On Venezuelan police being killed for their weapons

| Feb. 15, 2015 | Caracas, Venezuela

Featured on RTÉ World Report

In a grainy video, Venezuelan policeman Álvaro Blanco stands at the counter of a bakery just an hour outside Caracas. The 49-year-old is about to buy breakfast.

As he does so, a teenager moves a few feet behind him and raises a gun to the policeman’s head. Alvaro is unaware that he is about to be shot at point blank range. As he falls backwards, dead, the youngster grabs the policeman’s gun from his holster and flees.

Alvaro had a wife and two sons. They were aged 19 and 10.

That 48-second video, which was filmed early January, went viral recently in Venezuela, one of the world’s most deadly countries. Here, officers are being killed at a rate of roughly one every single day. Often, like Alvaro, for their weapons.

I watched the video on a mobile phone belonging to one of Alvaro’s colleagues in the back of a police car one Friday night. We were driving through Petare, a huge slum in the east of Caracas.

“The fashion now is to kill police officers for our weapons,” Manuel Ángel told me as we drove through the dirt streets. “I’ve seen officers killed. They are my partners, my friends.”

Manuel is 43-years old and has a wife and 10-year-old son. He has worked as a police officer for 19 years. His wife, he says, begs him every day to quit his job.

Policing Caracas’ slums is perhaps one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. And the money does not make up for it. Thanks to the country’s economic problems, the cops earn under the equivalent of less than twenty euros a month.

The government does not regularly give crime figures but local NGOs believe the country has the world’s second highest murder rate, after Honduras.

One of the major problems is impunity. Nationwide, only 8% of crimes are solved.

Even if criminals do end up incarcerated, prisons in Venezuela are severely overcrowded and dangerous. I was inside one a few years ago and saw inmates wielding machine guns, rifles and grenades. Those who enter the prisons will undoubtedly leave hardened to a life of crime.

The dirt streets of Petare, covered in mounds of trash spilling across into rickety houses, are packed with people drinking, taking drugs and fighting. Music blares from giant speakers facing the streets.

Few have hopes or aspirations beyond a life of crime. For just a couple of hundred euros, they can buy a gun like those that are standard issue for the police here.

“Practically every kid here above the age of 13 wants a gun,” Manuel told me. “They love to kill people. This is the culture. To be a thug is what they aim to be.”

And worryingly, the criminals are much better armed than the police.

“We only have pistols to fight these organized gangs,” Manuel said after frisking a group he told me were known to the police for firing across the slum at rival groups in an effort to control drug turf.

“They have rifles, machine guns, grenades — weapons of war. And we just have this pistol!”

The government has launched some 20 anti-crime initiatives since former President Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. Yet, they have made little difference on the ground.

Officer José Albornóz was driving. He is 30 and has been in the police 12 years. Around a decade ago, he was shot in the leg while on duty.

“I feel like I’m a soldier at war,” he told me. “Every time I put my uniform on, I know I’m in danger”

For World Report, this is Girish Gupta in Caracas, Venezuela