Venezuela's Dystopian Crime Problem

A city landfill is on fire. Fire fighters rush to the scene, and when they arrive they find several squatters living amidst the garbage. When the firemen rescue them and begin to put the flames out, the squatters, members of a local mob, rob them at gunpoint.

This dystopian scene is not fiction. It happened a few days ago in the Venezuelan tourist island of Margarita.

When the fire in the El Piache landfill began a few days ago, firefighters rushed to the scene. After the ungrateful welcome they received, they are now hesitant about returning -- for fear of their lives. Authorities are afraid the fire may grow out of control, and engulf nearby populations.

Sadly, these kinds of stories have become common in Venezuela, a country overrun by crime.

Venezuela ranks at the top of most crime statistics. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, its murder rate is the highest in South America, the deadliest continent in the world. Local NGO Provea -- the government stopped publishing official crime statistics years ago -- estimates that in 2011, there were 75 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. This figure is three times higher than that of Mexico, a country that is immersed in an all-consuming drug war. There are hundreds of kidnappings per year in Venezuela. And, according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (VOV), at least one police officer is shot and killed each day.

Nobody is immune from the violence, as it hits poor and rich alike.

Just a few days ago, Julián Cumplido, an accountant in a local publishing house, was driving his SUV through downtown Caracas. A group of men in a motorcycle shot and killed him while he was talking on the phone. Nothing was stolen, so authorities suspect it was a contract killing. According to the VOV, 36 percent of Venezuelans believe hiring someone to commit a murder is "easy."

A few days later, Jean Piero Bravo, a 33-year-old baker, was shot and killed at 7 p.m. in front of a shopping mall in a poor section of Caracas. The burglars took his phone and ninety dollars in local currency. Bravo's story has become more common. It used to be that shopping malls and other heavily guarded areas were safe from the crime wave. However, the local Caracas press is reporting an increase in armed robberies inside shopping malls, particularly focused on jewelry and cell phone stores.

Not even the dead are safe from the crime wave. In the past few years, Venezuelans have increasingly turned to strange shamanic rituals, some of which sometimes involve human body parts. A few days ago, a band of tomb raiders was discovered. According to authorities, they confessed that a human skull for these rituals costs a paltry ten dollars.

Venezuelans blame the crime wave on an increasing state of lawlessness. Police forces are overrun, but more likely they seem to be part of the problem. President Nicolás Maduro himself has said that police officers are responsible for "90 percent" of the kidnappings in Caracas -- although he made the point to state that the criminal police officers belong to the Miranda state government, headed by Maduro's main rival, Henrique Capriles.

This suggests another severe problem: the excessive politicization of the judiciary. The government does not seem to be interested in prosecuting common criminals nearly as much as it is seeking to put opposition leaders behind bars. Just this week, the prosecutor general -- a loyal chavista -- announced that charges would be filed against an opposition lawmaker.

The spike in crime coincided with Venezuela becoming one of the main traffic points for illegal drugs headed for the United States and, mainly, to Europe. Venezuela is not an important drug producer, but it has become an important transit route. Only a few days ago, France seized an enormous haul of cocaine that was shipped in unmarked suitcases in the hull of a Caracas-Paris Air France flight. While the seemingly embarrassed government has charged several people with drug trafficking charges, members of the military and other high-ranking officials have been spared. It is highly unlikely the three tons of cocaine could have been shipped without complicity from someone high up.

Public opinion polls show that crime is Venezuelans's main concern, although not everyone blames the government. Still, the Maduro administration has announced plans to militarize certain areas with the hope of bringing crime rates down. It has even blamed video games for the surge, and moved to ban them. Meanwhile, common sense policies such as the disarmament of civilians and improving public spaces have not been implemented.

A few years ago, former mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York and his former chief of police, William Bratton, were hired to solve Caracas' crime problems. They suggested a number of common sense measures, but were never taken seriously. In the years since, the problem has only gotten worse. Fueling Venezuelans' sense of despair, it would seem as if there is no end in sight for the country's death spiral.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, co-editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.



On Top of Everything Else, Now Libya Has a Corruption Scandal to Worry About

For the last two months, Libya has faced its worst oil crisis since the 2011 uprising. Ever since the Petroleum Facilities Guard units in Cyrenaica accused government officials of corruption in oil sale deals, crude oil exports have shuddered to a halt. These claims were magnified by the news, revealed in September, that officials in Tripoli had bribed the federalists to give up on their demands. But rather than yield to the government's offer, the federalists chose to expose the government's "corrupt practices," which are now being linked to Prime Minister Ali Zeidan himself.

In August, supporters of the 1951 constitution's decentralized, federalist state declared themselves in control of the Cyrenaica region, which includes approximately 60 percent of Libya's oil resources. They announced that they were shutting down all the oil terminals in eastern Libya, effectively holding the government in Tripoli ransom by depriving it of essential revenues. The head of the federalist group, an ex-revolutionary commander and former head of Cyrenaica's Oil Facilities Guard named Ibrahim Jathran, immediately launched a charm offensive in eastern Libya to foster support for his cause. Jathran insists that the central government is complicit in the oil sector's widespread corruption, and backs his claims with tangible evidence such as official documents and recorded statements from officials. He's refused the government's repeated demands to reopen the oil terminals, insisting that they first conduct a transparent and independent investigation.

In a recent victory, Jathran was able to trick government officials to offer bribes to end the conflict by luring them into unannounced negotiations. The head of the General National Congress (GNC) energy committee, Naji Mokhtar -- who is also an owner of several petrol stations in Libya -- offered Jathran up to 30 million Libyan dinars (more than $23 million) in both cash and authorized checks.

Jathran exposed the plot during a press conference on Sept. 23, just a few hours after he'd secured all the evidence he needed, including bank transfer receipts and the checks signed by Mokhtar. The announcement sent shockwaves throughout Libya and prompted a quick response from Mokhtar, who denied Jathran's claims that he made any payments -- only to come clean in a TV appearance less than 48 hours later, saying he had acted in an individual capacity and out of good will. The federalists have challenged his claims, insisting that Prime Minister Zeidan (pictured above) authorized Mokhtar's actions and deposited the required funds into his accounts so Mokhtar could act on his behalf.

Indeed, after Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's brief abduction earlier this month, his opponents claimed to have evidence that implicates Zeidan in the bribes scandal. The evidence showed documents by which the prime minister authorized payments to Jathran and his men. However, the public prosecutor refused to make a statement on the subject, insisting that investigations are continuing, and that the government would only comment on it once the investigations conclude.

In a press conference this past Sunday, the prime minister stated he had knowledge of the payment to Jathran, but claimed the payment was a gesture of goodwill in order for Jathran to withdraw his men from the oil terminals and handover their weapons.

Despite this assertion, Libyan media and activists are raising questions about whether the authorities were actually attempting to cover up the real and existing corruption Jathran sought to expose. Further, the incident begs an important question: how many other "goodwill" payments have the authorities made? This bribery incident has raised fears that, instead of spending money on much-needed development, the authorities are throwing money at any problem they don't want to address. In the two years since Qaddafi's fall, Libya has had two budgets totaling more than 114 billion Libyan dinars -- yet there's been no visible improvement in conditions on the ground. No one has been able to explain convincingly how the money was spent, abetting rumors of widespread corruption and the mismanagement of public money.

Lawmakers launched an investigation immediately after Jathran's press conference and referred the matter to the public prosecutor. In one of the hearing sessions, GNC President Nuri Abusahmain presented evidence that Mokhtar's personal account was indeed accredited with 3.7 million Libyan dinars by an official government account, which would have required the authorization or at least the knowledge of the prime minister himself. Shortly after this transaction, Naji Mokhtar deposited 2.5 million dinars into Jathran's bank account. These details have now been corroborated by the prime minister himself, but he continues to insists that this was not a bribe, but rather a gesture of goodwill.

Many in Libya, however, are skeptical about government-sanctioned investigations, which are often deployed to absorb public anger. Dozens of continuing investigations related to assassinations, kidnappings, and administrative irregularities have yet to conclude; some have been stretched over more than two years. All of this is leading the public to question whether the government is truly willing to be transparent and fight corruption. Naji Mokhtar and those who facilitated his actions could face up to three years in prison, yet Mokhtar continues to participate in GNC sessions.

Failure of the government to address the closure of the oil terminals has led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reevaluate the performance of the Libyan economy, projecting that Libya's GDP will contract by 5.1 percent in 2013 after previously projecting growth of over 20 percent. Zeidan's government promised to make serious efforts to enhance transparency and fight corruption, but these promises are yet to translate into real action on the ground. In January 2013, a few months after Zeidan's appointment as prime minister, the government stopped publishing information about its oil sales deals and revenues, which was considered a huge setback for transparency in post revolution Libya. These recent events have galvanized public support for Jathran's cause and weakened support for the government in eastern Libya. The lack of official transparency seems to have affirmed the claims of widespread corruption, reinforcing a public sentiment that could be summed up as follows: "Better to keep the oil under the ground than see the revenues wasted."

The government and the GNC need to start practicing what they preach and honor their promises of transparency and accountability. If government officials aren't held accountable for committing punishable criminal offenses, it's hard to expect ordinary citizens to trust the government and its efforts to complete Libya's democratic transition. This culture of impunity not only undermines the effectiveness of the democratic process, but could also pave the way for undemocratic forces to dominate the scene.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.