Imagine living in a country where you have to bring a backpack full of cash to buy the most basic food, if there’s any available to buy. To get to a hospital with adequate health standards and supplies of medicine, you have to travel hundreds of miles and cross borders, while the infrastructure in your country is crumbling, and power outages can last for days.
For the vast majority of Venezuelans, scenarios like these have become reality in recent years. The country is suffering one of its worst humanitarian crises, which has caused over 2 million people to flee the country since 2014.
Corruption in the top echelons of the Venezuelan government has not only led to extreme social and economic instability, but also weakened the state institutions that are meant to protect citizens. This becomes especially clear when one looks at the way organised crime networks can act with impunity all over the country.
Organised crime and impunity
State institutions are failing to reign in the activities of such networks. Reporting or prosecuting these criminal activities is near impossible for officials of the judicial system, as choosing to report often means putting their job and their safety at risk.
In a study conducted by Transparencia Venezuela (TI Venezuela), some officials said that if they wanted to work on a “difficult” case, they had to keep it secret. There are no mechanisms in place to manage threats against them or their families, which puts criminal groups in a very comfortable position. It comes as no surprise that, with such weak institutions, Venezuela scores poorly on the Global Impunity Index.
Corrupt state institutions
The state not only fails to protect its citizens from criminals, but according to a recent report, is itself one of the main sources of armed violence against the most vulnerable members of society. More than 8,000 extrajudicial executions have reportedly been carried out between 2015 and 2017.
The backbone of the crisis is the lack of autonomy and independence of powers. There is no separation of powers in Venezuela and independence of the different branches has been scrapped.
One of the main reasons for Venezuela’s current crisis is that a small group of individuals has been allowed to gain control of public powers in Venezuela and has benefitted from them at the expense of the people. As independent institutions have been undermined, the system of checks and balances that restrained executive power has collapsed.
This also means that the independence and integrity of the country’s judicial institutions are heavily compromised. Officials are frequently appointed based on loyalty to the regime rather than merit, and are often susceptible to influence from the executive. The current director general of Venezuela’s investigation body, for example, was appointed directly by Maduro. At the same time, his government has turned the Supreme Court into a key instrument for exerting absolute power and has provided it with the necessary funding.
Our chapter in Venezuela found that in the first half of 2018 the Supreme Court was the main beneficiary of budget increases for the Judiciary. The Legislative branch, on the other hand, received practically no further funding in the same period.
Less than 1 per cent of the state budget was allocated to the National Assembly, which is controlled by opposition political parties and has a crucial role in passing new laws. These are desperately needed, as Venezuela has not yet comprehensively criminalised several illicit activities related to organised crime, including corruption, laundering the proceeds of criminal activities – and human trafficking.
Migration and the risks of human trafficking
Thousands of Venezuelans are leaving the country every month. On their journey in search of a better life, they are exposed to exploitative trafficking networks. Trafficking and forms of modern slavery are becoming more frequent, and women are particularly at risk.
Many Venezuelans are travelling without a passport making them easy prey for criminal networks, and highlighting the failure of state institutions: the authority responsible for issuing identity documents has been struggling to meet demand for years, simply leaving many citizens without a passport. Data shows that displaced Venezuelans without documents – particularly poor women and children – often fall into the hands of traffickers.
The study TI Venezuela conducted using a new tool, JustLEAD, showed the need for specific laws against human trafficking in Venezuela became clear.
Strengthening institutions and restoring integrity standards is crucial to ensuring the enforcement of any legislation. To effectively identify and confront human trafficking, a complex and persistent crime, the justice system needs to reform. Laws criminalising any form of human trafficking and slavery need to be adopted and enforced, and officials need to be specifically trained, including training on the gender aspects of trafficking.
To protect victims and officials from organised crime networks, an independent and safe system needs to be built for them to report and turn to. Institutions need to be trained and strengthened by all means possible, with the help of technology and international cooperation. Together, these measures could be a first step towards reigning in rampant corruption and organised crime, and giving criminal justice institutions back their original purpose of serving and protecting the people.
This web feature is based on the findings of an assessment carried out with the Justice and Law Enforcement Accountability Dashboard (JustLEAD). It aims to identify and address integrity gaps in criminal justice institutions fighting organised crime and drug trafficking in a number of countries along the cocaine route, namely Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru and Venezuela in Latin America, as well as in Ghana and Nigeria in West Africa.
Image: Creative Commons, Flickr / Anyul Rivas
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