By Carlos Camacho
Latin American Herald Tribune
CARACAS -- The government of President Hugo Chavez said Thursday it is adding a new weapon in its fight against the world's highest murder rate: signs in buses.
According to the Interior and Justice Ministry, the signs will say “Firearms-free zone”. Ostensibly, the idea is to promote another violence-fighting government initiative, and it makes sense to deploy said signs in buses, since public transportation is to Caracas what the saloon was to the Wild West: the chief environment where violent crime takes place.
As if to prove the point, as the goverment was announcing their new measure, a news bulletin reported that protesters had closed a major highway in protest for the murder of a taxi driver during a robbery.
Venezuela’s murder rate has skyrocketed since Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, growing from 4,450 murders in 1998 to a projected 19,000-plus murders this year. While Chavez rarely addresses the high murder rate in his marathon speeches (and does so only to blame murders on capitalism and poverty), his government has announced 33 different “security” plans, roughly three a year, since he took over, and the post of Interior & Justice minister in the Chavez cabinet has been held by 12 ministers in 12 years, where, for instance, Rafael Ramirez has been Energy and Oil minister for eight straight years.
The murder figures themselves constitute a problem: The government stopped reporting the number of murders in 2004 (11,300 murders), only to resume reporting in early 2011, when Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami noted that there had been 17,600 murders in Venezuela in 2010, or roughly 48 murders for every 100,000 Venezuelans.
For murder figures -- aside from counting the bodies at morgue where corpses often overflow -- journalists (and some government officials) turn to Roberto Briceno, an affable college professor with a signature Dali-esque moustache who studies murder and violence as the head of “Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia”, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a think-tank set up by seven public and private universities, including government funded Universidad Central, the country’s largest.
Asked if signs on buses would be enough to turn that tide, Briceno responded “Absolutely not”, before noting “the lack of coherence” between one branch of the government asking for citizens to disarm “while another is telling everybody this is an armed revolution.” And who will tell an armed “malandro” (Venezuelan slang for hood) to leave his piece at home? “Just who will enforce this, when Army soldiers patrolling dangerous neighborhoods have been jumped and stripped of their rifles?” Briceno asks. “The guy driving the bus? The collector?”
Buses (more often smaller buses, or “camioneticas” as they are called in Caracas' heavy traffic) may be the perfect place for both victims and perpetrators to see the signs, but the government’s strategy and reasoning strike observers of naivete, while other pundits just call it another propaganda effort.
“We can go into disarmament without the people’s conscience,” said Edwin Rojas, the vice minister of Interior Policy and Security at the Interior ministry in announcing the new signs. “Studies indicate that an armed person is more likely to be a victim of crime involving his or her own firearm and can potentially be a victim of homicide with said firearm”.
While Venezuelans wait for the signs to be deployed, Briceno said that about the only thing that can lower crime is “a clear message that law will be enforced.” However, that particular sign is hard to get from this government, he says. “The recent nationalizations, what they show is armed men -- soldiers in this case -- taking property by force. Force is being reintroduced as an element of valid social exchange.” And that is the most powerful message. Marcela Sanchez: Chavez’s Skewed Security Priorities in Venezuela
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