This year has brought Venezuela to its knees — economically, politically and socially — providing organized crime with extremely fertile ground.
The nation is teetering on the brink of social and economic collapse as runaway inflation has prompted people to start weighing, rather than counting, their currency, the bolivar. Acute shortages of food, medicines and basic goods have provoked widespread civil unrest. Venezuelans of all social classes are leaving the country by land, sea and air.
President Nicolás Maduro has continued to cling to power at all costs. He and his loyalists have blocked all the democratic tools the opposition had to remove him from office, leading many to label the nation a dictatorship and a failed state.
All of these factors have fed criminality this year on a number of levels. On the streets of the capital out to the remote corners of the interior, along Venezuela’s shared border with Colombia and within the government and state apparatus, political decisions by the Maduro government have created conditions that have allowed for the accelerated growth of criminality and organized crime.
Venezuela is now one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Caracas is one of the most violent cities on the globe, according to figures published by non-profits (the Venezuela government stopped publishing regular crime statistics more than a decade ago) and an informal curfew is observed by residents across the country.
“Venezuela’s capital city of Caracas has reportedly overtaken Honduras’ San Pedro Sula to become the most violent city in the world, marking a shifting dynamic in homicide rates in Latin America’s urban centres,” we wrote in January. “Caracas’ homicide rate rose slightly from about 116 per 100,000 people in 2014 to about 120 in 2015 — or 3,946 murders in a city of almost 3.3 million inhabitants.”
Reports of kidnapping doubled during 2016, and our research suggests that this criminal activity is now occurring on an industrial scale. Sources in Caracas have spoken to criminals being sent out in trucks and told to pick up victims randomly from the street. Kidnapping survivors have given testimony of being kept in safe houses alongside 90 other victims.
The rise in kidnappings and homicides can in part be attributed to the development of new forms of organized crime that have thrived thanks to conditions created by the authorities themselves.
“The [kidnapping] figures also highlight that while kidnapping may be rampant in Venezuela, it is also highly concentrated. Of particular note is the state of Miranda, which accounts for over half of all cases nationwide,” we noted in September. “Miranda is the site of many of the country’s designated areas popularly known as ‘peace zones’ — an unofficial state initiative where security forces essentially withdraw from certain areas. In many cases, the vacuum left by the state is filled by criminals, and many peace zones have become strongholds for gangs and violence hotspots.”
Huge swathes of Venezuela’s territory are now under the control of criminal gangs known as “megabandas,” which are active in kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking. Megabanda territory often overlaps with government “peace zones,” created by a deeply flawed security policy, allegedly with the intention of pacifying these areas. But the strategy — which created zones, most of which were already gang territory, into which public security forces were forbidden to enter without prior negotiation — has helped these criminal organizations to thrive and establish themselves as the de facto law in many areas.
The megabandas themselves were born in part out of Venezuela’s over-crowded, self-governed prison system. A trend of taking police and visiting family members as hostages by inmates over the course of this year was just another sign of how the penitentiary system is completely out of the government’s control’s control, as well as a thriving hub of criminal activity.
“This lack of state presence within prison walls has given rise to thriving underground economies,” we reported in September. “For instance, in the San Antonio prison on Margarita Island, inmates even opened a nightclub, using smart phones to coordinate events and invite friends and family?The tactic of kidnapping prison employees and relatives to protest living conditions and secure concessions from prison officials has also become commonplace among Venezuelan inmates — in some instances, family members of inmates are willing participants. For instance, inmates at the General Penitentiary of Venezuela recently kidnapped 23 prison employees, ultimately forcing the government to transfer over 2,500 detainees to their prison so inmate leaders could collect extortion payments from them.”
Street crime is also being fed by unregulated, armed pro-government groups, known as “colectivos” (collectives), who according to our research became increasingly corrupted and criminalized during 2016, extorting the communities they were originally created to foster.
And it is these very groups that the government calls upon to put down the civil unrest and opposition protests prompted by the current social and economic crisis. Maduro is increasingly turning to irregular forces, in the kindest interpretation, or perhaps outright criminals, to protect his and the government’s interests.
“The deployment of colectivos to confront potential protestors is particularly worrying and points to the fusion of ideology with criminality — these armed pro-government groups have long been associated with violence,” we noted in October. “They have been involved in territorial street battles with state forces such as the National Guard and their relationships with government forces vary and change. They have also formed part of controversial operations (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo – OLP) carried out with other state forces.”
Government security raids, somewhat ironically called Operation Liberation and Protection of the People, that came after (and as a means of correcting the errors of) the state’s “peace zones” concept in 2015, are carried out by an ad-hoc combination of security forces and often colectivo members. Their results became more apparent during 2016, and their numerous victims now consider them tantamount to death squads.
“Experts say extrajudicial killings have jumped alarmingly since the Venezuelan government began a new anti-crime initiative last year, further suggesting that security forces could be involved in death squad-like activity,” we reported.
Inti Rodríguez, coordinator of the Venezuelan human rights organization PROVEA, told El Nuevo Herald at the time that “more than 700 extrajudicial executions have been committed” since OLPs began in July 2015.
Towards the end of the year, an OLP in the Barlovento region of the state of Miranda was called a massacre after the cadavers of 12 youths, who had been arrested by state forces, were found buried in clandestine graves. But experts warn that the abuse of power by state security forces is more widespread. As we noted in November, “This institutionalized violence is not just limited to OLP raids, however. Criminologist Fermín Mármol García recently said that preliminary figures suggest Venezuelan security forces will have killed roughly 5,000 people by the end of 2016, a clear indication that the state’s participation in unlawful executions extends far beyond the boundaries of the OLP.”
The increasing use of violence by the government has been accompanied by heightened corruption, fueled in part by widespread criminal impunity. “The people entrusted with enforcing the law in Venezuela regularly make the headlines as suspects or alleged accomplices, facilitators or perpetrators of serious crimes, a sign of the advanced deterioration and corruption of the country’s security forces. Corrupt officials — especially police and military — play an essential role in the penetration and growth of organized crime in Venezuela, which is reflected in alarming crime statistics,” we wrote.
Perhaps the best example of this was the November conviction of members of the presidential family for their involvement in a planned drug trafficking scheme. The nephews of President Maduro, first lady Cilia Flores were found guilty by a court in New York of plotting to ship 800 kilograms of cocaine, allegedly obtained from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), to the United States. “Several pieces of evidence presented during the trial of the so-called ‘narco nephews’ suggest high-level figures with ties to the Venezuelan government may be complicit in the drug trade,” we said.
Corruption and illicit behavior were also encouraged by the dramatic drop in the value of the bolivar this year, which corroded the value of state salaries. This has created more incentives for corruption, especially within the military, which controls the country’s airports and seaports, the distribution of scarce food and medicines and — crucially — the country’s border with Colombia. Venezuela’s armed forces are key players in the transnational cocaine trade.
Criminality along the Venezuela-Colombia border also increased for several reasons this year. The closure of the border by President Maduro, which began in 2015 and stretched into August 2016, shut down official crossings between the two countries, handing corrupt members of the National Guard, Colombian BACRIM (a Spanish acronym for “bandas criminales”) and armed rebel groups the monopoly of controlling crossings via clandestine paths, increasing their income through taxing contraband smugglers and individuals moving across the border.
“InSight Crime field research in Norte de Santander determined that until [the border closure], contraband had largely been a ‘mom and pop’ operation, with individuals smuggling small quantities of goods into Colombia along both official and informal routes,” we wrote. “When this was no longer possible, contraband shifted to unofficial border crossings away from the main bridges, where organized criminal groups struck deals with corrupt elements of the Venezuelan National Guard and began to control and charge for the illegal transit.”
But as the supply of heavily subsidized Venezuelan household goods slowed and finally stopped due to the country’s chronic shortages, criminal groups turned to other criminal activities to substitute the loss in revenue sustained from the drop in this contraband flow.
Lastly, the peace process in Colombia increased Venezuela’s value as a safe haven for Colombia’s rebel armies. “The FARC maintains a strong presence in both Colombia and Venezuela all along the border between the countries, and the rebels have long used Venezuela to retreat from the pressures of Colombian security forces,” we noted in September. “They also carry out trainings, resupply weapon stockpiles and control cross-border criminal activities such as drug trafficking and contraband smuggling. Their presence is so cemented, that InSight Crime has uncovered evidence of guerrillas carrying Venezuelan identity cards and purchasing plots of land within the country.”
Venezuela’s future is hanging in the balance, and 2017 will almost certainly bring more chaos and uncertainty. Maduro’s term does not end until January 2019 and presidential elections (should they be allowed to take place by the sitting administration) are so far scheduled for December 2018. Meanwhile, criminality and organized crime will continue to thrive and grow in Venezuela’s continuing chaos.