The Venezuelan government last week announced the launch of the ‘Operation Liberation of the People’ (OLP), a plan to fight organised crime. The plan has so far involved raids on suspected criminal safe houses, mostly in Caracas. While its launch shows that the government is aware of public concerns about crime, its implementation suggests that the government is more concerned with garnering headlines and political capital ahead of legislative elections in December than achieving lasting reductions in levels of crime.

The government’s proven inability to tackle crime means that this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Although the government no longer publishes crime statistics, independent sources suggests that the incidence of crime has increased over the past five years. The NGO Venezuela Violence Observatory estimates that the country had the second highest murder rate globally in 2014, with 82 per 100,000 inhabitants, an increase from 79 in 2013.

Last week, security forces conducted raids in Caracas as well as in Aragua state, targeting groups involved in extortion, kidnapping and drug trafficking. In the most widely-publicised raid in the Cota 905 area of Caracas last Monday, approximately 200 officers, supported by tanks and helicopters, arrested 134 people. BBC Mundo reported that at least 14 people died in the operation, and the interior minister later announced that 32 of those arrested were foreign and had ‘links to paramilitary groups’.

Although the raid made headlines for the government, not least because national broadcasters were there to film it, the effectiveness of the raids – and of the wider anti-crime operation – remains uncertain. Respected criminologist Luis Izquiel highlighted that of the 134 people arrested in Cota 905, only 19 have been charged. Tellingly, the government has not divulged this figure. In another raid, over 1,000 officers were used to arrest three criminals in Aragua state. Based on these returns, investment into conducting raids far exceeds the resources put into intelligence gathering.

Ahead of legislative elections scheduled for 6 December, the operation reflects the significance of crime on the national political agenda. Results from the independent polling organisation Datanalisis in May stated that insecurity was second on participants’ list of concerns, after food shortages. At a protest in the Catias area of Caracas yesterday, sparked by the murder of a bus driver on Sunday, one resident told TV state NTN24 that they live ‘under a curfew because of criminals’. The high-profile of the raids as parts of OLP means that the government can claim that it is being tough on crime.

But the current operation appears to lack a long-term strategy. The government has not said what – if any – law enforcement structures will be established after the police have ‘liberated’ neighbourhoods. This carries the danger that new criminal organisations will be able to fill power vacuums left by raids. This lack of a coordinated strategy and the continued existence of ‘peace zones’, which provide a safe haven for criminals, means that it is unlikely to reduce the incidence of crime throughout Venezuela in the long term.

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Image: PA