On 14 November Venezuela was declared in partial default on its foreign debt by credit ratings agencies. It is the latest big event in the country’s deteriorating economic crisis, triggered by the global peak and subsequent decline in oil prices in 2013. Since then, Venezuela’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen by a devastating 35% and much of the population has been plunged into poverty. The poverty rate sits at 82%, and this economic crisis has led to an equally severe political crisis. President Maduro has responded to growing opposition with repressive measures. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) maintains tight control of the media and the political opposition and attacks anyone speaking out against the government.
The “peace zones” where violence has surged
Violence and organised crime has prospered in this atmosphere. The spaces from which the government has retreated have been filled by gangs of organised criminals, and they have brought alarming rates of homicide and kidnap with them. “Peace zones” are a paradigmatic illustration of this. In an attempt to pacify the most dangerous areas of Venezuela’s cities, “peace zones” were established, in which gangs were awarded material and economic resources in exchange for their weapons in the hope that those gangs would be reintegrated into their societies in a non-violent and productive way. As part of the agreement, the national police would not patrol the zones. The reality was that the gangs used the funds given to them to purchase more powerful weapons than those that they had given up, and the police were then unable to re-enter the zones. Violence surged in these areas and there have been reports of large-scale displacement of families fleeing for their safety.
These conditions of insecurity are reflected in the national homicide rates. The government does not publish reliable homicide figures for fear of revealing the severity of the domestic situation, but the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia (OVV) calculated that in 2016 there were 28,749 “violent deaths”, which puts the murder rate at 91.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. That figure is extremely high – the murder rate in the US was 4.9 in every 100,000 in 2015. Not only is the figure high, but it reflects an increase when compared with Venezuela’s 2015 figures. In 2015 the OVV calculated 27,875 “violent deaths”, implying a murder rate of 90 in 100,000. Criminality has become more violent with the intensification of political clashes, increasing confrontations over lack of food and medicines and impossibly low standards of living.
More kidnappings in September 2017 than any month prior in the year
In an economy whose inflation is predicted to rise beyond 2300% in 2018, kidnapping has become one of few lucrative activities. Again, official statistics are hard to come by, but according to data collated by journalists and specialists in the country more kidnappings were reported in September 2017 than in any other month prior to that in the year. The majority of both the victims and the perpetrators are males between 20 and 29 years old. In October the OVV interviewed Manuel, a former construction worker in Caracas, who had turned to express kidnapping in order to cover his expenses. Express kidnapping is Venezuela’s most common form of kidnapping and kidnappers are increasingly asking for payment in US dollars or Euros given the devaluation of the local currency. In this way, Manuel said he could earn US$30,000 in five days – an unthinkable sum for many Venezuelans.
With the economic and political situation in decline, the outlook for kidnapping rates does not look set to improve. The international community has called for a restoration of democracy in Venezuela, claiming it is the only way that the grave economic and humanitarian crisis can be resolved. However, the previously opposition-dominated parliament has been formally stripped of its powers, placing President Maduro and his PSUV firmly in control of all government functions with no apparent intention of reform. While kidnap remains one of the few ways to obtain foreign currency and inflation remains sky-high, kidnappings seem likely to become even more widespread.