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The Line of Fire

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program
May 28, 2009
Foreign Policy


Mention violence in Latin America today and most people think of Mexico. But if you want to talk about murder, the region's hot spot is somewhere else entirely: Venezuela. After a decade under President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's homicide rate has increased by about 140 percent, making Venezuela one of the most violent countries in the world. Even in the context of Latin America, where homicide rates hover at three times the global average, Venezuela now holds top rank--by far the highest in South America, with a violent death rate of 48 per 100,000--more than twice that of Mexico. These murders occur mostly at night and spike every two weeks around payday. Young people are increasingly the victims, three times more likely to be killed today than 10 years ago.

Not surprisingly, Venezuelans see crime and public safety as the No. 1 challenge for their country. According to Latinobarometer, a well-regarded regional polling agency, Venezuela is the only Latin American country where crime is cited as both the most important national and personal issue. The violence was a major issue in last November's regional elections, with both Chavistas and opposition leaders blaming their opponents for the scourge. Perhaps unsure who was culpable, voters split their allegiance and the vote was a draw.

It's no surprise that no one has been able to peg blame on any one factor, since Venezuela's violence problem derives from a number of sources - from an ill-equipped police department to a dysfunctional justice system. And as the Chávez administration has pushed the legal limits of democracy, undermining institutions along the way, cascading impunity has spread through the system. Rule through ill example has helped push what was always a high murder rate through the roof.

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