How Did Venezuela Become So Violent?

In the early hours of Monday, Monica Spear became another one of Venezuela’s murder victims.

The actress and former beauty queen was killed along with her husband during a highway robbery attempt, with her five year old daughter looking on from the back seat of the car as her parents were shot to death.

Because of Spear’s fame, and the tragic nature of this murder, the story spread rapidly online and on TV, prompting Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro to call for a special, high-level meeting on the country’s security situation.

Maduro may be trying to do something about Venezuela’s crime problem.

But this incident also highlights an inconvenient truth for the Venezuelan government. Under the socialist government of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has become one of the world’s most violent countries. The leaders of that country have spectacularly failed to stop the violence.

This chart of Venezuela’s murder rate was compiled by the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a local think tank. The red line indicates the number of murders per every 100,000 residents.

As you can see, the murder rate in Venezuela has been increasing dramatically since 1999, the year in which Hugo Chavez took office in Venezuela. Murder rates grew through out Hugo Chavez’s 13 year tenure, and have continued to climb under that of his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela’s murder rate now dwarfs those of Mexico or Colombia, countries that have suffered heavily from drug violence in the past decade. Here’s a comparison of murder rates in different countries compiled with data from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory and a UN database on global homicide rates:

In 2013 Venezuela also had more violent deaths than Iraq, a country plagued by terrorist attacks and sectarian violence.

So why has Venezuela become so violent?

There are several hypothesis.

One of them is that in Venezuela, criminals have little incentive to change their behavior. Think tanks estimate that only 8% of crimes in Venezuela are prosecuted. This means that murderers, robbers and the like, have a 92% chance of breaking the law and getting away with it.

Venezuelan criminologist Fermin Marmol, says that the government has not prioritized security policies, like flushing out corrupt cops, and increasing the number of well trained prosecutors.

“They have prioritized other things like changing the constitution and exporting the [Bolivarian] revolution,” Marmol told Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

The government says it has tried some security initiatives, including sending the military to patrol the most dangerous parts of Venezuelan cities. When Chavez was alive, he argued that high poverty rates in the 1990s led to broken homes, and the abandonment of kids who are now leading lives of crime.

But many Latin American countries such as Colombia and Mexico also suffered from high poverty rates in the 1990s, and homicide rates in these places are actually going down now.

Some sociologists say that violence in Venezuela is also fueled by class rivalries, which the government promotes in its discourses and TV programs. These analysts argue that by labeling its middle class opponents as “terrorists,” “traitors” and “enemies of the state,” the government incites violence against these people, giving gangsters from poor neighborhoods a psychological justification for assaulting middle class Venezuelans.

The government denies that it is stoking violence. It argues instead that violence is promoted by materialistic TV shows, and action films like Spiderman, which trivialize death.

Fermin Marmol says the government has a “contradictory” discourse towards gun control, urging gangsters to give up their weapons, while on the other hand encouraging the formation of socialist militias in poor neighborhoods.

He argues that drug trafficking in Venezuelan neighborhoods has increased violence, and claims that a new sort of criminal that is not just looking for goods or money has emerged.

According to Marmol, gaining respect is also extremely important to this “new” sort of criminal. These criminals, who are generally teenagers or men in their early twenties, are willing to kill to gain the “respect” of their peers, Marmol says. They will also see any resistance to robbery as an act of “disrespect” towards them that ought to be punished with violence.