A crime scene in Venezuela

New academic research questions widely-disseminated figures indicating violent deaths have risen sharply over the last three years in Venezuela, pointing to the difficulty researchers face in obtaining accurate crime statistics in the crisis-plagued country. 

In a July 1 post for Caracas Chronicles, political scientist Dorothy Kronick estimates Venezuela's 2015 violent death rate stood at 68.7 per 100,000. While this figure would still be among the highest in Latin America, Kronick points out that her estimate is significantly lower than the 89.8 per 100,000 reported by the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia - OVV). The Caracas Chronicles' estimate suggests violence rose by less than 5 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2015, while the OVV data indicates a 28 percent rise.  

The discrepancy is mostly due, according to Kronick, to the fact that in 2013 the OVV double-counted a significant number of the violent death cases reported by Venezuela's investigative police force, CICPC.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Homicides

As Kronick explains, the CICPC counts the number of homicide cases, police violence cases, and deaths from external causes that could be intentional or unintentional, but the police body only reveals these numbers to selected researchers and non-governmental organizations. The OVV lost their source with access to the CICPC data in 2013, so the observatory based their numbers for that year on a press article by veteran journalist Deivis Ramírez. Ramírez reported the number of "homicide" cases, to which the OVV then added cases attributed to police violence and to external causes, using the same formula the observatory had used in the past to determine the violent death rate.

Ramírez confirmed to Kronick, however, that the number he reported already included homicide and police violence cases. This means the OVV counted the number of police violence cases twice, which led the organization to report a large increase in the number of total violent deaths. According to Kronick, Ramírez's figures actually show violent deaths decreased in 2013. Data from the Health Ministry and the CICPC also suggest violence fell slightly that year. 

The OVV then used the 2013 figures as a projection for 2014 and 2015, which led it to conclude violence continued to rise during those years. (See the Caracas Chronicles chart below)

"Because OVV moved to extrapolation in 2014 and 2015, it was a mistake amplified by time," Kronick writes. 

The OVV's lead statistician, Alberto Camardiel, told Caracas Chronicles that Kronick's description of how the observatory calculated its figures for 2013 to 2015 was accurate. In respose to inquiries by InSight Crime, OVV Director Roberto Briceño-León said the observatory is currently reviewing its methodology and will provide an official response at a later date.

The OVV estimates on violence are routinely cited by many news organizations, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, -- and InSight Crime

16-07-04-Venezuela-Homicide-Chart

InSight Crime Analysis

Kronick's investigation is ground-breaking for what it tells us. It refutes the widely-held belief, fostered by the OVV reports, that violence in Venezuela has risen dramatically since 2012. In a country such as Venezuela, where the security forces are suspected of widespread human rights abuses and the government has deployed a militarized anti-crime campaign that has resulted in a mounting death toll, this finding may change the perception about what kind of security strategies are required to reduce violence and combat organized crime. 

Francisco Toro, executive editor at Caracas Chronicles, told InSight Crime that the significance of Kronick's investigation goes beyond potential policy implications. 

"We are looking at it at a more fundamental level than that; we're looking at it more as a previous step of how do you have a serious conversation about even the scale of the problem before you begin to address what to do about it," Toro said. 

Kronick's investigation is also significant, however, because of what it doesn't tell us. She estimates Venezuela's violent death rate for 2015 was somewhere between 62 and 75 per 100,000; the number 68.7 per 100,000 is roughly half the average of the high and low ends of the estimate. In other words, researchers -- even those using rigorous methods -- can only gain a general idea of how much violence is occurring in Venezuela.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

The Venezuelan government frequently withholds official statistics on crime and violence, which can often be politically damaging for those in power. While the OVV appears to have made a mistake, the CICPC's policy of only releasing its data to certain researchers breeds confusion and creates a culture of opacity. What's more, as Kronick points out, the CICPC data only counts cases of reported violence, not individual deaths. This enters a fair amount of uncertainty into the calculations, as not all cases involve deaths, and some cases include multiple deaths.

The data from the Health Ministry, while more accurate because it tallies the number of violent deaths as opposed to cases, is so delayed that researchers and journalists feel compelled to make estimates using more recent, but less precise, data. The most recent figures from the Health Ministry are from 2013.  

"Ideally, government agencies like the police (CICPC), the Ministry of Health (MPPS), and [the Attorney General's Office] would publicly release data on a regular schedule, with appropriate background information about how the data were generated and what they mean; if they did, we would rely less on estimates like those of the OVV or those in my article," Kronick wrote to InSight Crime in an email correspondence. 

Notably, Kronick's estimate also doesn't tell us what Venezuela's homicide rate is, but rather its violent death rate. According to Kronick, the violent death rate is more encompassing in that it includes incidents such as accidental firearm deaths. This data, she explained, should therefore not be used in a comparison of the homicide rates reported in other countries.

Violence is undeniably a serious problem in Venezuela. Even Kronick's reduced estimate places Venezuela among the most violent countries in Latin America, and the world. If authorities want to lower the body count, obtaining and releasing more accurate data -- not only in terms of how much violence, but also where, when and how it's happening -- is a good first step.