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 , Guest blogger

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

Of course, there are key differences. First, Chavez's focus has not been on security the way Calderon's has. Chavez has a range of other issues in his "Bolivarian Revolution" that draw more of his and his critics' attention. Second, Calderon is cooperating with the United States, accepting US assistance and inviting US advisors, while Chavez has actively rejected US cooperation and kicked out the DEA and other agencies that used to work with Venezuelan authorities. Third, though both governments have a problem with the infiltration of organized crime influence, Chavez has promoted several key officials who have been linked to organized crime, including the head of his armed forces.

Those differences raise interesting questions for outside observers. First, if the two countries end up with similarly poor results while taking radically different approaches to cooperation with the US, is cooperation with the US a significant variable? Second, if Venezuela under Chavez has arguably managed to reduce poverty and economic inequality but seen increasing violence, can it really be said that reducing poverty is the key variable to improving the security situation?

Like Mexico, Venezuela has a presidential election next year in which Chavez's organized crime war is going to be a key issue for voters. Every poll in Venezuela shows that security and crime are the top concerns of the population, even more than questions about economics or democratic institutions. And like Mexico, there are serious questions over whether the current president or any of the candidates have a strategy to win that conflict or change its nature.

None of the major candidates in either country is proposing a radical shift such as legalization of drug trafficking, negotiation with criminal networks, or an even bigger war against the criminal organizations. Most of the strategies proposed by government and opposition candidates in both countries are fairly similar to the status quo with some changes around the edges (though Venezuela's opposition would likely renew its cooperation with the US).

If Chavez wins reelection, the security situation will likely continue to deteriorate as it has over the past decade. He's not promising anything different and his current health situation appears to have distracted his attention even more. That's a troubling situation for Venezuela's population, which faces the effects of the violent crime directly, as well as for the hemisphere, where Venezuela is a key energy exporter and political player.

For Chavez's opponents, like Calderon's opponents, if they manage to win the election they will inherit a conflict against organized crime whether they make it a top issue or not. Violence associated with crime and drug trafficking will continue in Venezuela. Armed violent groups in both rural areas and the major cities will threaten the stability of the country. They will have to make tough decisions about how to utilize the military or civilian security forces to combat the criminals. They will also need to invest significantly in strengthening institutions to eventually stop the violence. This is a security challenge that will make fixing a post-Chavez Venezuela much more difficult.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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