Crime wave

``What are all those little bright lights on the mountainside?'' asked the visitor on his first night in Caracas. ``Oh, Christmas decorations,'' answered the Venezuelan host, quickly changing the subject. Like the host, many Caraquenos would rather not notice the sprawling makeshift slums that ring the capital. But the bloodbath acted out every week under the bare light-bulbs of the barrios leaves little choice.

Caracas's 4m people have generated 200 killings a month this year, nearly all done with guns. There were 40 during the single weekend of October 15th and 16th. Official and public outrage ensued. But almost any weekend produces 20-30 such deaths to fill the capital's macabre Monday-morning crime pages: youths killed for their designer sports shoes; shoot-outs between rival drug gangs; muggings after payday.

A fierce rainstorm on October 22nd kept the city's already scared residents indoors and that weekend's queue at the morgue to just 15. Yet even that figure demonstrated disturbing rents in the social fabric: a crazed private security guard who shot dead a city-centre restaurant owner and waiter before killing himself; an 18-year-old who fired a bullet into his 15-year-old girlfriend's head; prisoners at a Caracas jail who doused a fellow inmate with petrol and set him alight.

President Rafael Caldera is said to have given his police chiefs 15 days to curb the crime wave. He must be an optimist. His justice minister says it will take years to turn a culture of repression into one of prevention. All sides are suddenly pointing fingers at the many culprits: crumbling education; rising drug trafficking and use; demoralised, underpaid and under-equipped police; brutal prisons, two-thirds of whose inmates are still awaiting trial - for an average of four years, thanks to court delays.

At least the issue is now out in the open: in a recent poll, 45% of respondents named crime as their chief concern, with the cost of living and unemployment only a distant second and third. But how to deal with it? They may be putting the cart before the horse. Most of the violence comes from young men, even boys, in the barrios. Around 60% of Caraquenos live in these slums. Many are people, or their children, who flocked in from the countryside - even from other countries - in the oil-boom days of the 1970s. Then, as a local saying puts it, life was ``easier than a low-hanging mango''. Not now. The economy has shrunk - as has the flow of state handouts.

The economic planning minister, Werner Corrales, says that Venezuela is sitting on a ``social bomb'': unemployment is officially running at 13.5%; half of all jobs are in the informal economy; real income has been falling for 17 years. Mr Corrales recently unveiled a plan that supposedly will turn around the ailing economy and improve the life of the average citizen. It had better work. The interior minister, Ramon Escovar Salom, calls the recent revival of gloomy forecasts of social revolt a ``tropical fantasy''. But the bloody riots of 1989, when unofficial estimates claim that 2,000 people died in the crackdown, are not far from many people's thoughts. Army officers are muttering about police incompetence. The governor of the Caracas federal district fears the stage could be set for vigilantes and death squads. May he be wrong.

The Economist, October 29, 1994