As both Venezuela's government and the opposition battle over the significance of the country's rising murder rate, neither side seems to be focusing on the street-level factors of the violence. A report from the British daily the Guardian, however, sheds light on the gritty underworld of Venezuela's street gangs.
Violence and insecurity have plagued Venezuela for years, so much so that the government stopped publishing crime statistics in 2005 in an effort to stem criticism from the opposition. Despite the lack of official data, some civil society organizations in the country have presented their own alarming statistics about homicides. Last August, the independent Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV) alleged that the number of murders in the country had nearly quadrupled during the course of President Hugo Chavez's eleven years in power, going from 4,550 in 1999 to 16,047 in 2009.
In early February, however, as reported by Spanish news agency EFE, the government announced that the murder rate for 2010 was 48 homicides for every 100,000 people. While lower than the Observatory's estimate of 57 per 100,000, the rate is still higher than that of both Mexico and Colombia, making Venezuela one of the most violent countries in Latin America and the world.
On top of the rise in homicides, Venezuela has now far overtaken Colombia, once known as the "kidnapping capital of the world," in the total number of reported kidnappings. According to a special report by Venezuela’s El Nacional, kidnapping has increased by 430 percent since 1999.
Despite the gravity of this development, Venezuela's crime rate has turned into something of a political football, with both the government and the various opposition movements attempting to frame it according to their interests. As such, critical analyses of the criminal actors involved in Venezuela are difficult to come by. That’s why the Guardian’s recent report on 'malandros' (street gangsters) in Caracas stands out as an example of in-depth investigation into the dynamics of street crime in the country.
In it, Guardian reporter Rory Carroll details an ongoing conflict between rival gangs in El Consejo, a shantytown of 50,000 on the edge of Caracas. The battle was apparently sparked by a case of teenage bullying, and has waged for eight months. Seven youths have died in the fighting, and the violence has resisted even the strongest of local gang rehabilitation programs.
Although both sides appear to recognize the futility of the conflict, it is fueled by a lack of economic opportunity combined with a strong sense of neighborhood identity. Even for those who attend school, well-paying jobs are scarce, which provides little incentive to those weighing a gangster lifestyle against a life free of crime.
As Carroll notes, this situation results in two paths: "one filled with danger, good money, prestige and the chance to 'defend' the community. The other filled with long hours, a minimum wage and a lesser but still real chance of getting killed just because some kid flicked a possible piece of popcorn. Which would you choose?"
The full report can be read here, and a video accompanying the report is embedded below. Warning: this video contains images of graphic injuries and gunshot wounds.