STRATFOR - TERRORISM BRIEF
November 02, 2007
The new Italian ambassador to Venezuela made headlines this week after he put President Hugo Chavez on the spot by expressing concern about the country's poor security situation. The same day, Chavez also met with incoming U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy, who urged greater bilateral cooperation on combating drug traffickers operating in the country.
Given that Venezuela has a large Italian expatriate population and that approximately half of the drugs shipped through the country are destined for the United States, both Rome and Washington have a strong interest in Venezuela's security situation. The country's violent trends have little chance of reversing, however, unless the government makes a more serious effort to intervene.
Although Chavez rarely publicly discusses the country's soaring crime rates and official statistics on crime are closely guarded, the Venezuelan capital has become extremely violent. Indeed, recent estimates of its homicide rate -- if accurate -- would place Caracas among the most dangerous cities in the world. These estimates are speculative, however, since the Venezuelan government stopped releasing official homicide rates in 2003 -- after the number of killings reached nearly 12,000 countrywide that year. Unofficial estimates for 2006 put the number of homicides in Caracas alone at 6,000 -- more than 100 slayings per 100,000 inhabitants. (By comparison, in 2006 there were 47.3 slayings per 100,000 inhabitants in Detroit, the U.S. city with the highest homicide rate.)
And the homicide rate is just one of Venezuela's security problems. Since the government curtailed its cooperation with foreign governments on counternarcotics, South American drug traffickers face less police scrutiny in Venezuela than they do in other countries. Venezuela, for example, suspended its cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2005 after Caracas accused the agency of spying on behalf of the United States. International cooperation is crucial in dealing with issues such as drug trafficking, given that illegal shipments pass through multiple borders on their way from production to market.
Compounding the problems is the country's endemic corruption, which in the law enforcement realm extends from police on the street to the courts. In an October interview, Venezuelan Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez tried to downplay claims that the country's judicial system is incapable of effectively dealing with drug traffickers, though he acknowledged corruption among security forces, prosecutors and judges.
Security is not much better outside the capital, especially along Venezuela's extensive land border with Colombia, where guerrilla groups have been known to move freely between the two countries. The U.S. government, in fact, has warned Americans not to travel within a 50-mile area along the entire Venezuelan-Colombian border. Official corruption is a particular problem in this area as well, considering that one of the most notorious Venezuelan groups linked to Colombian guerrillas -- the Cartel of the Suns -- allegedly is run by Venezuelan National Guard generals. (The group's name comes from the insignia worn on the officers' uniforms.) According to DEA estimates, the group moves up to 5 tons of illegal drugs per month from Colombia into Venezuela. Venezuela has long been used as a transshipment hub for narcotics smuggling and as a gateway in the Americas for illegal aliens attempting to reach the United States from Asia and the Middle East.
In addition to drug trafficking, organized crime groups in Venezuela have found kidnapping to be an increasingly lucrative business. According to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, more than 1,000 kidnappings were reported from August 2006 to August 2007, and at least 45 foreigners were kidnapped during the first eight months of 2007. This is a particular threat in a country where foreign energy companies have a large presence, though kidnapping gangs do not appear to target one business sector over another. Any company that likely carries kidnapping and recovery insurance on its employees is considered a choice target. Several high-profile kidnapping incidents in recent years have led to demonstrations by citizens demanding greater security. One of the most widely reported cases among Venezuela's Italian community -- and reportedly an incident that the Italian ambassador discussed with Chavez -- was the March 2006 abduction and killing of a prominent Italian businessman. The incident was followed just a few days later by the killing of three Canadian-Venezuelan children who had been kidnapped in February. The children were slain when their family was unable to pay the multimillion-dollar ransom demanded by the kidnappers.
There also is a political aspect to kidnapping cases, as the wealthy victims are often viewed as capitalists -- people considered at odds with the goals and ideals of Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution. Because of this, victims and their families often do not receive sympathetic treatment from the authorities when such crimes are reported.
So far, the Chavez government's efforts to counter the trends of violence throughout the country have been minimal. Investigation of such crimes has been characterized by the U.S. Embassy as "haphazard and ineffective." In the case of high-profile killings, authorities reportedly round up suspects quickly, but rarely produce evidence linking any of the detainees to the crime. Only a small percentage of criminals is ever tried and convicted. Moreover, violent crimes frequently occur during daylight hours and even in public areas such as Caracas' Maiquetía Airport and in popular tourist attractions, such as the Avila National Park.
Further complicating matters are reports that security forces and parts of the judicial system have become increasingly politicized as a result of the government's practice of keeping and promoting officials for their loyalty to Chavez's Bolivarian ideals rather than their interest in, or their ability to fight, crime. These politicized officials also have hesitated to root out police corruption or crack down on criminals in poor areas -- where most of them live and operate -- because such areas are bastions of Chavez supporters. Additionally, the recent crackdowns on student protesters suggest the government is heavily focused on using security forces to quell its opposition rather than to fight crime. In July, Chavez chided student groups protesting constitutional reforms aimed at consolidating his power, calling the students patsies of the United States. On Nov. 1, police dispersed student demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons. Should the protests continue, the government will dedicate even more of its security forces to this area.