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Understanding the origin of public insecurity

by El Libertario, Venezuela Friday, Dec. 26, 2008 at 12:25 PM

* Article originally published in spanish language in El Libertario, Venezuela, # 54, September-October 2008, that analyzes and goes over the problem of criminal violence through its social impact on contemporary Venezuela.

Understanding the or...
insecurity-lib_54.gif, image/gif, 385x286

All opinion polls conducted in the country agree on one topic: the insecurity is the main problem for the citizens. The numbers of homicides and personal injuries place us, at present, as one of the most dangerous countries on the continent. This situation is particularly felt in the popular sectors, where there are areas with "curfews" imposed by the antisocial. Against this, the government response has been inefficient in dealing with the situation, prioritizing the repressive policies that has been amply demonstrated, are as inadequate as counterproductive.

Despite the magnitude and importance of citizen insecurity, a review of the available literature, as well as speeches by the various political actors, reveals another reality: the absolute incomprehension of the phenomenon. A strange consensus says that efforts should be emphasized in resizing the police. This orphan of vision and speech is particularly visible in the groups of bolivarianos, who reduced the edges of insecurity to the shirt of strength of the ideology. In contrast, the levels of violence experienced by the country lay bare and show our crisis as a society: the absence of a shared project and the absolute erosion of the economic and cultural model based on the oil revenues. An understanding of the different dimensions of the problem would then pave the different ways to reverse it. At the end of the year 2007, the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, an initiative coordinated by the Laboratory of Social Sciences (LACSO) of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), submitted a report which provides the most rigorous effort to understand the genesis of the issue and present figures about its reality. Following is a commented summary on the results found by the team, led by sociologist Roberto Briceño-Leon.

- Building a model for the understanding

On first place, and as the study makes it clear, urban violence is a global problem; that’s why it has become a subject of study by different national and multilateral agencies. The model used by the LACSO to explain violence in Latin America, valid to the Venezuelan case, has three levels. The first is structural in nature, dealing with macro social processes of long duration, being considered the one that houses the factors of the origin of the violence. At this high level are six factors: the rise of urban inequality of education and employment, as well as the increase of the social aspirations; the changes in the family structure and the loss of vigour of the Catholic religion as a factor of social control.

In Latin America the gap between rich and poor is the largest in the world. Unlike other continents, there is more poverty and more wealth at the same time, so there is greater inequality than if they were all rich (as in Europe) or all poor (as in Africa). During the 80s, it was a special increase of poverty in the urban areas of the continent. These cities have first offered a greater access to education than in rural areas, so despite the constraints, the numbers for the major Latin American cities showed that 86% of young people had completed their primary education. But this educational improvement has not been translated into better opportunities for their employment or to improve their living standards. The vague and inadequate integration into the society of this mass of school teenagers has been a major source of violence in the region. These young people who are outside the formal labour market have the same expectations than the others who are inside. Unlike previous generations, whose rural origin was transformed by the migration to the cities, young people today-the main victims and protagonists of violence- grew up in a world where the mass culture imposed on them targets of consumption. Therefore, in different social strata, there are similar expectations but there are different possibilities to fulfil them. The family, meanwhile, has weakened in its function of social control by the transformations it has suffered in recent decades. Among the principals of these transformations are the increase of families with a single father or mother and the fact that both must meet a workday away from home. One consequence of this situation is that young people should grow up in the street, available to professional criminals. Finally, religion has ceased to be an inhibiting force to violence, and the decline of its influence has not been replaced by a secular human moral that discourages murderer behaviour.

The second level of the explanatory model of violence is one of medium type in the body of society, with a less structural root than the previous one and where special situations contribute to increased violence by encouraging a kind of behaviour that exacerbates it. These situations are segregation and urban density, the market of drug traffic and the patriarchal culture of machismo.

The cities of Latin America grew up very slowly during the early years of the twentieth century, changing drastically in the middle of the 50s. The then rapid and unplanned urbanization generated a high density in the cities, motivating conflict and attacks because of the lack of space for proper development of life and creating territories of tortuous architecture, setting the path to the growth of criminal gangs. At a regional level, in Latin America, men suffer a rate five times higher for homicides than women. The culture of masculinity prevalent in the continent has favoured the violent actions and exposure to violence. This macho culture takes a special dimension during adolescence, a period in which it builds the identity of those who do not want to be the subject of ridicule and disrespect because of show an "inappropriate" behaviour. Thus, the culture of "respect", the recognition of manhood from his peers, becomes relevant, so the characteristic of "being violent" is a way to grow and to have recognition in that context. Ultimately, the market for drugs-far more than their own consumption- has proven to be a great catalyst for violence. The territorial control of the selling spaces, by the sellers, is the source of hundreds of victims on the continent. Moreover, this market brings another dark side: the chain of institutional justice, which is corrupted and neutralized by drug traffickers and promote impunity at all levels.

The third layer of violence is composed of the micro factors, found in the individual, that facilitate violent behaviours, making them more damaging and lethal, enable and empowering them. The first noted by the study is the increase of the possession of firearms in the population; it is estimated in Latin America the existence of between 45 and 89 million weapons in the hands of the civilian population. Secondly excessive consumption of alcohol, which acts as a liberator of inhibition, reducing barriers and repressions that culture has internalized in the individual. Finally a more subjective factor: the incapacity of verbal expression of the feelings. Those who can not express their discomfort with words (a weakness according to the macho culture of Latin America) express it with physical acts. In this way they implement to themselves a mechanism that substitutes their feelings and desires.

- The Venezuelan case

The violence was not a major public health problem in Venezuela until the end of the twentieth century. For several decades the rate of homicides ranged between six and ten deaths per hundred thousand inhabitants, occupying a discrete place in the ranking of violence in the continent. Most of the twentieth century was a period of Venezuelan social upward mobility and improvement of the health conditions of the population, where the dominant role in the economy was the growing oil revenues, that situation reversed in the early eighties, when the so-called "black Friday" opened a crisis extended until today. From this date the society as a whole became more poor, unstable and violent. In two decades homicides were multiplied by ten. In the early eighties the killings did not reach the 1,300 deaths annually. Twenty years later the figure reach up to 13,000 murders. For Briceño-Leon this is the period of the incubation of violence.

The election campaign of 1988 was build with a symbolic debate that sought to relive the years of plenty. Thus the contrast between the image of a populist and distributive candidate and a subsequent president who apply an economy of neo liberal type, led to the social revolt of February 27, 1989, known as the "Caracazo." Subsequently, another major rupture of the social pact were the attempts of coup d'etat of 1992, which, among other consequences, increased criminal violence to the figure of 16, 3 deaths per hundred thousand inhabitants. Between the coups of 1992 and the start of the government of Rafael Caldera, in 1994, the killings nearly double the amount in the country, bringing its rate to 22 victims per hundred thousand people. When, at this period, the barrier of the four thousand murders a year in the country has reached and passed, Venezuela was included in the studies of the Pan-American Health Organization on violence. While the period of President Dr. Caldera brings back some governance to the country, nothing would ever be like before.

In January 1998, during the next election campaign, 4550 murders were committed across the whole country. Six years later the figure was six times as much, 13,288 homicides. Of the 22 victims for every thousand people it rose to 55, an increase that can not be classified as a "normal tendency" or by chance. For researchers in LACSO, the political crisis of recent years has led to violence and, in the other part, the government has been ambiguous on attacking the problem. On the one hand, the presidential speech has suggested justifications for certain crimes, such as theft by necessity, but counterpart's policies have prioritized the punitive aspect. To this picture we need to add the different steps, taken at various levels, to minimize the problem and disguise the statistics. Although they are not the only indicator to take in mind, they do represent a figure to control the totality. During the years 2004 and 2005 authorities did not disclose the numbers of homicides occurred in the country, which is a violation of the right to information present in the Constitution, and hinders any work of social oversight of the public policies on citizen security.

In a context of political violence -symbolic, verbal and real- and the social polarization, gang violence and police violence will tend to increase. However, the dismantling of it all, must pay attention to their social origins and understand that their main breeding ground is poverty and inequality of the population. To live in peace and end violence we would require a real revolution.

[Translation: Julio Pacheco] (Spanish. English & other languages)

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