A little less than fifteen minutes after Ernesto, my old high school friend, got into his car and left the house where we’d been gathering late one night, he was shot below the lower left rib while trying to escape a pair of assailing gunmen. The two men, who’d presumably wanted to steal his car, had surprised him with their own vehicle, which they had parked so as to obstruct passage through a particularly narrow bend of the road. When he noticed that one of the men was carrying a gun, he instantly drove his car onto the curb and accelerated past them, and in that second glimpsed one of them taking aim.
He stooped low and to the left of the steering wheel, in an instinctive attempt to avoid being shot in the head from the rear. At that instant he felt a sudden explosion of heat, as he put it, surging from the left side of his abdomen. Knowing the bullet had made contact but hoping it had not lodged, he fled to the nearby Clínica Metropolitana, pressing the gas pedal as far down as it would go, and was meanwhile stalked through the rearview mirror by an unrelenting pair of headlights, which chased him for most of the way. It horrifies me to notice how easily the gunmen’s premeditation to rob him turned into a determination to hunt him.
He called us from the hospital and with trepidation we took the unavoidable route Ernesto had just survived, meeting him in the waiting room in a collective rush of relief and silence. The bullet had neither lodged nor done any damage worth worrying about.
What is worrying is that my friend’s brief encounter last January in Caracas cannot really be called extraordinary. Criminal episodes like this one happen so often and with such a disconcerting level of impunity that I am tempted to think of them as part of a natural state of affairs, to which one must inevitably, though resentfully, adapt.
Last October, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a report detailing the state of citizens’ security in Venezuela. 13,156 Venezuelans were murdered in 2007, the report noted. Roberto Briceño, director of the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, maintains that the rate of homicidal violence has tripled in the decade since President Chávez took office in late 1998. Briceño also points out that 60 percent of today’s victims are between the ages of 15 and 25, and 80 percent of the victims live in shantytowns, so equivocating analysts who understand our abhorrent crime rate as merely an expression of perennial class conflict would do well to notice who the victims are.
A recent Foreign Policy piece noticed that, according to official government figures, the murder rate in Caracas––which the magazine has named the murder capital of the world––now stands at 130 per 100,000 citizens, although experts estimate the figure to be closer to 160. To give you a comparative sense of what this means, I’ll remind you that the current murder rate in New Orleans is 67 per 100,000. Venezuela’s nationwide murder rate is 48 per 100,000 people, compared to 25 in Brazil and 5.6 in the United States.
The degree of government negligence regarding our Hobbesian situation is almost as contemptible as what is being neglected. No government policy has yet managed to decrease, alleviate, or even significantly address the steadily increasing onslaught of lethal lawlessness. No serious or effective policies to overhaul our criminal courts, so as to enable them to process the growing catalog of cases, have been enacted. Our already heavily burdened police force do not possess adequate resources or have sufficient numbers, and so are not really equal to the task.
Our president mirrors, and I think also inspires, the negligence demonstrated by our public officials with regard to this security crisis. As the Venezuelan intellectual Teodoro Petkoff recently stated, "the president does not touch the issue [of crime]." He simply speaks and acts as if none of this were happening. On February 2nd, the president held a public celebration to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the Bolivarian Revolution (and campaign for its prolongation…). A number of student movement activists countered this exercise in credulity and self-adulation by holding a rally at the Estadio Universitario to commemorate the 120,000 Venezuelans who’ve died in the last decade as a result of everyday criminal violence. The students’ homage reminds us that President Chávez has, regardless of what he may choose to ignore and in spite of the self-proclaimed glory of his Bolivarian Revolution, presided over the greatest slaughter of Venezuelans in modern history.