Rodrigo Abd/AP/Press Association Images

The government’s repressive response to crime, particularly in Caracas, has also alienated it from its traditional constituency.

“It was found that military officers,” deployed by the government to fight crime in 2015, Velasco said, “targeted indiscriminately people within the community itself, so it was terrorising the population that is ostensibly the bulwark of chavismo.”

So unsurprisingly many popular sector areas, as you saw in the last election, voted against chavismo, not just because of all the increasing problem, but also because now it sort of felt like, ‘Well, something that Chavez never did was deploy the military to attack us, and now you have the military ostensibly to defend or to protect us from crime but in fact it’s targeting us.’

In December’s legislative elections, many erstwhile government supporters submitted “votos castigos”, punishment votes against the government.

Venezuela Elections A university student chants during an anti-government march in November. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

The opposition swept into the majority in Venezuela’s National Assembly after a victory in legislative election in December 2015.

With its newfound authority, it has challenged the government’s hold on power, deepening a fight over political influence that seems likely to overshadow efforts at legal or criminal-justice reform.

“They’re entirely caught up in the larger political struggle,” said Velasco.

Read: The most wanted people in Europe and their horrific crimes

Read: When life means life: ‘All I went for was a few bob. I hadn’t it in mind at all to kill her’

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