Crime and Class in Caracas

Security is the No. 1 issue in Venezuela’s Dec. 3 presidential election.

Central Command

CARACAS, Venezuela—It’s Friday night, and Detective Bultron Angel of the Chacao police is playing God. With 22 cameras placed in strategic locations throughout his district, Angel is capable of monitoring the human traffic of some of Venezuela’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Any emergency call to PoliChacao must first pass through his dispatch center, where one of six police officers immediately traces the incoming phone number, running it through a computerized map of the district detailed enough to contain the names of every apartment building and every apartment owner.

On the other side of the city, Inspector José Bonaldi of the Libertador Police sits behind his desk in the barely furnished Office of Citizen Security. According to the United Nations, Venezuela recently passed Brazil to claim the dubious honor of having the highest rate of gun-related violence in the world among nations not at war. Much of that crime takes place in the steep and densely packed barrios that decorate the city’s rolling hills, more than a few of which fall under Bonaldi’s jurisdiction.

To maintain the security of his municipality, Bonaldi has a single computer, and it’s currently being used by an off-duty police officer to watch a Jessica Simpson music video. Instead of a map of his district, the chipped plaster walls of Bonaldi’s office are decorated by a lonely profile of Jesus Christ wearing his crown of thorns, blood dripping from his hairline, eyes turned upward in divine expectation. “He who does not love,” quotes the poster, “hasn’t known God; because God is love.”

Lost in the media coverage of Venezuelan oil and Hugo Chávez’s colorful antics is the fact that over the last decade, Caracas has become a very dangerous place to live. Colombia might have the history, and Brazil might make splashier headlines, but Venezuela has quietly eclipsed both its neighbors in levels of violent street crime. Unlike Colombia’s narco-guerrillas or the heavily armed gangs in the favelas of Rio and São Paulo, crime in Caracas is indiscriminate; it has more to do with anarchy and the failure of infrastructure than it does organized, armed groups challenging the government’s monopoly on the use of force.

In September, the neighborhood of Petare was the setting for 34 murders in 48 hours. Polls consistently show that Chávez, up for re-election Dec. 3, is most vulnerable on the issue of security, and for good reason: For men between the ages of 15 and 25 living in Caracas, homicide is the leading cause of death.

Before we ride

Greater Caracas has a population just shy of 5 million, though only 180,000 live in the municipality of Chacao. Riding backseat with the PoliChacao on a recent Friday night, I was given a tour of some the most exclusive areas in the city. A prominent display of the district’s excess can be found in the neighborhood of El Country Club. A haven of palm trees, enormous mansions, and European embassies, El Country is a little bit of decadent suburbia nestled into the secret crevice of a concrete jungle.

It is theneighborhood of the country’s old guard, a symbol of the so-called oligarchy that governed the country for 40 years until Chávez’s election. Despite its lack of everyday hustle and bustle, the area is anything but relaxing. Metal gates, barbed wire, barking dogs, and brown-skinned men in white security uniforms are everywhere.

The PoliChacao pride themselves on their organization and professionalism. I approached my ride-along with a healthy dose of skepticism, a reaction, perhaps, to the PR officer seated alongside me all night. Still, what stood out the most on that Friday night was the coordination and planning that defined the patrol, a result that is hard to separate from the fact that the PoliChacao guard neighborhoods such as El Country.

The dispatch center is an efficient communications hub, and it allows the PoliChacao to closely monitor what goes on in their jurisdiction. When a pump at a local gas station sprang a major leak just before midnight, an entire city block was instantly shut down.  Later, a rowdy group of teenagers was reported drinking and blasting their car speakers outside one of the municipality’s few working-class neighborhoods. Our car was on the scene in minutes.

“What makes a difference in Chacao, certainly, is the training and the communication,” said Detective Alejandro Rojas, in whose car I rode all night. “We have the technology to be in touch with each other and to supervise the entire area. Of course it makes the job easier. We also don’t suffer much in the way of violent crime. We had six murders in 2005.”

The motorcycles used by the Libertador police bear little resemblance to the powerful and bulky bikes ridden by police in the United States. Climbing the steep and often narrow streets of the city’s hillside barrios requires something lighter and more flexible, a motorcycle that is more akin to a dirt bike than a patrol vehicle. Strapped to the back of one such bike, I joined a squadron of 20 motorcycles for a sweep of the Zea de Cochebarrio in southwest Caracas.

Ironically, the city’s poorest neighborhoods make for a hauntingly beautiful sight when seen from a distance. Shantytowns made of metal and concrete are stacked on top of each other like a house of cards. Many of the homes in the Caracas barrios have a single light bulb hanging over their front door. When seen from a distance, the sea of barrio lights appears to waver and twinkle. It is a staggeringly beautiful effect made possible by the gasses rising from the open refuse and sewage, a product of a dense concentration of people and poverty.

As the patrol pulled off the highway and into the barrio’s narrow entrance, the inhabitants immediately scattered. Riding toward the head of the pack, my bike stopped short when the driver spotted the first group of teenage boys. Like a well-rehearsed play, guns were drawn, legs were spread, and hands were pressed up against the nearest wall. These kids had done nothing to provoke the suspicions of the police, but that didn’t make any difference. They were detained for a good 15 minutes as their pockets were searched and their criminal records were checked. No one was arrested.

For roughly three hours, we swept through the entire barrio. There was no planning or intelligence involved, no probable cause was ever cited for stopping men at gunpoint and demanding identification. It was a demonstration of pure muscle, nothing more than a blunt show of force. When I asked one officer why he had thrown a passing vagrant onto the ground, handcuffed him, and searched the man’s pockets when his only crime had been to walk in front us, his answer was simple: “The man looked like a crackhead, didn’t he?”

Around 11:30, we left Zea de Coche and headed back to headquarters. To my surprise, the patrol was over. We had stopped 30 to 40 people but made just one arrest. As I dismounted, I wondered why the night had come to an end so soon.

“Don’t you guys need all your manpower on a Friday night?” I asked the officer who had been driving my bike. “You have 2 million people in this district.”

“Sure, we have police who stay on patrol all night in case of emergency, but who wants to do what we did all night?” he answered. “What’s the point?”