A recent report in The Economist noted that Caracas, Venezuela, is now one of the world’s most violent cities, with an official murder rate of 130 homicides for every 100,000 residents. The Venezuelan think tank Incosec suggests that the real rate is even higher—a staggering 166 per 100,000, or triple the rate in 1999, when President Hugo Chávez took office. It didn’t have to be this way. From 2000 to early 2002, as members of the Bratton Group and in cooperation with the Manhattan Institute, we worked to improve public safety in Caracas. We were beginning to achieve promising results until Chávez undermined the project. Crime is now rampant, the mayor we worked with has gone into exile, the police chief sits in jail, and Chávez has barred a promising young reformer from running for mayor this fall.
We remember our days in Caracas as an exciting time. A new constitution had just granted the city autonomous status from the federal government, with the new Metropolitan Police to operate under mayoral control. Alfredo Peña, the new mayor, brought us in to help organize the force in accordance with the innovative policing ideas that had cut crime dramatically in the United States in the 1990s. Caracas hired new police officers and more than doubled starting salaries, trying to recruit better-educated cops and make corruption less tempting. The new police chief, Ivan Simonovis, was a veteran of the national investigative police, a relentless foe of police corruption, and a tireless crime fighter.
Our work sought to create a first-class police reform model in Catia, the impoverished, million-person barrio that reaches up hundreds of feet into the mountains west of the central city. We worked to break down the vast Catia police division into 12 community-based precincts, where we put some of the most promising and ambitious commanders. We trained a special cadre of local detectives who would investigate crime in the previously ignored barrio. Using New York City’s Compstat as a model, we established strategy meetings to hold commanders accountable and to track and reduce crime. In 18 months, the murder rate in Catia declined by one-third, and citizens’ perception of the police began to improve. Polls taken by independent groups measured the change. But we could also see it on the ground, as residents began showing up to help repair local police stations and form neighborhood watch groups.
We were getting ready to establish a second model in the city’s other great barrio, Petare, when politics reared its head. Chávez, apparently jealous of Mayor Peña’s success, held back critical funding that the national government owed Caracas for law enforcement. Graffiti appeared, suggesting that the Bratton Group was composed of CIA agents and telling us to go home. Pro-Chávez radicals in the Metropolitan Police sought to divide the force along political lines. Tensions came to a head in April 2002, when Chávez was briefly forced out of office, Caracas street protests turned violent, and 17 people died. By October, pro-Chávez cops had seized control of police headquarters, and the following month, Chávez sent in the military to take command of the force. Mayor Peña was driven from office and fled to Miami. Chief Simonovis was arrested in November 2004 on dubious charges; he remains in a Caracas jail to this day, his trial still dragging on. Needless to say, our consulting work ended.
Today, crime is the Number One public policy concern in Venezuela and the major issue in the upcoming local elections in November. Leopoldo López, the 37-year-old Harvard-educated, reform-minded mayor of Caracas’s Chacao district, had planned to run for mayor of the entire city, largely on a public-safety platform. Though we never worked for López, we met him and were impressed by his intelligence, energy, and insight. He understood that crime disproportionately affected the poor, and he went to great lengths to improve the Chacao police. He is immensely popular among all socioeconomic groups, having won a reelection bid in 2004 with 80 percent of the vote. As he has loomed as a rival to Chávez, there have been several attempts to assassinate him, including one attack in which his bodyguard died in his arms. And Chávez has blacklisted him on trumped-up corruption charges, along with 260 other opposition candidates, and barred him from participating in the elections.
What crime-afflicted cities like Caracas need are competent local leaders, ready to reform and redirect police efforts. This is what López could offer—and what Peña and Simonovis offered before him. Unfortunately, like all authoritarians, Chávez views independent, competent leaders as threats to his power. If the suffering people of Caracas have to pay the price, well, that’s politics, Chávez-style.