By David Paulin
Caracas now ranks as the world's No. 1 murder capital, according to Foreign Policy magazine. It's an assessment that will surprise few credible Venezuela watchers. During President Hugo Chávez's tumultuous ten-year rule, Venezuela's quality-of-life indices have been in an ongoing tailspin – thanks to epic levels of corruption and mismanagement; not to mention El Presidente's increasing concentration of power in his own hands.
When I was a Caracas-based journalist in the 1990s, Colombia's Bogotá was the world's No. 1 murder capital. But in the years before Chávez's election, high-crime Venezuela was catching up, boasting South America's “fastest-growing” murder rate. Now, it has replaced Bogotá as the No. 1 murder capital -- thanks to Chávez's vision of “21st Century socialism.” The city of 3.2 million is plagued as well by food shortages (unprecedented during an oil boom) and increasing numbers of human rights abuses.
Violent crime has been a No. 1 concern of Venezuelans for years. Under Chávez, however, “Venezuela’s official homicide rate has climbed 67 percent — mostly due to increased drug and gang violence,” noted Foreign Policy. Venezuela's “official” murder rate is 130 per 100,000 residents, but “some speculate” it's actually closer to 160 per 100,000, according to Foreign Policy, for as the magazine explained,
...(O)fficial homicide statistics likely fall short of the mark because they omit prison-related murders as well as deaths that the state never gets around to properly “categorizing.” The numbers also don’t count those who died while “resisting arrest,” suggesting that Caracas’s cops—already known for their brutality against student protesters—might be cooking the books.
All in all, Caracas has resembled a war zone in recent years, and that raises an interesting question: How might Venezuela's murder rate compare to the rate of violent deaths in Iraq? Indeed, as Iraq's violence soared in 2006, Venezuela was itself a combat zone with 12,557 reported murders. That amounted to 34 murders per day – or the rough equivalent of the lives snuffed out by a typical suicide bombing in Iraq; it population is about the same size as Venezuela's 27 million.
During 2006, plenty of naysaying journalists and pundits were on the Iraq death watch, pronouncing it a hopelessly “failed state.” Yet none were rushing to make similarly pessimistic pronouncements about Chávez's worker's paradise.
According to Foreign Policy's reckoning, Venezuela's murder rate is well ahead of four other top murder capitals that (in order of those boasting the worst rates) are: Cape Town, South Africa; New Orleans; Moscow; and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
In mid-September, Venezuela got another black eye when New-York based Human Rights Watch issued a a 230-page report: “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela.” Rights abuses under Chávez's reign had “undercut journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and civil society’s ability to promote human rights in Venezuela,” the report explained. The rights group's director for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, observed:
Ten years ago, Chávez promoted a new constitution that could have significantly improved human rights in Venezuela. But rather than advancing rights protections, his government has since moved in the opposite direction, sacrificing basic guarantees in pursuit of its own political agenda.
Vivanco and fellow deputy director Daniel Wilkinson got more than they bargained for when perhaps somewhat foolishly (or as a testament to their intestinal fortitude), they released the report at a Caracas news conference. According to a statement from the rights group,
Vivanco and Wilkinson were intercepted on the night of September 18 at their hotel in Caracas and handed a letter accusing them of anti-state activities. Their cell phones were confiscated and their requests to be allowed to contact their embassies were denied. They were put into cars, taken to the airport and put on a plane to Sao Paulo, Brazil...
Yet despite such thuggish behavior, Chávez remains an admirable figure among fashionable liberal elites, with celebrities such as Danny Glover, Cindy Sheehan, and Naomi Campbell beating a path to Caracas, heaping praise upon El Presidente and his socialist paradise. So, who might they be rooting for in the upcoming presidential election?
As to those other top murder capitals:
In the so-called “Rainbow Nation” of South Africa (as political elites like to call it) Cape Town suffered a 12.7 percent spike in its murder rate from 2006 to 2007. And that has got “local politicians worried, especially as South Africa prepares to host the 2010 World Cup,” Foreign Policy noted. Fortunately, athletes and spectators are unlikely to encounter the violence (62 murders per 100,000) in the city of 3.5 million, for as the magazine noted:
The city’s homicides usually take place in suburban townships rather than in the more upscale urban areas where tourists visit. According to the South African Police Service, most of the Cape Town area’s violent crimes happen between people who know one another, including a horrific case last year in which four males doused a female friend in gasoline and lit her on fire.
And then there's New Orleans, which Mayor Ray Nagin famously declared would be rebuilt as a “chocolate” city after Hurricane Katrina. “You can't have New Orleans no other way.”
Despite the mayor's racially tinged bluster, it's been downhill for New Orleans ever since. Just how bad is debatable, however. For just as in disorganized Third World countries, getting good statistics about New Orleans is problematic. Foreign Policy observed of the city's murder rate: “Estimates range from 67 (New Orleans Police Department) to 95 (Federal Bureau of Investigation) per 100,000.”
Why is New Orleans so violent? Referring to the city's post-Katrina crime surge, Foreign Policy explained that “drug dealers have been fighting over a smaller group of users, leading to many killings.” But the magazine offeed other theories for the violence, too. Revealing a shockingly naïve liberal worldview, its editors soft-peddled the reasons for New Orleans' dysfunction, claiming: “With its grinding poverty, an inadequate school system, a prevalence of public housing, and a high incarceration rate, the Big Easy has long been plagued with a high rate of violent crime.”
Yet as Foreign Policy's editors ought to know, the relationship between poverty and crime is tenuous. Poor countries are not necessarily violent ones. For example, after a devastating typhoon swamped parts of Indonesia, there were no reports of runway crime -- no widespread looting, not tourists and residents being raped and shot – even though police and security forces were utterly disorganized. Yet that's what happened in Ray Nagin “chocolate” city following Hurricane Katrina, though not to the extent, to be sure, that the news media originally claimed.
Foreign Policy's suggestion that a “high incarceration” rate has anything to do with New Orleans' high murder rate is especially puzzling. Obviously, putting violent criminals in jail ought to decrease the murder rate!
Then there's Moscow's murder rate, an “estimated” 9.6 per 100,000. It's “nothing compared to Caracas or Cape town, but the city still ranks way above other major European capitals,” Foreign Policy noted. “London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid, for instance, all had rates below 2 murders per 100,000 in 2006.”
And there's an interesting aspect of Moscow's crime, too -- a surge in the kind of crime that many liberal America haters have been noticeably silent about – hate crimes. Foreign Policy writes:
The Russian capital’s homicide rate is down 15 percent this year from last, but the recent surge in hate crimes—including the deadly beating of a Tajik carpenter by a gang of youths on Valentine’s Day — suggests that the lull might be temporary. Sixty ethnically motivated killings have already happened this year, part of a sixfold increase in hate crimes committed in the city during 2007. Several of the murders have been attributed to ultranationalist skinhead groups like the “Spas,” who killed 11 people in a 2006 bombing of a multiethnic market in northern Moscow. The Russian government has finally stepped up to combat the problem, assisting migrant groups and cracking down on street gangs. Still, the continued rise in extremist attacks is worrisome. And along with migrants, journalists and other high-profile people in Moscow might also want to be a little wary in Russia—62 contract murders took place in the country in 2005, according to official statistics.
In Papua New Guinea, the murder rate was 54 per 100,000, according to official 2004 statistics. The violence is driven by gang activity and “high levels” of police corruption, according to Foreign Policy, which observed:
...(L)ast November, five officers were charged with offenses ranging from murder to rape. And in August, the city’s police barracks were put on a three-month curfew due to a recent slew of bank heists reportedly planned inside the stations by officers and their co-conspirators. Rising tensions between Chinese migrants and native Papua New Guineans are also cause for alarm, as are reports of increased activity of organized Chinese crime syndicates.