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Fighting Venezuelan Crime Is Top Priority for Chacao Mayor

By Alexandra Kalita
June 21, 2007

Event: Crime and Justice in Venezuela: The Current Situation and Proposals for Reform
Featuring: Leopoldo López, Mayor of Chacao municipality, Caracas

"We are investing in the wrong war," said Leopoldo López, the mayor of the Chacao, a municipality of Caracas. Although the Venezuelan government spends only one dollar on public safety for every 80 dollars spent on the military, more than 70 percent of Venezuelans site insecurity as their primary concern, with unemployment coming in second with only 10 percent of the population.

Venezuelans are facing the "shocking reality" that their country is a dangerous and violent place. "We have always looked [at] Colombia as our violent neighbor," said López. Venezuela today, however, has almost twice the number of homicides as Colombia, according to the official government statistics presented by López. Murders in Venezuela have increased by 133 percent since 1998, while homicides involving firearms have increased by 175 percent.

Despite increasing homicide rates and the public's mounting fears, crime is a "non-priority" for the Chávez government. President Chávez has portrayed public safety as a long-term goal that can be achieved over the course of generations by alleviating poverty and income inequality. "They are not directly related," argued López. Nicaragua's widely-lauded victory over crime "takes down the premise that to fight crime, income per capita must increase," he argued. Venezuela already has one of the highest income per capita levels in Latin America. "It is dangerous for the government to present excuses. There are no excuses," said López. "We believe that change can come about in Venezuela." He added that improvements could be made in the short term if the right policies were adopted.

López's plan for change, titled Plan 180, aims to reform institutions that sustain crime and injustice, such as the police force. López criticized the government for wasting time conducting a National Commission for Police Reform survey to find out what kind of police force Venezuelans want. What Venezuelans want is "obvious," said López, "a police force that "guarantees safety, does not kill Venezuelans and does its job," but they are not getting it. Homicides perpetrated by police officers have increased by 69 percent since 1998, according to the mayor's statistics, while just 1.8 percent of police officers are convicted and jailed for these crimes.

Although Plan 180 promises ambitious and rapid change, the mayor noted that the mano dura approach to tackling crime, adopted by some Latin American politicians, is "not the right approach either." Instead, López's plan focuses on prevention. Although crime is a problem that affects "all Venezuelans," the mayor said that it is felt most acutely by the poor, and that victims of homicides are overwhelmingly young males between the ages of 14 and 25. "Crime may be profitable, attractive… we need to present alternatives: sports, culture, study, occupation," said López.

Positive alternatives are the key to political change in Venezuela, believes López, who is a member of the leading opposition coalition. He hopes that a new opposition mindset will emerge in Venezuela, one that will not only express "concern over what the government is doing, but concern itself with what a government should be doing." Once citizens are presented with an alternative vision, he hopes they will "gather around to create a new majority." He cited the recent student protests against the closing of RCTV as "good news" for those who want a fresh political debate. "For the first time the issue is not about the president. It's about the values-democracy, freedom of expression, liberty-that we as Venezuelans want to defend."

Click here for more information on López's Plan 180.