EspañolLast year, 24,763 people suffered violent deaths in Venezuela. This means, on average, 67 Venezuelans, regardless of political affiliation or economic status, were murdered each day — because they simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As Venezuelans, we are used to reading new statistics on violence every day. It is not until famous figures are involved, however, that those statistics garner wider attention, and we are reminded just how violent our country can be. Today, that figure has one name: the former Miss Venezuela and actress, Mónica Spear.
Spear, alongside her Irish ex-husband, Thomas Henry Berry, and her five-year-old daughter, was enjoying Venezuela’s tourism, something that most Venezuelans don’t dare to do anymore. As they drove through the Valencia-Puerto Cabello freeway, their car broke down, so they stopped to ask for help. While they waited, a group of criminals approached and attempted to rob them. Since Spear and her partner resisted, the criminals started to shoot, killing both adults, and hurting their daughter.
This tragedy has generated sadness and shock among Venezuelans. How could it be that even one of our beauty queens was a victim of the violence? As human rights advocate Rafael Uzcategui said, “unfortunately, someone famous had to die to remind us of the horror we live in.”
President Nicolas Maduro — who during his presidential campaign branded himself as the “president for security” and said he would “fight crime” — was saddened by the news. We all are. But beyond what we may feel, we should ask ourselves, how could this have been prevented?
What happened to the former beauty queen wasn’t just a coincidence: Spear wasn’t the first one to be killed on that same highway, and she certainly won’t be the last.
A few months ago, the actress decided to move to the United States, because she feared for her daughter’s safety in such a dangerous country. She wasn’t wrong. In a country where the murder rate reached 79 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013, according to the National Observatory on Violence, your likelihood of being killed is high.
Even if the government argues that that rate is in fact half, Venezuelans know otherwise. The country suffers from an “epidemic of violence,” according to the World Health Organization. So beyond politicizing this tragedy, this article is about humanizing figures that have become so familiar to us.
It seems ridiculous to think this government could fight insecurity, when it has an inhumane prison system, police officers whose salaries are absurdly low, and a corrupt judicial system. If we throw in high levels of poverty, unemployment, social inequalities, and the absence of security forces, then we have the perfect combination to become the world’s crime capital.
The number of police officers, the amount of training they receive, and their equipment, is minimal when compared to the growing army of criminals whose weapons of war frighten any individual agent. In Venezuela, no one wants to be involved with law enforcement, and those who dare fight a losing battle.
Since January, the salary of a police officer in Miranda, Venezuela’s most populated state, is 5,880 Bsf. (Bolívares Fuertes) per month (US$92 at the black market exchange rate) — an absurdly low salary for someone who risks his life to protect other people. To put that into perspective, one month ago, average household consumption surpassed 15,000 Bsf. Even the salary of two police officers would not be enough to cover the most essential needs of a regular family.
The worst part is that at those wages, these people can’t even afford to live in nice, safe homes; rather, they are in neighborhoods where crime rates are very high. Our police officers have to sleep at night next to the very criminals they chase by day.
In the last few years, the number of murdered police officers reflects planned killings, rather common crimes. If the state can’t even guarantee the security of those who are supposed to protect us, what is left for the rest of us, as unarmed civilians?
The problem goes much deeper. Despite those conditions and obstacles, even if the police were to catch these criminals, the likelihood of them being convicted would be extremely low. The judicial system has become a corruption racket, where money can solve almost anything. According to the 2011 annual report by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, the levels of impunity in Venezuela have reached 91.8 percent. In other words, nine out of 10 defendants never reach trial.
Right now, there are 50 police officers assigned to solve Spear’s case. This begs the question: how many would it take to solve the 24,763 murders from last year?
While the situation for regular residents may sound terrifying, the fate of convicted criminals is a lot worse. In Venezuela, prisons have become subhuman dumps that serve as crime schools, rather than instruments to correct harmful behaviors and deter crime. Prison compounds are 179 percent overcrowded, with wardens who aren’t even allowed to enter the cells and prisoners who have more weapons than the National Guard. It has become commonplace to hear about shootings that take place in these supposed places of reform.
It only takes reading the news on the latest massacre inside a prison to understand how the state’s last recourse to correct behavior is doomed to fail.
Unfortunately, this crime that Maduro refers to as a “tremendous evil” has become normalized for Venezuelans. While there’s no rule of law and the structural causes for violence remain intact, there won’t be enough security plans (Patria Segura) to help us escape from the world’s fifth highest murder rate.
While the government will continue with its political charade, pretending that everything is fine, Venezuelans know the truth: we are all victims of an incompetent state.