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Will Venezuela's violence undo Chávez, or save him?

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Miraflores Presidential Office/AP

(Read caption) In this photo, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, center, attends a military ceremony at Fuerte Tiuna in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, July 8.

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InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Hannah Stone's research here.

Violence is becoming a focal point for Venezuela's upcoming presidential elections, with the government and opposition competing to promise security to voters, amid warnings that a defeat for President Chávez could unleash fresh conflict.

Days after the official launch of the government’s new security plan, which promises security to all Venezuelans, Caracas saw its most violent weekend of the year, with 64 murders. The capital has become the most dangerous city in South America, with homicides shooting up to 108 per 100,000 last year, while the country as a whole saw its most violent year ever.

The story of one of those killed on the weekend of June 23-24 gives an indication of the petty and indiscriminate nature of much of the violence. As El Universal reported, Yoiz Valor Rebolledo was 23 years old. He had moved from Caracas six months before to seek a better quality of life, working as a taxi driver in a city in the interior [of the country]. He returned to the capital on Friday, with his pregnant girlfriend, to visit his mother. Returning from a party early Saturday morning he was stopped at a traffic light and shot dead. The killers stole his motorbike, wallet, and shoes.

Valor is just one of the thousands murdered in Caracas each year, nearly three-quarters of them men aged 15-44, and the vast majority killed with firearms. A large proportion of the violence is a product of poverty and lawlessness, with robbery cited as the reason for a quarter of killings in the capital last year, while some is attributed to politicized armed groups, and to the proliferation of firearms in the country. The numbers have only increased this year – the number of violent deaths in the capital was up more than 11 percent in the first five months of 2012 compared to the same period the previous year to some 2,178, 80 percent of which are estimated to be murders.

All this killing is becoming a key issue for October’s presidential election, closely fought between President Hugo Chávez, who has been in power nearly 14 years, and Henrique Capriles, candidate of the opposition coalition MUD. Both have scrambled to promise security to voters. Just days before the bloody weekend which saw Valor and 63 others murdered, Chávez launched his new security plan. He acknowledged that the problem of violence was serious, and set out a broad scheme including weapons controls, police reform, and social programs to give more opportunities to young people. Meanwhile Capriles has framed the campaign as a choice between "life," offered by the opposition, and the "death" represented by Chávez's failing security policies, as the Associated Press noted in a recent report.

The election could itself unleash more violence and turbulence in the country. International Crisis Group released a report last week which warned that, as the election approaches, “upheaval, even a violent political crisis, remain dangerous possibilities.” The greatest threat to stability is if the ruling party is faced with defeat, either through Chávez's failing health or the results of the election, according to Crisis Group. There are many members of the establishment who could be extremely resistant to leaving power, as the face losing out on their financial interests, or even being prosecuted for drug trafficking, notes the report.

The danger of a violent political crisis is exacerbated by the already high level of violence in the country. Crisis Group points to two of the main factors behind the high murder rate – the widespread availability of guns, and existence of pro-goverment armed groups – as worsening the risk of instability. These armed groups take two forms, according to the report; organizations known as "colectivos," mostly based in Caracas, and the militias, set up by Chávez in 2005, and consisting of tens of thousands of citizens who are supposed to be the fifth component of the armed forces. The colectivos were highlighted as a main driver of violence by the Metropolitan Observatory on Citizen Security (OMSC) earlier this year, which said that these groups control some areas of the capital as "micro-states," refusing to let police enter. Crisis Group warns that, should the election go against them, these colectivos could foment violence either independently or on behalf of the government.

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There have already been "sparks" of violence on the campaign trial, as Crisis Group sets out. Shots were fired at a Capriles campaign rally in a pro-Chávez neighborhood of Caracas on March 4, wounding two of his supporters. Meanwhile the candidate has been warned not to enter the 23 de Enero district of the capital, a heartland of the colectivos.

The thrust of Crisis Group’s argument is that it’s not clear how the country’s weakened institutions would manage a change of government, given Chávez’s highly personalized style of wielding power. The report says that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) might not be able to hold together in the absence of its charismatic leader, if Chávez’s health worsens and he is not able to govern. The president has always avoided anointing a successor, and even now his actions seem designed to avoid anyone rising up as a possible replacement. He appointed Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Vice President Elias Jaua as candidates for governor in opposition-held states, making their positions less stable, and has reportedly prevented the rise of PSUV politicians with strong local backing as governors, says Crisis Group.

Despite the opposition's efforts to attack Chávez via the issue of insecurity, it's not clear that this will seriously dent his support, as Crisis Group points out, given the president’s ability to connect with the population and to keep himself removed from day-to-day problems of governance. It remains to be seen if violence in Venezuela will prompt a change in government – or prevent one.

–  Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.


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