If there is one reliable trend in Venezuela, it would appear to be a steadily rising murder rate. Violent crime in general -- whether it be homicide, robbery, kidnapping or assault -- is already a glaring problem in the oil-rich South American nation, and as it continues to grow it will only further entrench itself as an imperative issue in October's presidential elections.
Presidential hopeful Henrique Capriles, the center-left candidate, is seeking to unseat socialist incumbent President Hugo Chavez, in part, based on the accusation that Chavez has failed to tackle Venezuela's rampant crime problem during his 13 years in office.
In almost 14 years, (Chavez) has not been able to control the violence, it has increased every year! It is clear that Venezuelans will not enjoy security under this government, Capriles recently posted on his Twitter feed.
When Chavez came to office in 1999, 4,550 homicides were documented during his first year in office, according to data from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), a non-governmental organization that tracks crime. By 2011, that number had risen to over 19,000.
Kidnappings increased from 41 in 1999 to 589 in 2009, OVV says.
We have to recognize that insecurity is a serious problem, Chavez said last month before unveiling his latest anti-crime initiative, while clarifying that the problem was mostly attributable to gang-related violence, which he blamed on social inequities created by the neoliberal policies of his political opponents, as well as repressive security policies used to fight crime.
Referred to as La Gran Misión A Toda Vida Venezuela, or The Great Mission for Every Venezuelan Life, Chavez's plan focuses more on addressing institutional factors, such as poverty and lack of education, that lead to criminal activity, rather than on reactive measures such as increasing police or paramilitary forces.
Gun control has also been a central feature of the Chavez government's anti-crime strategy, having banned the commercial sale of arms and ammunition last month.
The wide-ranging Misión scheme aims to expand community centers for conflict resolution, reform the judicial system and reduce punishment of low-level crimes and expand outreach to young people who have dropped out of school. It also aims to compensate victims of violent crime.
Capriles criticized the plan, saying it was purely a political move.
The government has launched 18 security initiatives, all have failed! Elections come, and today it launches another! he wrote in another Twitter post.
Capriles has his own proposals for combating crime, which, like Chavez's latest initiative, veer toward addressing institutional factors.
The former state governor has said that he will increase access to education, crack down on corruption in law enforcement and the judicial system and improve the country's overcrowded and crime-ridden prisons.
InSight Crime, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization focused on research and analysis of crime in Latin American, weighed in on Chavez's latest anti-crime initiative, applauding some of its features, though questioning its political motives.
The plan cannot be viewed in isolation from the bitterly contested presidential election in October, wrote InSight researcher Hannah Stone on the organization's website.
Its politicized presentation illustrates what a key issue violence and crime is for voters as the vote approaches, forcing Chavez to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
In particular, it criticized the fact that the plan will target Venezuela's most crime-ridden municipalities, particularly for its victim compensation feature, suggesting that Chavez might be trying to gain a political advantage in key electoral battlegrounds, though it acknowledged that the feature could be beneficial.
A scheme to register and compensate victims could do something to help change the culture of violence in Venezuela, Stone wrote in another post.
What is clear is that the growing violence has touched nearly all layers of Venezuelan society. The poor and working class, Chavez's main political base and the dominant demographic, are caught in the crossfire of wanton gang violence. The middle and upper classes, from which Capriles draws much of his support, are increasingly targeted for kidnappings and robberies.
All of them are looking for a candidate who will be able to guarantee their security, or at the very least reverse the upward trend of violence that has enveloped the country.