THERE were more than 21,000 murders in Venezuela last year, giving it the world’s fifth highest homicide rate, and one which exceeds that of Europe and America combined.
Outside the Bello Monte mortuary in Caracas, scores of mourners try to find shade from the midday sun. Many sob. “It is always like this”, says a kiosk owner, who sells cigarettes and coffee to those who wait for hours to collect their dead.
Of the 1,364 bodies which have passed through the morgue’s doors in the three months since the start of the year, 65 per cent were homicides according to new figures reported this week. The problem of violence is at the top of the agenda in the Venezuelan presidential election, the ten days of campaigning for which officially began yesterday, following the death of president Hugo Chávez.
Monday night saw marches throughout the country, held in the name of “anti-violence”. At his “march against lack of security” rally in the capital, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles shouted to the assembled crowd of many thousands: “We want to build a country where everyone can walk the streets without fear, where the streets belong to the people”.
Mr Capriles’ opponent, former vice-president and socialist candidate Nicolas Maduro, chose to shift the blame for the violence rather than talk of any plans for the future. “The truth is”, he said from Caracas, “that capitalism is to blame for the violence in this country”. Last week Mr Maduro also announced that prostitution in the oil-rich country was the fault of “western television”, and the same day called his centrist opponents “the heirs of Hitler”.
Mr Maduro, who is not pictured on his own campaign posters, is Mr Chávez’s anointed successor, chosen two days before the late-president was last seen in public. Despite playing relatively little part in his own presidential campaign, attempting to appeal to the masses by hiding behind the image and legacy of Mr Chavez, Mr Maduro currently has a 14 point lead in the polls over his opponent.
Not all Venezuelans are convinced by the anti-crime rhetoric. “It’s always been this way”, said Andrés Verbosa, a man waiting outside the Caracas city mortuary for news of his 26-year old nephew who had been shot in the stomach and killed by “thugs” earlier that day. “The police do their job but they do it badly, the government says they are going to change things but we haven’t seen anything yet”.
“Right now, the politicians are talking about violence for publicity”, said Jonathan Planchart, one of the writers of popular Venezuelan political blog discursopolitico.net, “but in reality none of these promises are going to come true because it’s not an issue that they’re interested in”.
“It’s not normal to be accustomed to living with violence”, the blogger continued, “the fact that it’s something we have come to accept shows we have a real problem”.
Venezuela’s problems with crime are top of the political agenda for good reason. Murder rates in Venezuela have been steadily growing. When Mr Chavez took office in 1999, the homicide rate was 11 people murdered for every 100,000, today that stands at 47. The 21,000 killings seen in 2012 were a 12 per cent increase on the year before, and Monday’s statistics show a 7 per cent increase in deaths in the capital compared to the first quarter of last year.
“The bosses in the slums make the laws, not the police”, said Antonia Diaz from outside the Caracas mortuary. Mrs Diaz was also awaiting the coroner’s pronouncement on the 26-year-old, killed in the Caracas slum of Petare. “You don’t question the thugs here, you just have to take care of yourself”.
“The government keeps saying it’s going to change things, but we haven’t seen anything yet”, she adds, “we listen to what the politicians are saying, but it’s another thing to see their promises in action. That’s something I haven’t experienced”.