Venezuela is altering its gun policy in an effort to stem the alarming level of street violence, but the entrenched nature of gun possession in the country will prove difficult to remedy in the short term.
On June 6, Venezuelan Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami announced the establishment of a commission which is charged with tightening the regulation of arms in the country. Since its creation, the body has enacted a number of reforms, including banning the possession of firearms on public transport and leisure spaces such as bars and nightclubs. On September 22 Congressman Freddy Bernal, who heads the Domestic Policy Committee in the National Assembly, said that the commission would soon announce a 180-day freeze on the sale and import of guns, as well as the issuing of gun licenses.
However, the fight against gun violence in Venezuela will be an uphill battle. As InSight Crime has documented, homicide rates in the country have skyrocketed in recent years. The independent Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVW), basing its analysis on police files, has estimated that the murder rate in Venezuela has·more than quadrupled since 1999, and claims that the 2010 per capita homicide rate in the country was 57 per 100,000. Government statistics put the figure significantly lower (48 per 100,000) but even this number still makes the country one of the most dangerous in South America.
Much of the violence has been blamed on the easy availability of guns in the country. Although there are no firm statistics on civilian gun ownership (legal or illegal), a report for the Small Arms Survey estimates that there are between 1.6 and 4.1 million civilian firearms circulating in the country. This is slightly higher than the estimates of gun ownership in neighboring Colombia, which has more than one and a half times Venezuela’s population. This year alone the Venezuelan government has seized and destroyed around 120,000 illegal firearms, which is equivalent to the total number of weapons seized in Mexico over the past five years.
One potential factor in the availability of guns in Venezuela is the expansion of the military over the past several years. This has been accompanied by the creation and development of the “Bolivarian Militia,” an all-volunteer force that directly serves the president. The government says that there are more than 125,000 militia members, and the hope is that their ranks swell to reach two million. President Hugo Chavez made waves last October when he announced his wish to arm militia members.
On top of this, the conventional security forces in the country have been shown to be particularly shaky when it comes to monitoring weapons stashes. Corruption in the military is rampant, and several army officers have been identified by U.S. authorities as having supplied arms to Colombian rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). With a Kalashnikov rifle factory set to start mass producing AK assault rifles in 2012, some analysts are afraid of the arms falling out of military hands and into the black market. Other officials can be equally unscrupulous. After the recent Venezuelan prison riot that resulted in 28 deaths, the prison’s warden was arrested and charged with selling weapons to the inmates.
As is the case in many other places where poverty is widespread, the problem is exacerbated by a gang culture that glorifies gun violence. The technical secretary of the new commission, Pablo Fernandez, told the BBC that this is one of the main challenges of his office. He claims that in many underprivileged areas of Venezuela, the possession of a firearm is “an element of their identity, a perverse element of masculine assertion.” A recent report in the Guardian on “malandros” (street gangsters) in Caracas offers an alarming case study in this dynamic, detailing an ongoing conflict between rival gangs in El Consejo, a shantytown of 50,000 on the edge of Caracas. The battle, apparently sparked by a case of teenage bullying, has waged for eight months, resulting in the death of seven youths.