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Impunity, poverty blamed for Venezuela's soaring murder rate

media Venezuelan police stop and search a suspect Girish Gupta

More than 20,000 people were killed last year in Venezuela, a murder rate higher than in some war zones. Crime is the key issue for Venezuelans and there is little evidence that anything is changing.

Petare is a major slum of some two million people that flanks Caracas, a city with one of the world’s highest murder rates.

On a routine patrol the police stop and hold up a gang of teenagers, one is grabbed and pinned against a wall.

“You think you’re a thug,” the officer screams at him. “I’m more of a thug than you.”

The victim is then punched and zapped with a taser. The brutality is telling of the police’s lack of training and one reason for the lack of respect people in Venezuela have for the authorities.

Venezuela’s murder rate has soared since the late president Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. The government does not release official figures but independent organisations, such as the Venezuela Violence Observatory, run by Roberto Briceño-León, have collated their own statistics.

Briceño-León says that the criminal rate “took off completely” when Chávez came to power. “Then there is a continuous increase,” he adds.

Impunity is a major issue. “In 1998, for each 100 homicides, we had 118 detentions,” says Briceño-León. “In 2008, for each 100 homicides, we had nine detentions.”

There is little respect for the law in Venezuela. Police officers are undertrained, understaffed and underequipped.

Jorma Mendoza, a young police officer in Petare, says his family tell him to take care.

“It’s a difficult job but I like it,” he says, before talking about some colleagues who were killed in a shootout.

In a barrio two hours south of Caracas, Kevin, not his real name, shows off a fresh, undressed bullet wound in his left thigh.

The 25-year-old’s favored means of making money is to head down to wealthy neighborhoods, where “everyone has a BlackBerry,” he says, and push a pistol into his victim's side.

“I’ll ask for their phone and money,” he says. “They ask me not to kill them. If they co-operate, they’ll be fine. Sometimes they say no, so boom!”

While the issue is high on everybody's list of gripes about Venezuela, there is little political incentive to get it sorted. As long as people like Kevin see no repercussions from killing people for their smartphones, the country will continue to suffer.

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