In August last year, the city’s citizens were shocked by a photo published in the ‘El Nacional’ newspaper showing the bodies of murder victims piling up in a city morgue. In the same week, a visiting Hong Kong baseball player was injured by a stray bullet during the Women’s World Cup and the tournament had to be relocated to a different city.
Gang warfare lies behind the high levels of violent crime in Venezuela. Last week, the Guardian’s Rory Carroll reported on the effects of the street gangs or ‘malandros’, groups of young men fighting over drugs and turf. The reporter visited the township of El Consejo, 60 kilometres east of the capital and home to around 50,000 people. With few jobs - some districts experience unemployment rates over 60 per cent – and poor education prospects, gang culture is endemic among the area’s teenage boys. Over the last eight months, several youngsters have been killed in shoot-outs after a seven year-old boy supposedly flicked a piece of popcorn or paper from a bus window. Fuelled by the drugs trade, such violence escalates quickly, especially since young boys have easy access to guns; there are thought to be around 15 million illegal weapons in the country.
A number of schemes have been introduced in Venezuela which offer boys an alternative to joining the street gangs. One scheme, "Boxeo Olimpico de Calle" (Olympic Boxing Street) is an initiative of several government institutions which encourages children to take part in the sport of boxing. As well as keeping them off the streets, the sport is seen as promoting discipline and respect. Last week, many youngsters took part in the Caracas boxing championship, which has fostered several boxing champions. The Venezuelan government also promotes youth orchestras and choirs as ways to help children resist gang life in a scheme simply called ‘The System’. Over 200 music schools are supported by the program, which the authorities hope will involve over a million children by 2012.
Even where teenagers have been sucked into a life of crime, Venezuela has spawned some successful initiatives to rehabilitate young men. Project Alcatraz is one such initiative. Begun in 2003 in the Revenga County of Aragua, 47 miles west of Caracas, the scheme (named after the famous prison in California) offers convicted gang members community work or unpaid labour instead of prison sentences. Three months after entering the program, they are then given help in finding a job or going into further education. The scheme has helped decrease the crime rate dramatically in Revenga, where the murder rate reduced from 77 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003, to 27 in 2008. Sponsored by private companies, Project Alcatraz aims to expand into many more areas of Venezuela, offering help and hope to more of the country’s dispossessed young men.