Venezuelans are emigrating in droves to South Florida, and it’s not just because Venezuela’s economy is collapsing. Public security has imploded too: South America’s most oil-rich nation has the worst murder rate on the continent.
The homicide crisis has gotten so bad, in fact, that some of the most frequent victims today are the very people who are supposed to fight it: the police.
Funerals for cops are becoming a dismally common scene in Venezuela. In Yare, a town on the outskirts of the capital, Caracas, police officer Yohangel Márquez was recently laid to rest. Family members wept loudly over the trumpet strains of “Taps” and the cracks of a shotgun salute.
Márquez was killed the night before, gunned down off-duty while leaving a party. A local gang attacked him not to settle a score, not even to steal his car, cash or cellphone. They wanted his gun.
Among his mourners was Iván Vegas, a police commissioner who was also Márquez’s friend. Vegas is now heading the investigation into his buddy’s murder.
“Sadly,” he told me, “we’re living at a time when police officers are routinely being assaulted, attacked by delinquents precisely to rob their firearms.”
The situation is even scarier inside Caracas barrios like Petare, a sprawling slum that overlooks the capital. A Petare police veteran, who for safety reasons identified himself only as Zorilla, says law enforcement feels like the underdog today.
“In all of these poor neighborhoods you can find heavy artillery,” says Zorilla. “The biggest gangs in Caracas are armed with weapons of war.”
Márquez, for example, was attacked by machine-gun fire and grenades.
Despite its oil wealth, Venezuela is one of the world's most dangerous countries today – with a higher murder rate than war-torn Iraq. But the spiraling number of cop killings has raised the stakes to an especially frightening level.
More than 260 police officers were murdered last year in Venezuela. That’s about 10 times the number killed in the U.S. – even though the U.S.’s population is 10 times larger than Venezuela’s.
Venezuelan cops like Zorilla are at a loss to explain why they’re considered fair game.
“A lack of values, the economy,” he says, groping for answers. “There aren’t enough officers working in this zone. So the impunity gets worse.”
Venezuela’s socialist government has tried to stem the violence by banning gun sales. It claims crime statistics are down, but independent crime-watch organizations dispute that. And precisely because it’s now harder to buy guns, gangs are increasingly targeting police for their weapons.
As a result, shootouts between cops and gangbangers are more common in Venezuela, too.
On a recent night in Petare, a police patrol set up a checkpoint at a busy intersection. It inspected vehicles and their drivers – but locals like José Flores seemed unimpressed.
“People do what they want here,” Flores said, shaking his head. “If you have money, you can just bribe the police and you end up on the street again.”
That’s a reminder that the cops themselves are often part of the problem – largely because they’re so poorly paid.
Police in Venezuela make just about the minimum wage of around $100 a month. Add the violence factor, and it's easy to understand why corruption is rampant among their ranks. But Officer Zorilla says all Venezuelan cops are being unfairly painted as crooked.
“People don’t see us as someone who’s going to protect them,” he says. “And often we’re working in places where people support criminals.”
As a result, cop killings don’t elicit the outrage you see in other countries.
“The population has lost the respect [for] the policemen,” says criminologist Roberto Briceño León, who heads the Venezuela Violence Observatory. “What the population and the criminal feels is that they can do whatever they want against the policemen and nothing is going to happen to them. And this is the situation.”
The next stop for the Petare patrol was a bus terminal – a hot spot for stickups. Police inspected buses and frisk passengers – but bus driver Jorge Gutiérrez says he’s been mugged three times nonetheless.
“It gets ugly here at night,” says Gutiérrez. “Crime is out of control. They say criminals outgun police, and the way things are going it seems true.”
Eight police officers were killed in Caracas just last week. Two of them were in the borough of Sucre – whose mayor called on the federal government to declare a national emergency.
Many Venezuelans would agree. The question is whether it’s too late.
You can read more of WLRN's Latin America coverage here.