July 1, 2008

What Primero Justicia wants, Part III: Tackling crime

Juan Cristobal says: - This is the third part in a multi-part post on the main proposals of the opposition’s political parties. The first two parts of this exclusive excerpt on Primero Justicia's platform dealt with oil and the justice system.


Crime – the biggest problem facing Venezuela. It’s consistently been ranked voters’ top concern for quite some time. It affects everyone, everywhere, in a myriad different ways.

It’s a huge deal.

It’s also really, really difficult to solve. Why has Venezuela turned into such a violent society? It’s hard to say. Explanations are a dime a dozen, and none of them are entirely right. And while politicians may occasionally fret about how crime has soared, many of them haven’t the slightest clue about where to begin.

The following paragraphs lay out Primero Justicia’s proposals for solving the crime problem.

The diagnosis.-

Everyone has a crime story to tell. In the last few decades, we have become a nation under siege. We live behind bars while criminals roam our streets. Instead of having professional cops, we have corrupt, politicized police forces.

Poverty is not the main cause. There are many poor countries in the world that are nowhere near as violent as ours. While it is true that inequality and social exclusion undoubtedly play a role, Primero Justicia believes these simplistic explanations are a cop-out, a way for governments to convince the public that there is no short-term or medium-term solution to the problem. Blaming crime on poverty is what lazy politicians do.

It’s also ironic that poverty is singled out as the main culprit, when in fact the poor are the main victims of crime. Our newspapers are usually filled with horror stories of murder sprees in our barrios. People in poor neighborhoods live in fear, and few dare go out at night. Poor people are usually the victims of such random murders the press likes to call “confrontations between the police and gangs”, but which in fact mask the ugly truth of random human rights violations.

In the last nine years, more than 100,000 Venezuelans have been murdered. There are more than 2 million illegal firearms in our barrios. In 2006, more than 1,000 people died for “resisting the authorities.” That same year, our homicide rate stood at 45 people per 100,000 inhabitants. 200,000 people die in the world each year as a consequence of gunshot violence in non-conflict countries (i.e., countries not at war) – 1 in 17 of them died in ours.

The resulting violence is further fueled by the fact that crimes go unpunished. According to the Central University of Venezuela, only 7% of all murders end in someone being sentenced. There were 5,520 deaths at the hand of military or police personnel between 2000 and 2005, yet only 88 people have been sentenced to jail time for these crimes.

Part of the problem is that there aren’t enough prosecutors. Venezuela has roughly 5 prosecutors for 100,000 people, but other Latin American countries have many more: Costa Rica has 7.1, Colombia has 7.8, the Dominican Republic has 8 and El Salvador has 9.9.

Another part of the problem is that there aren’t enough police officers. According to the government there is a deficit of 36,000 police officers, something they are not doing much about.

The proposals.-

Primero Justicia believes the first thing that needs to be tackled is having a better, larger police force. This is easier said than done – but at least, on this topic, they can point to their hands-on experience in the municipalities they have run.

Some of the things that work at the municipal level and that they propose at the national level include: increasing the police force’s budget, improving mechanisms for selecting and evaluating officers, separating good cops from bad cops, increasing police salaries, giving police officers better preparation by signing agreements with universities and technical institutes, and giving them better equipment. The goal is to increase the number of police officers by 6,000 per year in order to erase the deficit in 6-8 years.

One of the key aspects of their proposal is to turn police corps into preventive rather than reactive forces. In order to accomplish this, they propose increasing the use of technology and assigning more officers to critical crime areas. They also propose a substantial decrease in the number of police officers assigned to serve as bodyguards to politicians. They will emphasize the education of police officers, their salary and the benefits they, and their relatives, are entitled to.

Local police forces should become “community polices.” In order to achieve that, they propose upgrading their technology so that areas where crimes are committed are quickly identified. They also propose creating a fund to distribute among states and municipalities that show the best results in tackling crime.

Primero Justicia does not appear to be dogmatic about the decentralization of police forces. It recognizes the need for an effective national police force, and at the same time, it highlights the importance of strengthening local police forces. The responsibility of the national force should be tackling organized crime, and in coordinating and working with local law enforcement. They come out in favor of civilian police forces, and of reorganizing the DISIP and CICPC so that their main focus is investigating and solving crimes.

The platform discusses the importance of giving the victims of crime better access to information. To that end, they propose a Unified System for Violence and Safety (SUIVI), where victims can follow the course of their cases with the help of law students and other trained personnel. They also propose widening the available network for tips related to criminal activity.

Any proposal for fighting crime would be incomplete if it did not include plans for disarming the population. Primero Justicia proposes decreasing the number of legal and illegal weapons in the hands of civilians with a system of rewards, and modifying legislation to increase penalties for illegally carrying a weapon. The disarmament program must include the public destruction of guns, as well as the creation of a national database to track weapons.

In some areas they are less clear. For example, they propose making it easier to register a gun, but at the same time they propose an increase in the minimum age necessary to be able to carry one. They also propose implementing testing and medical certification procedures for gun permits.

One thing they emphasize is the rescue of public spaces taken over by criminals. This includes increased patrolling in certain areas, such as schools or parks, as well as better lighting of our streets.

The platform includes specific proposals to help spread civic values and create awareness of how communities can help prevent crime. They propose coordinating with community leaders on the best ways to tackle crime and how best to create citizen networks for crime prevention. They also propose integrating communities, churches, NGOs and experts and forming a National Safety Center, to keep track of crime-tackling programs and monitor crime statistics.

A special sub-section in the platform is dedicated to domestic violence. In Caracas alone, for example, a woman dies every 10 days a victim of domestic violence. In spite of the severity of the problem, the Health Ministry and the CICPC have stopped publishing statistics on the issue.

The party’s platform proposes reversing this. Their proposals range from changes in the law to increased penalties for domestic violence. They also discuss helping raise awareness of the issue and supporting citizen networks. The goal is to increase the importance of the problem in citizens’ minds and create the mechanisms for women and children to escape violent situations.

The platform includes proposals for improving the jail system. The goal is to transform Venezuelan jails by promoting the construction of new jails, and the decentralization of their day-to-day management.

The proposals include strengthening the professional capabilities of the staff assigned to our jails, as well as the strengthening of the institutions that help reeducate convicts and ease their reinsertion into society after they have finished their sentence. In order to achieve this, they propose forcing the National Guard out of our jails and creating a special corps that specializes in jail safety.

Finally, they propose increasing mandatory jail time for specific crimes such as kidnapping. They propose a special kidnapping task force, with proper funding and increased international cooperation.


Any proposal to fight crime has to begin with a huge dose of humility. Nobody has all the answers, because nobody understands the phenomenon comprehensively. It’s not so much a public policy challenge as it is a cultural phenomenon. Like a thousand-headed beast, it’s not something that can be tackled by a single person, by a single organization.

Which isn’t to say that we should do as chavismo does – hide our heads in the sand and simply shrug it off as an unintended consequence of “poverty”, “exclusion” and other populist left-wing gibberish. Because while solving the problem of crime is a Herculean task and requires creative thinking, it is not impossible to solve.

I don't know about you, but my grandparents used to entertain me with stories of how Venezuelans used to be able to sleep with their front doors open, and how nobody had bars on their windows. It's up to us to put the pressure on those in charge so that we may once again become that country.