Venezuela

Study: Organized crime undermining Venezuelan institutions

In this Monday, March 9, 2015 photo, Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard officers handle seized merchandise that was being smuggled as others stand guard during a mission to stem the flow of contraband in San Antonio, Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro almost daily blames the smuggling as a tool used by his enemies and business elites fighting an economic war to oust his socialist government from power.
In this Monday, March 9, 2015 photo, Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard officers handle seized merchandise that was being smuggled as others stand guard during a mission to stem the flow of contraband in San Antonio, Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro almost daily blames the smuggling as a tool used by his enemies and business elites fighting an economic war to oust his socialist government from power. AP

How easy is it to have someone whacked in Venezuela? A new survey found 36 percent of the population says it’s “easy” or “very easy” to have someone killed.

Venezuela’s rampant crime often makes chilling headlines. Despite being rich in oil, the country has some of the highest murder and kidnapping rates in the world.

But a recent study suggests that organized crime is widespread and is threatening Venezuela’s democratic stability by undermining institutions.

The report, called “Visualizing what’s behind crime,” was produced by the Observatory on Organized Crime, a program of the Paz Activa civil-society group, and relied on street interviews and focus groups to capture the scope of the problem.

Three-quarters of those surveyed said robberies and muggings took place in their neighborhoods, 51 percent said there were murders near their homes, and 23 percent said the same for kidnappings.

“What we found is that there is a superstructure, a market, that drives all of these criminal activities,” said Paz Activa Director Luis Cedeño.

While Central America has well-organized gangs, such as the MS-13, and Colombia has the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, Venezuela’s criminal groups are harder to pinpoint.

“Here we couldn’t identify one person or a principal cause,” Cedeño said. “But where we see it reflected is in state corruption. … Corruption is the lubricant that allows organized crime to operate.”

Venezuela is ranked 161 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index — tied with Haiti and just below Angola and Guinea-Bissau.

President Nicolás Maduro’s administration sporadically tackles corruption even as it maintains draconian price and currency controls that make smuggling and trafficking — even of basic goods like rice and cooking oil — lucrative criminal enterprises.

Last week, Attorney General Luisa Ortega ordered the detention of former Minister of Aquatic and Aerial Transportation Herbert García-Plaza for allegedly overpaying millions for three used ferries. Ortega also asked banks in Andorra, Spain, and Switzerland to provide information that might root out public money squirreled away overseas.

But it’s on the streets of Venezuela where the criminal element is hitting hardest. The country has the second-highest murder rate in the world after Honduras with 54 homicides per 100,000 population, according to World Bank figures. It also has the highest per capita kidnapping rate in the hemisphere.

Government statistics — particularly about crime — are often nonexistent or incomplete in Venezuela. So Paz Activa, in conjunction with other organizations, relied on a series of focus groups and street surveys of 385 adults to explore the issue.

Among the findings, those surveyed identified insecurity and organized crime as the top two problems afflicting the country — ahead of corruption, unemployment, and poverty.

In addition, 56 percent said they believed police were part of organized crime and 29 percent said they had personal knowledge of the police being involved in criminal networks.

The findings come as the police, too, are being hard-hit by the violence. Some 260 police officials were murdered last year and 45 have been killed this year in the capital alone, according to news reports. Officials say police are being targeted for their weapons, but those answering the survey suggested more might be at play.

“From the very creation of the National Police force it has been corrupt,” one of the anonymous interviewees told researchers. “They’re killing police not just to steal their guns, but because they’re also involved in corruption.”

Another recurring theme is the activity of colectivos. The administration insists that the colectivos are little more than community groups that organize sporting and cultural events.

But respondents saw them as armed gangs that operate with government consent, if not on administration orders. During national protests last year, motorcycle-riding colectivos sometimes attacked demonstrators.

In the working class 23 de Enero neighborhood, an administration stronghold in Caracas, colectivos known as the Tupamaros hold sway, one respondent explained.

“They claim that they’re here to help the young ones but that’s a lie, they’re the law in the plazas,” the person said. “They don’t let any police into the neighborhood.”

The most obvious intersection of organized crime and the state can be seen in the penal system, Cedeño said. The study lays out how gang leaders, called pranes, run sophisticated business enterprises — which include communication networks, front companies, and hired assassins — from the jails.

The phenomenon helps explain why Venezuela’s jails are so deadly, with some 500 inmate murders per year and thousands more hurt, Cedeño said. “The jails are being run by the inmates,” he explained.

Occasional prison raids have turned up grenades and bazookas, underscoring the willingness of prison guards to turn a blind eye to smuggling, he said.

Cedeño said he hopes the report is a wake-up call for the administration.

“Organized crime can affect the democratic stability of the country by undermining institutions like the justice system and the police,” he said. “To the extent that corruption permeates state institutions it can destabilize the system. We don’t want a failed state.”

Miami Herald Andean Bureau Chief Jim Wyss is based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow him on Twitter: @jimwyss

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