The wave of protests that have gripped Venezuela for the past month started in response to a sexual assault at the University of the Andes in San Cristobal. Students there took to the streets over the city’s deteriorating security situation, and their complaints were soon echoed by demonstrators voicing the same concerns across the country.
In a matter of days, discontent over political repression, severe shortages, and Nicolas Maduro's government fueled the protests that have yet to dissipate from the streets of Caracas and other cities. But it is not a coincidence that Venezuela's greatest unrest in a decade was spurred by an act of violence.
“Violence and rape are our daily bread,” Gala Garrido, an artist and educator from Caracas, told VICE News. “The first lynchings made news, now they don’t anymore, and that’s bad. We as a society have become so used to death.”
Venezuelans may be used to the crime and insecurity that have dominated the country’s headlines and reputation for years, but they have also had enough.
“We want to live in a country that is safe,” a protester told the VICE News team on the ground last week.
“Last year they killed like, 20,000 people,” another young woman said. “That’s wrong.”
The number of murders recorded in 2013 was actually even higher — more than 24,000, according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (OVV), an NGO that tracks crime in the country. Some claim even that is a conservative estimate.
That means 12 percent of all deaths in Venezuela last year were violent ones, killing the equivalent of one Venezuelan every 27 minutes, according to newspaper El Universal.
Garrido compared the country’s crime to “a snowball” that has grown exponentially through the years.
The observatory says that the country’s homicide rate has grown fourfold during the last 15 years, landing Venezuela behind only El Salvador and Honduras in the unflattering race for the region’s most violent. Even Mexico, ravaged by drug wars, is faring better.
The Venezuelan government stopped publishing crime data a decade ago — a few years into Chavez’s 14-year rule over the country and shortly after homicide rates took a sharp turn up, critics say. But government officials deny the OVV numbers, and claim to have reduced murder rates by 18 percent in 2013.
Officials contacted by VICE News did not respond to requests for comment, but a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights indicated lower official murder rates than those reported by OVV. The government has blamed the country’s “bourgeois” press of “sensationalizing” the problem, as reported by the Economist. Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres told Reuters that most cited data is inflated.
“We’re not happy, but we’re optimistic,” Torres said.
Venezuelans — wealthy and otherwise — beg to differ, and many have taken to comparing their country’s spiraling murder rates in the last decade to those of Iraq.
Some 162,000 were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, while more than 124,000 were violently killed in Venezuela in the same time frame. In 2011, the murder rate in Caracas passed that in Baghdad.
Gloomy statistics abound and paint a frightening picture for Venezuela — in addition to the murders, kidnappings are also on the rise. Some 583 were reported in 2012, but police sources estimate at least 80 percent of kidnappings go unreported, according to data cited by the US State Department’s travel advisory for Venezuela.
Even if disputed, the numbers speak clearly. Less clear are the reasons behind such unflattering records, particularly when one considers that Venezuela is not exactly a poor country.
Venezuela has some of the world’s largest oil deposits — accounting for more than 75 percent of its export revenues. And, while inequality runs deep, social programs instituted under Chavez have focused on poverty alleviation and social redistribution.
“The Venezuelan oddity is that there are very few countries in the world, at peace, and with that level of national income, that display that level of crime,” political science professor Javier Corrales told VICE News.
Though the country’s middle class is the group that has taken to the streets, most violence is actually recorded in poorer communities — the very beneficiaries of Chavez’s programs.
“In the low-income areas, in the slums, the situation is much worse,” Garrido said. “It’s daily.”
So why exactly is Venezuela so violent?
Before his death — a year ago today — Chavez blamed his country's crime epidemic on the problems and inequality fostered in the 1980s and 1990s. But after 14 years in power, many pointed to his failure to address the issue.
“Part of the problem is crime is not always related to economic variables, but to government actions or inactions,” Corrales said. “Fighting crime was never a priority of the Chavez administration, and under Maduro, it has been relegated due to new problems.”
Critics accuse the Venezuelan government of having failed to curtail corruption in the police. Courts, too, hardly prosecute anyone, they say, and only 8 percent of arrests referred to prosecutors ever lead to indictments.
“The probability of getting caught, or ending in jail is very low in Venezuela, and this creates a culture of impunity,” Corrales said.
Police are not only widely corrupt, but also understaffed and outgunned by criminals.
“The homicide rate is difficult to lower because we don’t have enough personnel or logistics. And very little political support,” a Caracas police officer told Ryan Duffy of VICE News in a 2012 documentary series about Venezuela’s crime epidemic.
“We’re very few, the government needs to invest a lot in the police force, in the public ministry, in the courts and judges, and in the prison system.”
Watch VICE News’ Ryan Duffy 2012 documentary series “Venezuelan Body Count.”
The criminals who do end up in prison face some of the world’s most violent jails. At least 591 people were killed in Venezuelan prisons last year, according to Amnesty International. Prison riots last summer also left dozens dead.
But government supporters point their fingers elsewhere.
“These are very long-term problems that have existed in Venezuela for decades,” outspoken Chavista author Eva Golinger told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story. “The biggest root causes of the situation are the vast inequalities that have existed in the country for a long time,” she said.
They also blame the estimated 1.1 million illegal guns in the country, which they say were imported by guerrilla and paramilitary groups from neighboring Colombia.
In an attempt to curtail the problem last summer, Maduro passed a law banning gun ownership for anyone other than the army, police, and Venezuela’s booming private security industry. He called violence an “illness” and blamed it on capitalist-inspired “cultural decadence” and US-imported action films like Spiderman.
But critics say Spiderman is not the one to blame, and accuse Maduro’s government of promoting violence and class conflict.
“This government’s strength has always been to create chaos,” Garrido told VICE News. “We live under state terrorism. They built everything on a discourse of difference and violence.”