Venezuela: Will Murder and Crime Destabilize Hugo Chavez’s Regime?
The three gangbangers are holed up in a small hut deep in the lush overgrowth of San Casimiro, a town two hours south of Caracas - and they’ll be there for the foreseeable future. They’re in hiding after a shootout days earlier back in their home barrio of Antímano, one of the hillside slums located above the Venezuelan capital, scared of retaliation from rival gang members. “If someone does something crazy, commits a massacre or kills someone with a couple shots to the head, the others see that as an example to beat,” says one of the men, Kevin, 25, showing me a fresh, undressed bullet wound in his left thigh after I was introduced to these malandros, or thugs, by a friend of theirs from Antímano.
Kevin’s preferred pastime, however, is to head down to wealthy Caracas neighborhoods, where “everyone has a BlackBerry” and push a pistol into his victims’ sides. “I’ll ask for their phone and money,” he says. “They ask me not to kill them. If they co-operate, they’ll be fine. Sometimes they say no, so boom!”
Ask anyone who walks Venezuela’s streets - fans or foes of socialist President Hugo Chávez - about the biggest problem the country faces, and the answer will almost always be insecurity. Mushrooming violent crime, from robbery to kidnapping to murder, is arguably the number one issue as Venezuela prepares for its Oct. 7 presidential election. By some estimates, Venezuela’s homicide rate today is as much as four times what it was in 1998, when Chávez, who has been in power 13 years, was first elected. Both Chávez 58, and his centrist opposition challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, 40, the Governor of Miranda state adjoining Caracas, have acknowledged the crisis at their campaign rallies this year. But Chávez is most vulnerable. After he recently shed tears lamenting that his presidential fame doesn’t let him roam Venezuela as freely as he’d like, Capriles hit back asking, “Who cries for the mothers mourning their children killed by violence?”