Soaring crime in Caracas throughout 2014 has given it the unenviable ranking of second most violent city in the world, with a murder rate of 155 for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to Mexican NGO Security, Justice, and Peace. In the Venezuelan capital, not even the state’s security forces are safe: during the first 29 days of 2015, criminals murdered 13 of the city’s uniformed officers. Circumstances varied, but in the majority of cases, the perpetrators killed police to steal their firearms.
“The criminal sees the policeman not as a figure of authority, but as an equal, and he doesn’t respect his equals,” Elisio Guzmán, Miranda State police (Polimiranda) chief, with 40 years in the force, told the PanAm Post.
“Killing a state official gives the criminal prestige within his criminal gang, and also the chance to easily obtain a firearm.”
On January 9, the security camera in a shopping center captured the moment when a uniformed Polimiranda officer entered a bakery and was attacked by a criminal at his side. The perpetrator shot him and stole his regulation firearm. The victim was 49-year-old Detective Supervisor Álvaro Blanco Escobar.
His 20 years as a police officer weren’t enough to avoid becoming another victim of criminals. His attacker saw that Escobar had temporarily dropped his guard, and viewed it as a chance to get another firearm. Without any hesitation, he shot Escobar in the head, and took the gun from his belt the second he fell to the floor.
Just Another Statistic
The killing of police officers in Caracas has increased at pace with rising crime levels. In 2010, 59 officers were killed, rising to 84 in 2011, and 106 in 2012. The figure fell slight to 100 in 2013, but then rose to a record 132 in 2014. In other words, police killings have risen by 124 percent in the past four years.
“In Venezuela, the death of a police officer is just another statistic,” says Javier Gorriño, a lawyer and former head of the now-defunct Technical Judicial Police (PTJ). “When something similar happens in other countries, the authorities announce it, there’s justice, there are punishments for the criminals and a clear message to society about the importance of valuing and respecting authority.”
The expert argues that the limited effectiveness of criminal investigations results in sky-high levels of impunity for common crimes, directly encouraging increased police murders.
“The police officer is another member of society,” says Gorriño. “He’s just as exposed as the rest of Venezuelans, but he stands out more to the criminal because he’s also got a firearm. The criminal identifies him, and kills him almost without thinking, because he knows that if the officer identifies him first, he can use his gun first.”
And the trend goes beyond regular police. Venezuelan NGO the Foundation for Due Process reveals in its latest report that 388 members of various state security forces were murdered in 2014, while the same figure was 295 in 2013, representing an increase of 31 percent in only one year.
Where a Gun is Worth a Life
In Venezuela, restrictions have been in place on the sale of firearms since June 2010, with various additions restricting the ownership and personal possession of guns, as well as the kinds of ammunition available. But none of these measures have stemmed the rising tide of gun-related killings. Instead, killing police officers for their sidearms has become an even more lucrative option.
According to specialists consulted by thePanAm Post, the black market value of an automatic firearm, such as those issued to uniformed police, is between 60,000 and 80,000 bolívares. The value of an armed police officer’s life for a criminal is thus around US$400 at the black-market exchange rate.
“The policing profession in Venezuela has become less prestigious for various reasons,” says criminal lawyer Luis Izquiel.
“First, both criminals and society at large see the police officer as just another criminal, but with official credentials. Second, low salaries and precarious socioeconomic positions place officers among the same social strata as those who commit the crimes. And finally,” Izquiel concludes, “widespread impunity means that committing a crime in the country is increasingly easy, because there are no punishments.”
He adds that police academies should take several measures to reduce the risks faced by their officers. The lawyer suggests that by prohibiting officers from going out on patrol alone, and from going out wearing their uniform and firearm when off-duty, the probability of being surprised by criminals will be significantly reduced.
Thabata Molina is a Venezuelan journalist who specializes in security and criminal violence. Follow @Thabatica.
Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.