Back in 2008, Charlie Devereux and I published an article for the San Francisco Chronicle on crime in Caracas. Drawing on sources with access to official government statistics on crime we concluded that Caracas had the highest homicide rate of any city in South America. “In 2007,” we wrote, “there were 2,710 homicides or 130 per 100,000 citizens, up from 107 per 100,000 in 2006.” However, while checking the numbers, I noticed something curious: they did not add up. By my own calculations the official homicide rate should have been considerably lower.

Writing that article motivated me to look further into Caracas’s inconsistent crime statistics. Depending on the source, in 2010 Venezuela’s capital city had a homicide rate that ranges anywhere from 71 per 100,000 citizens to 230 per 100,000 citizens. The lowest estimates are alarming, but they are not out of line with regional trends in Latin America (easily a dozen cities in the region have higher homicide rates). The higher estimates would indeed make Caracas the deadliest city in the world.

What is behind this massive discrepancy in homicide statistics? And why is it so hard to get reliable figures? Anyone who has watched Season Five of The Wire knows that crime statistics are highly influenced by political and bureaucratic pressures. Given Venezuela’s charged political context, it should come as no surprise that homicide rates are alternately underestimated and overestimated. In this post, I want to give a quick overview of how crime statistics are calculated.

The most reliable source for crime data in Venezuela is the CICPC, which is the country’s equivalent of the FBI. The CICPC handles every homicide investigation in the country and they have detailed records on violent crime. It is well known that under the Chávez administration the CICPC restricted access to crime figures. What has gone unmentioned is that, for years, experts were miscalculating the homicide rate of the capital by using the wrong population estimate in their calculations.

Until quite recently, the official homicide rate for Caracas was overestimated by approximately 33%. The official numbers suggested that the city’s yearly homicide rate had climbed as high as 130 murders per 100,000 citizens in 2007. Yet, this figure was based on a miscalculation of the population of the Caracas metropolitan area, on the part of the CICPC.

According to census data, metropolitan Caracas has a population of just over 3.2 million people. Like New York City, this population is divided between five municipalities. Violent deaths in all five municipalities pass through the same morgue and the same CICPC medical examiners. Although they handle the deaths of all five municipalities the experts were calculating the homicide rate based on population statistics of just one municipality (Libertador), which has a population of 2.1 million.

Adjusted for population, the official 2010 homicide rate in Caracas falls from 109 per 100,000 to 71 per 100,000. That is still an incredibly high, incredibly alarming figure. However, in comparative perspective it is much less likely to grab the attention of international journalists or their editors.

Thus most articles on crime in Caracas published before 2011 cite official homicide rates that are based on these seriously overestimated figures. For example, our piece in the San Francisco Chronicle should have reported a homicide rate of around 85 per 100,000 for 2007.  Instead we reported 130 per 100,000.

Regardless of who was at fault, it is hard to see this as anything other than a self-inflicted black eye on the part of the Chávez government. For decades, violent crime has preoccupied Venezuelans and since 2006 it has consistently been the single greatest voter concern. However, until 2011 the official statistics were systematically overestimating the crime rate of the country’s largest, most politically prominent city.

Of course, the case can also be made that the problem is far worse than thought. In Venezuela, as in many other countries in Latin America, the police exclude certain deaths from the official homicide statistics.

For example, every year hundreds of killings are classified as “resistance to authority.” These are cases in which the police or military use deadly force against suspected criminals. In 2010, the Ministry of Interior and Justice reported 3,482 such cases across Venezuela. According to experts with knowledge of police protocols, none of these killings were classified as homicides.

Another example of possible homicides excluded from the official statistics is the category “deaths under investigation.” These are deaths that could potentially be suicides, accidents, or murders. In 2010, more than 4,508 violent deaths fell into this undetermined category.

Some social scientists claim that an accurate statistical snapshot of homicide rates should include these uncounted deaths. However, for regional or global comparisons that would present a distorted picture, because such omissions are common in official statistics throughout Latin America.

The slipperiness of official police statistics has led some researchers to seek alternative methods for gathering data on the homicide rates.

In 2009, the National Institute of Statistics (INE) conducted a victimization survey as part of the government’s program of extensive police reform. Unlike the police who count homicide cases one by one, the INE survey estimated homicide rates using a random sample of some 20,000 households. According to the leaked INE report, the homicide rate in the Caracas Metropolitan Areas may be as high at 233 per 100,000. A number of journalists and social scientists have used the results of the victimization survey to bolster claims that Caracas is “the most violent city in the world.” Such claims are dubious at best, since similar survey data is not available for making regional or global comparisons. Comparative studies of homicide are usually based on government statistics (e.g. the 2011 Global Study on Homicide).  Introducing a victimization survey into the equation is like comparing apples to oranges.

Another method has been employed by the Mexican-based NGO, Seguridad, Justicia y Paz. Most of the Caracas newspapers report the number of violent deaths that pass through the city morgue on a weekly and monthly basis. Seguridad, Justicia y Paz tallied these numbers and estimated that 70% of these deaths were homicides. Through newspaper research, the NGO arrived at a homicide rate of 118.6 per 100,000 inhabitants for 2010.

A third method for measuring Caracas’s homicide rate without relying on CICPC is to use vital statistics from the Ministry of Health.  Using this data, graduate student Dorothy Kronick estimated the Caracas homicide rate at 92 per 100,000 in 2008 (the most recent year available).

These methods provide alternatives to official statistics but their validity is still the subject of debate. Unfortunately, such alternative methods have become necessary due to the opacity and uncertainty of official police statistics in Venezuela.

There can be no question that Caracas has a serious crime problem. Even if the roots of this problem date back to the late 1980s, urban violence has grown incrementally under the Chávez administration. Opposition leaders have logically seen this surge in violent crime as a political opportunity. After all, crime is an abiding concern of most citizens and a visible failure on the part of the Chávez government. In response, the government has largely blocked direct access to the official police statistics.

Ironically, the Chávez government’s attempts to alleviate public concerns may be worsening perceptions of crime in Venezuela. At least in the case of Caracas, better access to official police statistics would have made social scientists and journalists like myself less likely to portray Caracas as one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Blocking access to official crime data can fuel speculation that the government has something to hide, or is manipulating the data for political purposes, or both. Greater transparency would represent an important step towards improving the discussion on citizen security in Venezuela.

Robert Samet is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Stanford University and instructor in the Legal Studies Program at University of Massachussets, Amherst.