What it's like in the world's most violent city

Protesters Set Fire to a Police Water Cannon in Venezuela
Protesters Set Fire to a Police Water Cannon in Venezuela

The latest edition of the most violent cities in the world index from the Mexican nongovernmental organization Citizen's Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, ranking the world's cities with populations over 300,000 people by their homicide rates, was released in January.

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Caracas, Venezuela, earned the regrettable distinction of No. 1, replacing San Pedro Sula, which fell to No. 2 after four years in the top spot.

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Caracas has never been far from the top of the list. It has been in the top ten every year since 2008. In 2012, its 118.89 homicides per 100,000 people placed it at No. 3. Rates of 134.36 and 115.98 per 100,000 earned it No. 2 in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Venezuela's capital and largest city closed 2015 with a homicide rate of 119.87 per 100,000, and while the exact number of killings has been debated, the shocking level of violence the country has experienced is directly related to its social, economic, and political dysfunction.

Crime has increased significantly in Venezuela since the 1990s, and while its origins are hard to pin down, it is likely attributable to several factors.

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There is widespread impunity, "the complete dysfunctioning of the judicial system that allows for" a significant degree of impunity for some, usually high-profile, offenders, and, as a result, "disregard for the law, because it's selectively applied," Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, told Business Insider last year during an interview about Venezuela's response to crime.

Velasco also identified the "schizophrenic" way the government of late President Hugo Chavez, in office from 1999 to 2013, addressed crime, viewing it as something rooted in political factors and failing to address it with a dedicated law-enforcement effort, "which then, some people say, contributed further to this sort of increase in crime," said Velasco.

Velasco also identified spillover from Colombia's longstanding civil conflict, and related drug-trafficking activity, as a driver of crime and insecurity in Venezuela in recent years.

"As the drug war in Colombia has sort of phased down and some of that has bubbled over into Venezuela, where in this climate of impunity and confusion in terms of policy, [criminal elements] have really had sort of a field day, both institutionally with corruption in the military and in the national guard in particular, but also just in terms of socially with sort of easy access to weapons and all sorts of other things," Velasco told Business Insider.

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Maduro has used Colombia, and Colombians in Venezuela, as bogeymen for his country's current crises, identifying the frontier as a source of economic instability due to rampant smuggling as well as violence because of Colombian criminal groups operating in the area.

Over the last year, the Venezuelan government has closed the border with Colombia, deployed troops to the region, and expelled thousands of Colombians, some of whom were refugees, living illegally in Venezuela's western border region.

The Venezuelan government has withheld official statistics on crime for several years, and there is an element of doubt associated with many of the estimates of violence in the country.

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"When it comes to crime statistics, in Venezuela it's, much as everything else, it's a highly politicized issue," said Velasco.

One of the most widely cited estimates for homicides in Venezuela comes from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), whose measure for homicide rates, as political scientist Dorothy Kronik has noted, is "a forecast based on past trends," which makes for questionable results since, as the OVV admitted to Kronik, there isn't reliable data for past years since the government stopped releasing statistics.


The Citizen's Council's measure is based on bodies registered in the Bello Monte morgue in Caracas.

Data gathered from Bello Monte also needs to be qualified, as the Citizen's Council admits in their methodology: "We know that the morgue is not exclusively for the Metropolitan District of Caracas, but for an area much larger, and that 80% of the cadavers correspond to violent homicides, not 100%."


Moreover, Velasco added, tabulations of corpses registered in Bello Monte are questionable.

"So to me," he said, the country's homicide rate "just remains an extremely murky figure ... to say whether it's this number or that number, there's just too much uncertainty to really make a definitive statement one way or another."

Though the exact numbers can be disputed, the violence is undeniable.

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"I think that it's safe to say beyond the numbers, beyond the rankings, Caracas, because of all the other factors, is for certain among the most violent cities in the world," Velasco told Business Insider.

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Most, if not all, of Caracas' residents have experienced the effects of the city's violence, though a specific subset of the city faces the brunt of it.

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There were, according to the Citizen's Council's calculations, 3,946 homicides among the 3,291,831 people in Caracas' Metropolitan district in 2015.

According to Velasco, most "of the violence is targeted towards the poorer sectors of the city. The challenge is that ... Caracas, [as in] many Latin American cities, poverty and wealth are sometimes close together ... but most of it is concentrated among the so-called barrios."

"And youth, it certainly targets youth much more so than others," Velasco, whose book, "Barrio Rising," details the recent history of urban politics in Venezuela.


As Velasco noted, the rise in homicides has weighed heavily on Venezuela's youth.

According to a UNICEF report published in late 2014, homicide is the leading cause of death among young people in Venezuela.

For adolescents from 10 to 19 years of age, the homicide rate is 39 per 100,000 people; for males between those ages, the rate is 74 per 100,000, while it's just 3 per 100,000 for females in that age group.

While the Citizen's Council's report measured only homicides, criminal activity in Caracas is widespread, which in turn helps drive up the rate of killing.

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"One of the things that has gone up ... is the incidence of break-ins that result in murder," Velasco said, "and not necessarily planned in that way, but for whatever reason they end up in killings."

Violent deaths of this kind indicate a cycle of violence that has afflicted the capital and its residents, who are known as Caraqueños.

The rise of violence in homes, caused primarily by break-ins, is in part "a response to people retreating back to their homes, and so crime has now taken to" there in ways different from the past, Velasco said.

With gangs often in control of poor neighborhoods, weapons readily available, judges and police officials often on the take, and low rates of prosecution, the sense of insecurity has become widespread in the Venezuelan capital.


In December 2011, Kronik, a political scientist who lived in Venezuela as a Fulbright scholar, wrote that, "Thousands die in small-scale gang disputes. Petty theft often ends in murder.

Deaths in street crime are so common that one of Venezuela's principal NGOs, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, is launching an advertising campaign featuring the message, 'Value Life.'"

Mariana Caprile, the woman leading the Value Life initiative at the time, told Kronik that she wanted "to encourage young men 'not to kill for no reason. If you're going to rob a bus ... there's just no reason to shoot the driver."

The spread of crime "speaks to this broader sense of being under siege more generally," Velasco suggested. "So even though ... it's targeted, there's a broad sense that [it could happen] at any time, at any place."

Venezuela has made headlines around the world for its deteriorating economic situation. What is less noticed is how this exposes Caraqueños to crime.

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Inflation and scarcity have made it harder for Venezuelans to get normal consumer goods. When the needed products are available, they come with exorbitant prices, and attract a crowd.

"More people have to be out on the streets longer and earlier during the day or later at night, and that has to do with people making lines to buy products that are scarce," said Velasco.

"So they have to spend hours and hours in line and they become easier targets for violence, especially if they're going, they have a lot of cash in hand."

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Lines have become so prevalent that a market for dedicated line-placeholders has sprung up.

"It's boring but not a bad way to make a living," Luis, a 23-year-old man, told Reuters outside a state supermarket just after sunrise in Caracas in early 2015.

Like the shoppers around him expecting to contend with inflated prices, Luis carries large amounts of cash. "'There's a lady coming at 8 a.m. for this place. She's paid in advance,'" Luis told Reuters, "patting his wallet despite nods of disapproval around him."

The combination of economic woes and widespread insecurity has influenced the everyday lives of Caraqueños in other ways, as well.

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"Absolutely it's changed patterns," Velasco told Business Insider.

He referred specifically to changa tuki, a techno-inspired music and dance trend that's popular in poorer areas of Caracas, like Petare, one of Veneuzela's largest barrios.

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"It gained visibility and reputation because people who would dance to it or practice it would do so at daytime dance parties, precisely because doing so at nighttime was so dangerous, especially in popular sectors," Velasco said.

"You have the pop-up rave that happens, it happens during the middle of the day, or maybe after school or something. So that suggests one way in which social parameters are changing for youth who are, again, sort of the primary targets for this violence."

Among wealthier Caraqueños, insecurity has changed habits, as well.

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"People certainly don't go outside as much as" in the past, Velasco said, "but if they do go out at night, especially if they're a little bit wealthier, they keep bodyguards with them, which just increases the general presence of weapons."

The increased use of private security, coupled with state security forces that the public doesn't trust and a judicial system unable to serve the people, creates what the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) described in 2012 as a "violence trap."

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Insecurity has fueled the private-security industry. "We noticed that the upswing began in 2003," an executive at Caracas-based security firm Blindcorp said in April 2012.

"And it just keeps getting better," he added. By that point in the year, he said, the company's sales had "already grown 30 percent."

Like poorer Venezuelans, wealthier residents of the country have changed their social and consumption habits.

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"You have chefs at restaurants, instead of holding late hours, they'll close earlier, and then have private parties ... where they basically do meals in these people's homes that they would have in a restaurant," Velasco said.

"So it's not even catering," added Velasco. "It's sort of like the whole experience of being at a restaurant, just not going out, because of either the unexpectedness of products being available or how expensive it is, or just the threat of going out."

"Crime has made diners seek ever-more private and secure settings, while shortages of ingredients make it difficult to maintain a steady menu," Grish Gupta reported for Reuters in June last year.


"Chefs and owners complain that operating a normal restaurant profitably has become increasingly problematic as state controls limit price increases despite roaring inflation and bribery is the only way to get permits in a timely fashion," Gupta added.

"Venezuela must be one of the hardest places to do gastronomy," said the 21-year-old owner of the clandestine restaurant Gupta visited.

High prices make these private restaurants the domain of Venezuela's elite, though, according to Reuters, government officials have been known to dine at them.

Insecurity and instability have affected Venezuelan youths in other ways. In what may be a long-lasting shift for the country, many working-age people have migrated elsewhere.


"I couldn't raise a child there. Venezuela was bad, and it's only got worse," said Veronika Leniz, who works in marketing and left Venezuela for Miami after becoming pregnant.

"It's an incredible difference, living here. I miss Venezuela so much, but I wouldn't go back," Leniz, 26, told Reuters.

At Caracas' School of Chemistry (UVC), 63 percent of instructors earn less than minimum wage. Students at the dentistry school often have to work outside jobs in order to afford basic supplies like gauze and gloves

The country has also seen an outflow of energy-sector workers, a troubling development for an economy that gets 95 percent of its export earnings from oil.

"Venezuela is on the road to the total underdevelopment of the country," Ivan de la Vega, a sociologist and expert on Venezuelan migration,told BuzzFeed.

The Venezuelan government's response to crime in recent years has, unfortunately, only added to the violence.


After abortive attempts at police reform in the late 2000s (which were hamstrung by institutional turf wars), the Venezuelan government fell back on "mano dura," or "iron fist" law-enforcement policies.

In the months after Maduro's election in mid-2013, he deployed the military and militarized elements of the country's police force to deal with crime.


Even though "mano dura" policies have remained generally popular, human-rights abuses committed by security forces deployed to the streets have stirred unease.

A report by the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal in August 2013 documented the terror Venezuelans felt passing though roadblocks manned by "heavily armed but lightly trained soldiers."

"When the army is deployed to do citizen security they follow the rules of engagement that are conventionally military," Velasco told Business Insider last year. "Their rules of engagement are so discretionary and broad that we have seen a significant amount of deaths."

Ineffective crackdowns on crime in Caracas have created a kind of feedback loop that perpetuates insecurity and impunity.

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"As crime occurs, ill-equipped Venezuelan security forces respond, leading to more clashes. Over time the government inevitably loses control and criminals face no liability for their actions," according to COHA's 2012 report.

COHA cites the Enero 23, or January 23, neighborhood, named for the date on which dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez was deposed in 1958, which it described in 2012 as a "'micro-state' run by about 300 armed paramilitaries who operate entirely outside of the government's purview."

Criminal groups that can operate with relative impunity can also strike back at police forces. By October 20, 2015, 112 police officers had been killed that year in Caracas. (Many of them have been killed in order to steal their weapons.)

The threat to police officers' lives led to them "doing only the minimum work required of them to fight crime while on patrol," according to Insight Crime.

Efforts to counteract violence in Caracas and reform its weakened law-enforcement mechanisms have become mired in political gridlock.

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"One of the reasons, these structural, underlying reasons why Caracas is such a violent city is because of its administrative disarray," Velasco said.

"So beyond economic crisis, beyond the crisis of impunity, beyond the rising levels of inequality and poverty -- all of that stuff is true -- but then there's also this administrative dysfunctionality, where you have a city that has five different mayors, a super-mayor, and then now a super-super-mayor, and all of them have very competing political interests, and all of them also control their own police force, so it creates questions of jurisdiction and all these other problems."

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The government's response, or lack thereof, to crime and violence has hurt it politically, especially among groups that have traditionally supported the socialist "chavista" party of late President Hugo Chavez.

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The government's repressive response to crime, particularly in Caracas, has also alienated it from its traditional constituency.

"It was found that military officers," deployed by the government to fight crime in 2015, Velasco said, "targeted indiscriminately people within the community itself, so it was terrorizing the population that is ostensibly the bulwark of chavismo."

"So unsurprisingly many popular sector areas, as you saw in the last election, voted against chavismo, not just because of all the increasing problems," said Velasco, "but also because now it sort of felt like, 'Well, something that Chavez never did was deploy the military to attack us, and now you have the military ostensibly to defend or to protect us from crime but in fact it's targeting us.'"

In December's legislative elections, many erstwhile government supporters submitted "votos castigos," punishment votes against the government.

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The opposition swept into the majority in Venezuela's National Assembly after a victory in legislative election in December 2015.

With its newfound authority, the opposition has challenged the government's hold on power, deepening a fight over political influence that seems likely to overshadow efforts at legal or criminal-justice reform.

"They're entirely caught up in the larger political struggle," said Velasco.

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