Venezuelan soldiers

A Venezuelan survey indicates a growing percentage of Venezuela's population thinks state institutions are carrying out and facilitating organized crime activities.

The joint survey (pdf) by the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (known by its Spanish acronym OVV), the Observatory on Organized Crime, and the Laboratory on Social Sciences (LACSO) suggests a large percentage of Venezuelans believe the security forces are involved in arms and drug trafficking. 

Polling 3,500 individuals from seven Venezuelan states, the survey found 66 percent of Venezuelans believe that the police and military sell weapons to organized crime groups. Meanwhile, 62 percent of respondents said they think drug traffickers include corrupted elements of the military, up from 52 percent in 2013. (See graph below) 

 

Venezuelans are also likely to believe the government is facilitating organized crime and corruption in less direct ways. Between 63 and 72 percent of respondents said the government's economic policies have enabled corruption, the black market for currency exchange, contraband gasoline smuggling, and the smuggling of basic goods, or "bachaqueo," to flourish. (See graph below) 

 

According to Roberto Briceño Leon, director of the OVV and LACSO, organized crime in Venezuela has become more sophisticated.

"There has been a criminal transformation in Venezuela," Briceño Leon told Infobae. "[Criminal groups] have gone from being disorganized to increasingly more organized, and in some cases groups are now comprised of more than 600 members." 

SEE ALSO:  Venezuela News and Profiles

The perceived strengthening of organized crime groups appears to be having a significant impact on citizen security. Seventy-six percent of respondents feel more insecure than they did 12 months ago, while just 6 percent say they feel safer. Fully half of all the respondents believe it is "easy" to get someone killed in their neighborhood, up from 35 percent in 2013.

InSight Crime Analysis 

The survey points to a number of criminal trends in Venezuela that InSight Crime has been monitoring closely. At the end of 2014, InSight Crime singled out Venezuela as the Latin American nation most likely to see a rise in insecurity and organized crime activity for many of the reasons highlighted in the report. 

As the survey suggests, criminals have found numerous ways to exploit the country's economic policies that have contributed to a deepening financial crisis. Unscrupulous businessmen have manipulated the government's strict currency control system and runaway inflation to launder millions of dollars in drug profits. Opportunists have taken advantage of the huge price discrepancies on basic goods and gasoline by smuggling contraband across the border into Colombia, where it can be sold at an enormous markup.

Furthermore, the survey indicates Venezuelans have few remaining doubts about the active role state institutions play in the country's underworld. A shadowy network of corrupt military officials, known as the Cartel of the Suns, is believed to be deeply involved in international cocaine trafficking. Meanwhile, the US government is reportedly investigating several high-ranking government officials for their links to the cocaine trade, including Diosdado Cabello, the president of Venezuela's National Assembly and the country's number two official.  

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

But perhaps the most worrying trend highlighted in the report is the evolution of homegrown criminal organizations, likely fueled by the economic and political chaos swirling around Venezuela. Since mid-2014, reports have emerged of increasingly sophisticated criminal structures and heavily-armed gangs in the country's two largest cities, Caracas and Maracaibo.

Nonetheless, it still does not appear Venezuelan gangs have developed the same level of sophistication as criminal outfits in other parts of Latin America. And it remains unclear to what extent local groups have undergone the "criminal transformation" referred to by Briceño Leon.

The report also provides further indication but little concrete evidence that Venezuela's security situation continues to worsen. According to the OVV, Venezuela registered a homicide rate of 82 per 100,000 in 2014, the highest murder count since at least 1998.

But some observers have questioned the validity of the OVV's figures, and director Briceño Leon has previously admitted their methodology for counting homicides "doesn't meet all the standards." However the OVV's figure is believed to provide the best indication of the country's homicide rate, as government data is often absent or politicized.