Just how murderous is Venezuela? The answer, it turns out, depends on whom you ask.
Last week, Attorney General Luisa Ortega told congress there had been almost 18,000 murders in Venezuela last year — for a rate of 58 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
In a country that hasn’t provided regular murder statistics since 2003, the revelation was welcome news. But it’s also reigniting debate over the true scope of the problem.
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At issue are competing figures. The Observatory of Venezuelan Violence — a think tank that has tried to fill the vacuum of official data — recently reported that there were 27,875 homicides last year, for a rate of 91 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. That would make it the most murderous country on the planet.
In addition, the Mexico-based group Citizens Counsel for Public Security and Criminal Justice (CCSPJP) last month said the Venezuelan rate was 80 homicides per 100,000, putting it in second place behind El Salvador.
Part of the data discrepancy might come down to methodology. Experts speculated that the government figures might not include unintentional homicides or police-related deaths. (And the Observatory’s figures are based on projections, not recorded cases.)
Government critics have less generous theories.
“The attorney general is simply lying,” Rafael Narváez, a criminal defense and human rights lawyer, said. He estimated that the official figures have left out almost 10,000 murders.
He said he was relying on private figures collected by networks of people who count bodies at the morgue.
The Mexican think tank also expressed its frustration, saying it was a “challenge” to nail down exact data because Venezuelan officials “instead of being transparent and offering figures, prefer to obscure them or rely on propaganda, which is often based on lies. Therefore, most of the time, the official figures are not reliable.”
In addition to the dismal national figures, the CCSPJP declared Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, the most murderous city on the planet with 120 homicides per 100,000 people. If those figures are correct, the city has the dubious distinction of taking the spot from San Pedro Sula, Honduras (111 murders per 100,000), which had been No. 1 for four years running.
Seventeen years of socialist rule have left Venezuela deeply wounded. Plummeting crude prices have the country on the verge of economic collapse. Inflation is running in the triple digits, the economy is shrinking, and food shortages are rampant.
In her congressional address, Ortega acknowledged that even her lower murder rate was “absolutely worrisome.”
She singled out the availability of weapons and corrupt police officers as drivers of the violence. Ortega said 82 percent of the homicides were committed with firearms. In addition, automatic weapons and hand grenades are increasingly being used in attacks.
“Disarming the population remains one of the goals we must meet,” she said, calling for a “national dialogue” on the issue.
It’s alarming how many policemen are involved in kidnapping, extortion, car robberies and drug trafficking.
Venezuela Attorney General Luisa Ortega
While police have been some of the primary victims of Venezuela’s crime wave, they’re also part of the problem.
“It’s alarming how many policemen are involved in kidnapping, extortion, car robberies, and drug trafficking,” Ortega said.
Some 277 public officials are being investigated for kidnapping alone, the ministry said in an accompanying report.
The socialist administration has a track record of burying bad news. In 2003, when the crime and murder rate started spiking, the government shut down the police media-relations office, which provided regular data.
The fact that Ortega brought up the figures at all is a sign of changing times, as the opposition is using its congressional majority to pry information out of government officials.
Even so, on Friday, opposition deputies with the Voluntad Popular party said Ortega should step down, saying that impunity had soared on her watch. By some calculations, 98 percent of all crimes go unpunished.
They also blame her for allowing the courts to become a politicized arm of the socialist administration.
“Everybody knows about the criminal gangs that are in the country but none of the criminals are in jail,” Congressman Ismael León said in a statement. “The Attorney General Luisa Ortega is responsible for the impunity in the country, and she should step aside.”
Ortega defended her record, saying that almost 16,000 homicide investigations were launched in 2015 and that there were 4,465 arrest warrants issued. However, many of those warrants are still open, she acknowledged.
Narváez wasn’t willing to give the administration credit for providing figures. Along with the under-reporting, Ortega took no responsibility for what was happening to the country, he said.
“The state is ignoring reality,” Narváez said. “Venezuela is like a zoo of delinquency.”
Top 10 most murderous cities*
(Murder rate per 100,000 people)
No. 1: Caracas, Venezuela — 120
No. 2: San Pedro Sula, Honduras — 111
No. 3: San Salvador, El Salvador — 109
No. 4: Acapulco, Mexico — 105
No. 5: Maturín, Venezuela — 86
No. 6: Central District, Honduras — 74
No. 7: Valencia, Venezuela — 72
No. 8: Palmira, Colombia — 71
No. 9: Cape Town, South Africa — 66
No. 10: Cali, Colombia — 64
*Cities of 300,000+ pop.