The three gangbangers are holed up in a small hut deep in the lush overgrowth of San Casimiro, a town two hours south of Caracas – and they’ll be there for the foreseeable future. They’re in hiding after a shootout days earlier back in their home barrio of Antímano, one of the hillside slums located above the Venezuelan capital, scared of retaliation from rival gang members. “If someone does something crazy, commits a massacre or kills someone with a couple shots to the head, the others see that as an example to beat,” says one of the men, Kevin, 25, showing me a fresh, undressed bullet wound in his left thigh after I was introduced to these malandros, or thugs, by a friend of theirs from Antímano.
Kevin’s preferred pastime, however, is to head down to wealthy Caracas neighborhoods, where “everyone has a BlackBerry” and push a pistol into his victims’ sides. “I’ll ask for their phone and money,” he says. “They ask me not to kill them. If they co-operate, they’ll be fine. Sometimes they say no, so boom!”
Ask anyone who walks Venezuela’s streets – fans or foes of socialist President Hugo Chávez – about the biggest problem the country faces, and the answer will almost always be insecurity. Mushrooming violent crime, from robbery to kidnapping to murder, is arguably the number one issue as Venezuela prepares for its Oct. 7 presidential election. By some estimates, Venezuela’s homicide rate today is as much as four times what it was in 1998, when Chávez, who has been in power 13 years, was first elected. Both Chávez 58, and his centrist opposition challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, 40, the Governor of Miranda state adjoining Caracas, have acknowledged the crisis at their campaign rallies this year. But Chávez is most vulnerable. After he recently shed tears lamenting that his presidential fame doesn’t let him roam Venezuela as freely as he’d like, Capriles hit back asking, “Who cries for the mothers mourning their children killed by violence?”
Armed robberies like Kevin’s, often in broad daylight, are a daily, frequent occurrence in Caracas’ poor and affluent districts alike. In barrios like Antímano, gang firefights are routine; Kevin’s cousin was killed in one. “I somehow knew that one day I’d take a gun to get revenge,” Kevin says, displaying his $500 revolver. Despite the fact that Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, is awash in petro-cash, its police forces are too understaffed, undertrained and underequipped to confront the weapons caches in the slums,where gangsters are fueled by drugs, alcohol and, perhaps worse, a lack of anything else to do. For all his malandro bravado, Kevin admits, “I want nothing more than to get out of the slums. The violence will only get worse and the police do nothing. It’s anarchy.”
Statistics back him up. Not that much if any data comes from the Chávez government, which has increasingly tried to minimize the problem or even “create a new reality,” says Roberto Briceño-León, director of the independent Venezuela Violence Observatory (OVV) in Caracas. Venezuelan officials refused repeated TIME requests for interviews and figures. Briceño-León, meanwhile, has been collating and analyzing numbers since 2005, the year authorities simply stopped providing their own. In the first six months of this year alone, he says, Venezuela saw 10,456 murders, which means “a conservative estimate” of “more than 20,000 [for all of] 2012.” That would equal a rate of more than 50 a day, or about 67 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in Latin America and the world. The 2011 rate in Mexico, which has been ravaged by a bloody drug-cartel war, was about 24.
Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek el Aissami insists the figure is closer to 50 per 100,000, but that still paints a damning picture of Chávez’s tenure. And a key factor, as it is in the rest of the region, is impunity. For every 100 murders in Venezuela today, says Briceño-León, the country makes fewer than 10 arrests. Even so, Venezuela’s prisons are severely overcrowded and void of anything resembling corrections or rehabilitation. The arsenals inside them, including the machine guns, rifles and grenades I saw in the recently closed La Planta jail in Caracas, leave their walls scorched and pockmarked with bullet holes. Prison guards usually don’t dare enter them. “If the guards mess with us, we shoot them,” one La Planta inmate told me when I visited. Inmates convicted of lesser crimes usually leave much more hardened criminals than when they arrived.
Chávez has finally begun to respond. He outlawed gun sales in Venezuela this year and created a new social project, the Grand Mission for All Venezuela, aimed at pulling youths out of poverty and street life. Sceptics like Briceño-León, however, fear it will be little more than an election-year political gesture. Just as important, Chávez has called for a reformed national police force to be developed in a newly inaugurated law enforcement academy – a recognition that Venezuela’s cops are often a big part of the criminal plague, as I witnessed recently in Caracas’s Petare slum. Beneath the corrugated-tin roofs on a recent Friday night, an officer punched a suspected criminal while a colleague zapped him with a small stun gun. “You think you’re a malandro,” the first cop screamed at the teen delinquent’s face. “I’m more a malandro than you.”