Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro launched a nationwide disarmament program in Caracas over the weekend as the head of state tried to cap the alarming rates of violence endemic in his country, which has the second-highest homicide rate in the world behind Honduras.
The plan, announced on September 20 — International Day of Peace — will see the Venezuelan government establish a $47 million fund to help establish 60 centers where citizens can voluntarily surrender their firearms.
Despite passing a law last June to restrict gun sales only to members of the military and security forces, effectively outlawing civilian possession of guns — being caught with a firearm in Venezuela can land you with up to 20 years in prison — firearms are still a major cause of death in the country.
The United Nations estimates a murder rate of 53.7 per 100,000 people, compared to 90.4 in Honduras. The figure was up from 47.8 the previous year. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a Caracas-based non-profit organization estimates a much higher figure, however, of 79 per 100,000 people — a rate it says has quadrupled over the past 15 years.
Under the initiative, Maduro has also dedicated $39 million to install more security cameras and pay for 2,000 soldiers to patrol alongside police officers in the most dangerous neighborhoods. "We are building peace from within, and for that, you need disarmament," Maduro said during the announcement.
This isn't the first time Venezuela has attempted to crack down on the number of firearms in the country.
In 2009 the government destroyed more than 30,000 guns seized from the streets during police raids throughout the year. Police used blow-torches to break apart shotguns and pistols and crushed the pile of weapons into a block weighing 5 tons. The $5,000 raised from the sale of the scrap metal was donated to the Friends of Children with Cancer Foundation.
Before the first crackdown in 2009 Venezuela had 15 million firearms — legal and illegal — in a country of 29 million. Still, according to official statistics, 94 percent of homicides in 2010 were caused by gun violence.
The government continued their policy of disarmament in 2011. In September the Venezuelan government destroyed over 50,000 confiscated guns adding, racking up a total of 250,000 guns confiscated since 2003. Melted down, the weapons produced 60 tons of iron that was recycled for use in public housing projects.
The following year the country passed the Law of Firearms Control and Disarmament and began the 'A Toda Vida' campaign encouraging citizens to surrender their arms in a process not dissimilar to the one Maduro announced on Sunday. The project was re-launched in 2013 with 97- armed groups in Caracas pledging to disarm. This week's announcement signals another desperate attempt to reduce firearm numbers and violence in the South American nation.
Not surprisingly many analysts and Venezuelan experts are skeptical about the impact the most recent disarmament plan will have on the levels of violence in the country.
"I don't think that it will make a difference. The same thing is happening that took place with a new law in 2002 and then 2012," Roberto Briceño León, president of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, told VICE News. "Even now with resources and a plan I do not think this is enough to control arms here."
"Maybe they are doing it again now to put forward a better image to the rest of the world," Briceño León said, referring to the country's recent efforts to win a seat on the United Nation's Security Council. "Or maybe the measure has been passed to create a distraction for Venezuelans and act as a relief valve for the growing discontent of the population."
Rising insecurity was a major grievance of the student-led protests that rocked Venezuela earlier this year. Demands for increased security were high on demonstrators' list of complaints.
Yet in spite of numerous laws and initiatives the perception of insecurity among Venezuelan citizens remains high.
Activists and analysts also point to government hypocrisy, especially following the protests during which they allege officials use armed "colectivos," pro-government groups, to clash with anti-government demonstrators, all the while paying lip service to Venezuela's continued public commitment to disarmament plans.
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