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Latin America Blog

What a comparison of Chavez's and Calderon's wars on crime can teach

The leaders of Venezuela and Mexico have been fighting crime in similar ways. But differences in political agendas, cooperation with the US, and high-level corruption raise interesting questions.

By James BosworthGuest blogger / August 15, 2011

In this photo provided by Miraflores Presidential Press Office, Venezuela president Hugo Chavez, left, gestures upon his arrival early Sunday at the airport in Maiquetia, Venezuela, Aug. 14. Chavez returned Sunday to Venezuela after a week in Cuba, where he underwent a second round of chemotherapy treatment. At right is Venezuela's Vice President Elias Jaua.

Marcelo Garcia, Miraflores Presidential Office/AP

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Statistics leaked from the Venezuelan government's CICPC, a national police organization, show there were 8,839 murders in the first six months of 2011. That number does not include people killed by police while "resisting arrest." In Caracas, there were over 3,100 murders in the first six months of this year. The independent NGO Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (OVV) estimates that 18,000 people will be killed in Venezuela in 2011, a rate of 57 per 100,000.

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I covered similar statistics in a post earlier this year in which I discussed the violence in countries that are more dangerous than Mexico. Violent crime is high in a number of other countries, including Honduras and El Salvador. However, international media coverage of violence in Mexico and Central America treats the violence as part of a "drug war" or conflict against organized crime. The violence in Venezuela receives less international coverage and it is not usually framed in the same terms. Perhaps it should. "Chavez's war" is as fair a characterization as "Calderon's war."

The violent conflict in Venezuela that has appeared in the years since President Hugo Chavez took office is every bit as serious and dangerous as the conflict currently taking place in Mexico. Since Mr. Chavez took office, public security has deteriorated, violent crime has become the key concern of the public, and organized crime – including drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, and money laundering – has increased dramatically. Organized crime is infiltrating governing institutions and is a threat to democracy in Venezuela, though that is rarely discussed given the focus by both Chavez defenders and opponents on his democratic credentials. Statistically, Chavez's war goes worse than Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war, with the levels of violent crime more than twice as high and fewer government initiatives aimed to change that situation.

In some ways, the comparisons between Mr. Calderon's and Chavez's strategies (or lack thereof) to combat organized crime are striking. Both have deployed military units to perform various domestic security tasks in areas where police and other civilian authorities have been incapable. Both have promised police reform, but spent far more money, time, and attention on military hardware and operations than they have on improving civilian police units and other institutions. Both have seen a spike in human rights abuses by security forces. Both governments make regular "major" arrests and seizures and love to parade top drug suspects or major drug and weapons seizures in front of the camera as a sign they are succeeding. Both have promised success on domestic citizen security, but see security conditions deteriorate year after year in spite of arrests and seizures.

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