The abduction of Washington Nationals’ catcher Wilson Ramos will come as a shock to his fans in Washington. But it won’t surprise many of his fellow countrymen in Venezuela.
The South American country is known for the flamboyant anti-Americanism and “21st-century socialism” of its authoritarian president, Hugo Chavez. Less known is the fact that, under Chavez, Venezuela has become the crime capital of the Western hemisphere.
According to the Associated Press, 618 kidnappings were reported in 2009, and the numbers have grown rapidly since then. But even more remarkable is Venezuela’s murder rate: Estimated at 60 per 100,000, it is more than double that of Colombia, which used to be renowned for its violence. The number of people killed violently in Venezuela since 2007 stands at more than 60,000 — more than in Mexico, with its drug wars.
This year Chavez’s country is on track to record more than 19,000 homicides, compared with 4,550 in 1998, the year before he took office. By way of comparison, Iraq has so far recorded 3,200 violent deaths of civilians so far this year, according to Iraq Body Count.
Caracas may be the most violent city in the world. At more than 200 murders per 100,000 population each year, it exceeds even Ciudad Juarez, the free-fire zone for drug traffickers on the U.S.-Mexican border. Ramos was taken from his home outside the central city of Valencia.
All these numbers are estimates, by the way. Chavez’s government stopped reporting crime figures in 2005. A non-government group called the Venezuela Observatory of Violence stepped up and has been trying to keep statistics. Many experts believe its numbers are likely understated, since many Venezuelans no longer bother to report crimes.
What explains the bloodbath? Chavez has welcomed criminals and drug traffickers to his country, including the FARC terrorist group of Colombia. The Venezuela armed forces have become deeply involved in drug trafficking: Hundreds of flights carrying cocaine now depart from Venezuela to Central America every month.
Meanwhile, Chavez has stripped funding from local police departments in Caracas and other big cities with mayors who are political opponents. In some cases he has disarmed police forces, because he is worried about any armed force he does not personally control.
Venezuela’s squalid prisons have become crime centers, controlled by by the prisoners themselves. An attempt by security forces to retake control of one big complex outside of Caracas last June triggered a month-long conflict in which at least 22 people were killed.
The horrific crime problem is one reason Venezuelans are turning against Chavez, whose approval ratings fell below 50 percent before a recent bout with cancer. Wilson Ramos is just one more victim.