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Venezuela Election, WikiLeaks and Escalating Urban Crime

To hear Hugo Chávez speak of it, crime is a kind of red herring issue in the Venezuelan presidential election. Recently, when asked if he would beef up security and hire more policemen, the populist leader pooh-poohed the entire notion, remarking that such a strategy responded to a mere right wing ethos. To be sure, conservatives tend to favor such draconian crackdowns which are no substitute for true and lasting social reform. Yet, Chávez may pay a stiff political price for flippantly disregarding the need for greater control over urban crime.

Indeed, some observers believe that violence could be the single most pressing issue in the election. Venezuela’s homicide rate now makes the nation one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and the murder rate is now four times higher than it was when Chávez first took office 13 years ago. Of particular concern is Caracas, which displays an alarming homicide rate of 92 per 100,000 residents. That is the third highest homicide rate of any large city in the world, and according to Time magazine there are 50 murders in the city every week. The dead have been piling up and filling morgues, making Caracas even deadlier than Baghdad.

For Chávez, escalating urban crime represents a keen vulnerability heading into tomorrow’s presidential election. Kidnappers, who reportedly operate in tandem with the police, pick up victims from cars, shopping centers, university campuses or even bus stops. Exasperated by the constant state of fear, many young Venezuelans choose to emigrate out of the country. Meanwhile, Chávez recently announced a security plan though it was the president’s 20th such initiative and failed to reassure. The President’s conservative challenger, Henrique Capriles Randonski, has pledged to get tough on violent crime though making a serious dent in the problem could take years.

Some sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables relating to Venezuelan crime make for sobering reading. In one communication disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas suggests that the Chávez government is deliberating falsifying crime reports. When the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal suggested that the murder rate had risen 14% in the first trimester of 2008 despite a security crackdown, the authorities accused the paper of “media terrorism” and claimed that murders had actually declined 8% over the same period.

Such claims, however, were revealed as bogus when U.S. diplomats spoke with the former chief coroner of the Caracas morgue, who confirmed that the murder rate had indeed risen. Meanwhile, civil society non-governmental organizations complained that Chávez officials concealed the true homicide figures. They told the Americans that officials failed to list deaths due to police encounters, custodial deaths in prison or so-called “unexplained deaths” as genuine homicides. In its report, the American Embassy explained that the term “unexplained death” concealed a large percentage of homicides. In one case, for example, tenant farmers cleared land and discovered two bodies in a grisly and shallow grave. The incident was later reported as “unexplained deaths.”

Another slippery tactic employed by the authorities was to manipulate time to hide murder statistics. When they compared weekly figures, officials only used Monday to Thursday or Friday of the current week in relation to the seven days of the previous week. In such a way, the Chávez government passed over homicides during the weekend, when murder rates tended to spike. The U.S. Embassy noted that the authorities had carried out high profile anti-crime operations and lofty propaganda, but “crime is undermining public support for the Revolutionary Bolivarian government.” Indeed, the coroner who agreed to speak with the Americans confessed that he had resigned his position as head of the metropolitan forensics unit because of “increased political interference” from high up officials.

At the time of the report, U.S. diplomats noted that “crime is a pressing societal problem that the Revolutionary Bolivarian government cannot solve just by throwing money at it.” However, the Americans continued, neither the government nor opposition parties had come up with “credible, comprehensive plans to combat urban crime.”

Then, as now, crime is a hot button topic in Venezuela and could represent Chávez’s Achilles Heel. Whether Capriles, however, can effectively exploit the issue tomorrow remains to be seen.

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