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Political Uncertainty in Venezuela Feeds Crime and Violence

President Hugo Chavez is suffering from cancer President Hugo Chavez is suffering from cancer

The rumors of President Hugo Chavez's imminent death, and the jostling for position among his possible successors, are creating conditions in which crime and violence are flourishing and likely to do so through 2013.

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As the Venezuelan president lies, apparently in terminal condition, in a Cuban hospital bed, the murder rate in Venezuela is likely to top more than 70 per 100,000.  This makes the Andean nation the most dangerous in South America, and one of the most dangerous in the world, superseded only by Honduras.

The violence is showing no sign of letting up in 2013. Already a policeman has been gunned down so that his weapon could be stolen, a trend seen throughout 2012. In the first six days of the year more than 75 murders were registered in Caracas alone. Venezuelan prisons are the most dangerous in the world. They are forming a new generation of criminals for an increasingly sophisticated national organized crime underworld.

InSight Crime Analysis

No matter who succeeds Chavez, the prospects in security terms are not encouraging. Chavez has anointed Nicholas Maduro as his vice president and heir apparent. A continuation of the current, disastrous, security policy would be expected under Maduro, a policy that has seen the murder rate almost quadruple.

The twisted priorities seen under the Chavez administrations were reinforced once again, when VP Maduro sent members of the National Guard this week into sugar packing plants to ensure there was no hoarding by companies, rather than deploying them into the more sensitive parts of Caracas, where the murder rate is believed to exceed 120 homicides per 100,000 of the population.

Also waiting in the wings is National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer, known to have strong ties with the Venezuelan Armed Forces, and potential links to organized crime within the military, the so-called "Cartel of the Suns" (Cartel de los Soles).

Should new presidential elections be called, and an opposition candidate win power, the security consequences, at least in the short term, could be even more dire. The army, the National Guard, the National Police, and the judiciary have all been heavily politicized during 13 years of Chavez government. An opposition president may well find that his orders do not travel far outside of the presidential palace of Miraflores.

An opposition president will also have to face heavily armed pro-Chavez militias, not only in Caracas, but in the countryside, where the left-wing guerrilla group the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL) has up to 4,000 members, spread across nine of the country's 23 states.

The likely chaos will not only have repercussions for Venezuela, but also the neighboring Colombia. Colombian rebel groups are estimated to have up to 1,000 fighters in Venezuela, as well as many of their top leaders and a large percentage of their logistics support. While cooperation between Venezuela and Colombia has improved since president Juan Manuel Santos took office in August 2010, the current lack of leadership, and clear orders to the military, has put the Venezuelan Armed Forces into a holding pattern along the frontier, where corrupt elements continue to feed the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) with weapons, munitions and medical supplies. There are also strong indications that elements of the military are facilitating, if not actively taking part in drug trafficking on the frontier.

The FARC are currently in peace talks with the government, and the ELN waiting for a seat at the table. The chaos in Venezuelan strengthens their position, ensuring they have a rearguard area where leaders can meet, campaigns can be planned, new units can be trained and equipped, and attacks can be launched.

The political and security situation in Venezuela is likely to further deteriorate during 2013, with potentially grave consequences for violence and the development of organized crime in both Colombia and Venezuela.

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