Latin American leaders don’t know how to stop their violent-crime epidemic, but they sure know how to spin it.
Former Miss Venezuela and telenovela star Mónica Spear and her ex-husband were murdered Monday night during a botched highway robbery near Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. Their 5-year-old daughter was shot, too, but survived. As the shocking news spread throughout Venezuela and then Miami, where Spear often lived and worked, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro hit a spin cycle I’ve seen countless other presidentes employ after high-profile homicides.
Maduro asserted that Spear’s killing didn’t look like the random, bloodthirsty banditry that has saddled oil-rich Venezuela with South America’s highest murder rate. Instead, he suggested it was a “sicariato,” a planned assassination. Maduro said he’d “asked police leaders about every detail," but unfortunately he didn’t offer any.
That's probably because there aren’t any details of a sicariato to offer. Seven gang suspects have been arrested in the horrific Spear murders, but all evidence so far points to, well, random, bloodthirsty banditry – and that’s exactly what Maduro wants to obscure.
Maduro has proven a less-than-competent head of state. But he did learn the art of deflection from his late mentor, left-wing firebrand Hugo Chávez. And he’s used it effectively by blaming Venezuela’s economic crises on a “right-wing conspiracy” instead of socialist mismanagement.
Now he’s bringing that instinct to Venezuela’s criminal chaos. Maduro knows that voters will be more outraged if a popular celebrity like Spear turns out to be the victim of an indiscriminate mayhem their government seems helpless to check. But they’re apt to be less so if they think the crime was a coldly calculated hit – a treacherous plot that authorities have less control over.
It's politically useful, in other words, to frame Spear’s murder as a sort of sedition, an attack against the state as well as the citizenry. It helps steer that citizenry’s mind away from the fact that since the Chavista regime took power 15 years ago, Venezuela’s homicide rate has risen 140 percent, according to one estimate – and that 92 percent of those murders never result in arrests let along convictions.
Just before the last presidential election Chávez won, in 2012, I spoke with Luz Marina Morón, who lives in the Caracas barrio of Catia, considered a cradle of the Chavista movement. Morón, a nurse, had seen a brother-in-law, a niece and her son – who was shot in the face by a gangbanger who wanted his New Balance tennis shoes – murdered on Catia’s streets. No one has spent a day in jail for those separate killings.
She voted for Chávez’s opponent as a result – and Maduro is all too aware that exasperated defections like hers were a big reason he almost lost last April’s special election to succeed Chávez.
It’s why he recently trotted his security minister out to claim, with little supporting data, that Venezuela’s murder rate last year was 39 per 100,000 persons instead of the 79 per 100,000 that an independent crime-watch think tank has recorded. The latter figure might be high; but to most observers the low official number seems as delusional as Maduro’s implication that the Spear atrocity was some sort of conspiracy.
But that obfuscation serves a larger purpose, not just for Maduro but for other leaders in Latin America – whose violent crime stats make it arguably the world’s most dangerous region today. (Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, almost 90 per 1000,000 people, while the world’s 10 most violent cities are all in Latin America.)
It helps them hide the fact that they 're still unable or unwilling (or both) to build the police and judicial institutions – the basic rule of law – that rein in rampant criminality.
That’s especially true in Venezuela, where Chavismo’s authoritarianism has smothered democratic institutions from courts to legislatures to mayoral offices. Yet it’s a sad reality region-wide. During the darkest days of Mexico’s drug war, which has seen some 60,000 gangland murders since 2006, then President Felipe Calderón’s own deflective spin was his mantra that the victims were just criminals.
That isn’t true: The narco-carnage has claimed thousands of innocent lives, too. But even if it were, are Mexicans supposed to feel better knowing that so many of their countrymen prefer to be cartel mafiosi?
Calderón, a conservative who left office in 2012, was simply trying to shroud Mexico’s own institutional nakedness. He couldn’t, and neither can Maduro – no matter how many conspiracies he conjures.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverarge here.