In a Brutal Year in Venezuela, Even Crime Fighters Are Killers


Killings in Venezuela have risen to 28,479 this year,
the highest number ever recorded in the country, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an independent group that tracks violence.

Armed gangs have established a tight grip over neighborhoods, with many Venezuelans turning to crime as inflation shrivels their wages and jobs become harder to find.
Some of these armed groups were once anchors of government support in the barrios. These so-called colectivos started as community groups and were eventually armed by members of President Hugo Chávez’s movement, enabling their rise as militant defenders of the government.

But after Mr. Chávez died in 2013 and Venezuela’s economy began to spiral downward, some of his loyal street enforcers increasingly turned to crime, breaking with the government and joining a constellation of armed groups that kidnap, steal and kill.

In a bid to restore order, the government has turned to the institution it trusts the most: the military. Throughout the country, the armed forces have become Venezuela’s law keepers, engaging in commando-style raids that sometimes take on the profile of urban warfare.
“It has become more militaristic and more repressive,” Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan political scientist, said. “Anyone can be caught.”

Ms. López said that the victims of the crackdowns were often the impoverished civilians who needed protection the most, and that the violence was a reflection of the severity of Venezuela’s decline.
“We are walking on the path to a failed state,” she said. “It will come to a point where no one is in control.”

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