Venezuelan police crushed and cut up 1,939 shotguns and pistols in a Caracas city square on Wednesday, as the new interior minister relaunched a long-stalled gun-control campaign in one of the world’s most crime-ridden countries.
Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said the event marked the renewal of efforts to disarm Venezuelans, through a combination of seizures and a voluntary program to swap guns for electrical goods.
Venezuela has the world’s second-highest murder rate and Caracas, the capital, is considered the most violent city in the world. The street gangs that roam the city’s poor neighborhoods have become increasingly heavily armed in recent years, while a deep recession has reduced resources available to police.
Estimates vary of the number of weapons on the streets of Venezuela, a country of just over 30 million people. A 2009 report put the number of illegal weapons at between 9 million and 15 million, while the number of weapons in circulation in late 2014 was thought to be between a million and 6 million.
Gangs often get weapons from the police, either by stealing them or buying them from corrupt officers, experts say. Recent years have also seen an increase in criminals targeting police and security forces in order to take their weapons, especially after private gun ownership was made illegal in 2012.
Through the first five months of 2016, 163 police, military officers, and bodyguards were killed — a 14% increase over the same period last year. In 80% of those cases the assailants also took the victim’s weapon. A government source told El Nacional that the victim’s weapons were recovered only 3% of the time.
With inflation of 185% in 2015 and a currency weakened by spiraling inflation, police salaries have fallen far behind rising prices, creating more incentives for corruption, particularly on the country’s recently reopened border with Colombia, where police and soldiers are in close proximity to smugglers and other criminals engaged in illicit activities.
“We are going to bring disarmament and peace,” Reverol told reporters, while police officers drilled and sawed at rusty shotguns, homemade pistols, and some newer weapons, Reuters reported.
The interior minister also said the government would undertake a nationwide disarmament effort starting September 1, with a firearm-destruction event slated for September 21.
Reverol said that since the government started its program to decommission weapons around the country, 406,534 firearms had been destroyed.
Other guns were crushed in truck-mounted presses. Some members of the public watched, although more danced to a nearby sound system playing salsa music, according to Reuters.
Venezuela has also bought laser technology to mark ammunition, Reverol said, in an attempt to keep a registry of the bullets given out to the South American nation’s many state and municipal police forces.
“This will permit us to do investigations of those empty casings that are left at the place of the event, in order to determine the responsibility of the people who commit crimes,” Reverol said.
Experts say that much of the ammunition used in crimes in Venezuela is made at the country’s government munitions factory, pilfered from state weapons stocks, and sold on the black market by corrupt officials.
(Reporting for Reuters by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by David Gregorio)