16,000 violent deaths last year, according to official statistics; 21,000 according to various non-governmental organisations. And unofficial sources report that there are between 6 and 12 million weapons in Venezuela, a country of 30 million people.
by Pablo Hernández
Despite the period of national mourning and the ban on carrying arms between March 6 and 11, the violence in Venezuela has continued unabated. The latest incidents include the murder of two taxi drivers in the capital. And in Zulia, the country’s most heavily populated state, 11 people died violent deaths.
In late February, the Venezuelan government presented the official figures on violent deaths in 2012: there were 16,000 homicides - 55 violent deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants. That figure was an increase of 12 percent from the previous year. Internal Affairs Minister Nestor Reverol said that 60% of the country’s murders take place in just 6 of the country’s 23 states. Firearms contributed to 95% of murders.
But the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), a non-governmental group, says the government figures are much lower than the actual homicide rates. According to the OVV, there were almost 22,000 homicides in 2012. The OVV says the majority of the murders are linked to three factors: robberies or property crime, personal conflicts or disputes between neighbours, and private justice. The highest homicide rates are in the capital, Caracas, higher than in countries such as Colombia, Brazil and Mexico.
Gonzalo Himiob of the Venezuelan Penal Forum, another NGO, recently said one of the reasons for the increase in violence is the “constant violent speech”. But the Forum believes violence is so widespread because of impunity. In Venezuela, says Himiob, “only two out of every hundred murders are punished”.
Since 2011, when violence levels began to rise sharply, Amnesty International has been waging a campaign in Venezuela called “Enough Bullets”. It’s a strategy that Amnesty used in other countries with high murder rates to reduce the number of weapons amongst the general public.
That same year, the government created the Presidential Commission for the Control of Firearms to conduct a national arms census and decommission weapons as well as destroy them. According to the Interior and Justice Minister, the presidential commission has achieved its goals, destroying more than 300,000 weapons. It’s trying to establish “weapons free zones” in Venezuela, and it’s banned the sale and distribution of firearms and munitions.
In addition, said the minister, the government plans to introduce a bill on arms control and disarming the population. Parliament is due to discuss the bill later this week, but so far few details have been released. Some Latin American countries could serve as good examples for Venezuela. In Brazil and Mexico, for instance, where there were high levels of gun ownership, people surrendered their weapons in exchange for scholarships or technological devices such as tablets, cell phones or computers.
Most Venezuelans are wondering whether the law, if passed, will lead to a real decrease in the number of homicides or whether it will just be another failed attempt to fight violence in the country.