Venezuelan Police Murdered at Record Levels, for Their Firearms

By: Thabata Molina - Jan 30, 2015, 12:25 pm

EspañolSoaring crime in Caracas throughout 2014 has given it the unenviable ranking of second most violent city in the world, with a murder rate of 155 for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to Mexican NGO Security, Justice, and Peace. In the Venezuelan capital, not even the state’s security forces are safe: during the first 29 days of 2015, criminals murdered 13 of the city’s uniformed officers. Circumstances varied, but in the majority of cases, the perpetrators killed police to steal their firearms.

Con un precio de US$400 por una pistola en el mercado negro, la vida de un policía vale lo mismo que su arma de reglamento (VTV)
With a price of US$400 on the black market, a police officer’s life is worth the same as his regulation firearm. (VTV)

“The criminal sees the policeman not as a figure of authority, but as an equal, and he doesn’t respect his equals,” Elisio Guzmán, Miranda State police (Polimiranda) chief, with 40 years in the force, told the PanAm Post.

“Killing a state official gives the criminal prestige within his criminal gang, and also the chance to easily obtain a firearm.”

On January 9, the security camera in a shopping center captured the moment when a uniformed Polimiranda officer entered a bakery and was attacked by a criminal at his side. The perpetrator shot him and stole his regulation firearm. The victim was 49-year-old Detective Supervisor Álvaro Blanco Escobar.

His 20 years as a police officer weren’t enough to avoid becoming another victim of criminals. His attacker saw that Escobar had temporarily dropped his guard, and viewed it as a chance to get another firearm. Without any hesitation, he shot Escobar in the head, and took the gun from his belt the second he fell to the floor.

Just Another Statistic

The killing of police officers in Caracas has increased at pace with rising crime levels. In 2010, 59 officers were killed, rising to 84 in 2011, and 106 in 2012. The figure fell slight to 100 in 2013, but then rose to a record 132 in 2014. In other words, police killings have risen by 124 percent in the past four years.

“In Venezuela, the death of a police officer is just another statistic,” says Javier Gorriño, a lawyer and former head of the now-defunct Technical Judicial Police (PTJ). “When something similar happens in other countries, the authorities announce it, there’s justice, there are punishments for the criminals and a clear message to society about the importance of valuing and respecting authority.”

The expert argues that the limited effectiveness of criminal investigations results in sky-high levels of impunity for common crimes, directly encouraging increased police murders.

“The police officer is another member of society,” says Gorriño. “He’s just as exposed as the rest of Venezuelans, but he stands out more to the criminal because he’s also got a firearm. The criminal identifies him, and kills him almost without thinking, because he knows that if the officer identifies him first, he can use his gun first.”

And the trend goes beyond regular police. Venezuelan NGO the Foundation for Due Process reveals in its latest report that 388 members of various state security forces were murdered in 2014, while the same figure was 295 in 2013, representing an increase of 31 percent in only one year.

Where a Gun is Worth a Life

In Venezuela, restrictions have been in place on the sale of firearms since June 2010, with various additions restricting the ownership and personal possession of guns, as well as the kinds of ammunition available. But none of these measures have stemmed the rising tide of gun-related killings. Instead, killing police officers for their sidearms has become an even more lucrative option.

According to specialists consulted by the PanAm Post, the black market value of an automatic firearm, such as those issued to uniformed police, is between 60,000 and 80,000 bolívares. The value of an armed police officer’s life for a criminal is thus around US$400 at the black-market exchange rate.

“The policing profession in Venezuela has become less prestigious for various reasons,” says criminal lawyer Luis Izquiel.

“First, both criminals and society at large see the police officer as just another criminal, but with official credentials. Second, low salaries and precarious socioeconomic positions place officers among the same social strata as those who commit the crimes. And finally,” Izquiel concludes, “widespread impunity means that committing a crime in the country is increasingly easy, because there are no punishments.”

He adds that police academies should take several measures to reduce the risks faced by their officers. The lawyer suggests that by prohibiting officers from going out on patrol alone, and from going out wearing their uniform and firearm when off-duty, the probability of being surprised by criminals will be significantly reduced.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

Thabata Molina Thabata Molina

Thabata Molina is a Venezuelan reporter who focuses on public safety, violence, and penitentiary conflicts. She has contributed to national newspapers such as El Nacional and El Universal for 12 years. Originally from Caracas, she now lives in Panama. Follow @Thabatica.

Freedom House: Global Liberty Declines Ninth Year Running

By: Adriana Peralta - @AdriPeraltaM - Jan 30, 2015, 11:14 am

EspañolFor the ninth consecutive year, the number of countries worldwide where freedom has declined (61) is almost twice those where levels of liberty increased (33). This was the key finding of the annual Freedom in the World study published on January 28 by Freedom House, analyzing the civil liberties and political rights available to citizens in 195 states in 2014. Forty six percent (89) of the nations studied were classified as free, 28 percent (55) as partially free, and the remaining 26 percent (51) were classified as “not free.” The report, subtitled "Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist," rates the countries on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being the highest score. The worst cases were found in the Middle East and Africa (including Syria, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, among others), as well as North Korea. The decline in global freedom was largely due to increased state surveillance and control of the individual, coupled with restrictions on communication on the internet, particularly in authoritarian regimes. The report concludes that strengthening democratic institutions is the key to freedom in any country. Antidemocratic tendencies often contribute to humanitarian crises, the authors found, and they also enable terrorist groups to flourish, which can have knock-on effects on the international community. "Will established democracies recognize that global assaults on free institutions represent a threat to their national interests," the study asked, "exemplified by the actions of the United States and the European Union against Russia when it invaded Ukraine?" The study also condemned the international community's failure to protest against human-rights violations allegedly committed by the Venezuelan government. "Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government — and of an international system built on democratic ideals — is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years," expressed Arch Puddington, vice president of research, in a press release. Puddington added that in the past, authoritarian regimes would claim to respect international conventions and support democratic elections and human rights. But the academic said that such regimes are currently pushing for a single-party system, looking for ways to eliminate the international and domestic checks and balances that limit them. America, a Continent of Contradictions On December 17, 201, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their intentions to resume diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years. But the event scarcely marked a turning point for freedom in the Americas, even if Cuba's freedom ranking did improve slightly thanks to growth of the free press. Instead, lack of respect for human rights in Mexico (3.0) and the United States (1.0) both saw a marked decrease in civil liberties, with the cases of Ayotzinapa, Iguala, and Ferguson, Missouri as prominent examples. Venezuela (5.0) was similarly "partially free," and in 2014 was characterized as having a repressive government during the student protests of last February and March. Examples of government repression included state security forces using violence against protesters, arresting political dissidents, and a lack of due process and respect for the human rights of those arrested. According to the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action in Human Rights, that number was more than 3,100 (Provea). The study also labelled Ecuador (3.0) as a partially free country, citing several high-profile attacks on free press in the Andean country — including a new law restricting the media and encouraging the harassment of journalists. El Salvador (2.5) stood out as an island of relative freedom, despite ongoing gang violence. Freedom House classified the Central-American country as a free country, citing strong freedom of the press, freedom of expression, strong and active civil society. Since El Salvador's 1992 Peace Agreement, it has had as many progressive as conservative governments. El Salvador's achievements were in clear contrast to Guatemala and Honduras, both with similar indexes for violence, which were rated as "partially free." Chile and Venezuela: Divergent Paths The report explores how Latin-American freedom has changed in the past 20 years. Between 1995 and 2000, Chile's government became a full democracy, while Venezuela endured constitutional amendments at the hands of the recently elected President Hugo Chávez. Twenty years later, both countries have diverged even further in terms of civil and political rights; Freedom House's interactive chart allows readers to compare the trajectory of freedom in each country. Since 2004, the Venezuelan government has had legal sanction to control radio and television content. Civil liberties have suffered, most markedly in the past year, including press freedom, the report noted, highlighting the risk of intimidation and violence that citizens face when protesting. The presence of opposition voices in the media has also markedly declined. Problems arose last year when print media experienced problems in purchasing paper; the state controls the supply of paper and ink, as well as major printing houses. On Tuesday, January 27, the Defense Ministry issued a resolution which permitted the armed forces to use firearms and lethal force in order to contain "disorder" and "support the legitimate authority." By contrast, freedom of expression in Chile is generally respected, according to Freedom House. There are no restrictions on access to the internet, and means of communication are private. The Chilean Constitution guarantees these liberties, yet the topic of human rights abuses during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), and a large number of unsolved cases, still weigh heavily on the country. Freedom House also noted that economic liberty fell short in Chile, citing what it viewed as excessive regulation and price fixing between companies. Translated by Thalia C. Siqueiros. Edited by Laurie Blair.

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