As in many countries in the Western Hemisphere, a vigorous debate is going on in Venezuela about how to control the possession and use of illegal weapons.  Amid a climate of extreme ideological polarization and varied political agendas, perceptions and misinformation have shaped much of the opinion surrounding the arms debate in Venezuela. Even the number of guns has become a point of contention; opponents to the Chavez government claim that there exist 15 million illegal arms in a country with a total population of 28 million, while government supporters call such claims exaggerations designed to discredit the president and undercut his credibility on the eve of the October Presidential elections. Ideology aside, and whatever the numbers, the sobering fact remains that in 2010, 94 percent of homicides were committed with firearms—36 percent of the victims were youths between the ages of 15 and 28, and the majority were males from the lower economic sectors. Regardless of political preference, it is clear that illegal firearms are killing Venezuelans, and that this is an issue that requires polarization politics to take a back seat and for Venezuelans of all stripes to come together and tackle the problem.

In May 2011, the Chavez administration established the Presidential Commission on Disarmament to tackle the ongoing illegal arms issue and develop public policies that promote disarmament. The commission, which included representatives from government agencies, academics and civil society, and whose secretariat includes the knowledgeable groups, Red de Apoyo and Centro Gumilla, was tasked with analyzing where the arms were coming from and how legal arms were entering the black market. The commission also sought to bring diverse sec tors of society into the discussion by soliciting ideas on how best to the address the problem through legislation and other means.

In 2000, 15 percent of Venezuela’s arms purchases came from the United States. Since the United States banned arm sales to Venezuela, the market has been dominated by Austria and its Glock gun, though Italy and Brazil have gained a larger foothold in recent years. The main issue, however, appears not to be the volume of arms available but who has control over the arms and what they do with them. While an illegal arms trade along Venezuela’s border with Colombia still exists, most arms used in urban homicides are not contraband but arms that entered the country legally and subsequently became illegal.

The commission found that a large number of arms are stolen, sold without proper registration, or “recycled” into the black market by corrupt police. These arms are typically the same arms used in homicides. In the past two years, the commission’s studies found that 70 percent of homicides were related to confrontations between criminal groups over territorial control for illegal businesses or to exert dominance in an area, 15 percent were committed during robberies, and the remainder due to interpersonal conflict.  There are two problems  – illegal guns used by criminal groups and robbers, and illegal guns used in interpersonal conflict.  The combination of a slow, ineffective and unreliable judicial system  and a mindset that one has to resolve his or her own problems with one’s own means has led people to use violence to solve disputes. Persons arm themselves out of fear, a sense that the weapon will provide protection, and a lack of trust that the public forces will defend them in a moment of crisis. The more people arm themselves, the more others are apt to do the same, sensing that if they do not they may be vulnerable to harm. It’s a vicious cycle where more arms beget more arms and the arms beget violence, and disarming means placing yourself at risk.

Despite the huge challenges, the Disarmament Commission has worked with the Chavez administration and the National Assembly to take steps to close loopholes that restrict illegal arms sales and encourage citizens to disarm. They also have identified where loopholes exist that enable legal guns to become criminal weapons and attempted to seal those up to minimize illegal sales from taking place. As a result, restrictions on who can obtain arms were increased and registration of current legal arms holders was improved. Prohibitions were also placed on where persons can carry arms. For example, arms are not allowed in areas such as construction sites, as well as cultural and sporting events where passions can run high—and turn violent. Pilot disarmament efforts were put in place with 130,145 illegal arms turned in last year in 2011. The Venezuelan state has invested $10 million in this effort and the president has made public pronouncements encouraging disarmament. Unfortunately, there are many making money off of these sales and addressing corruption is not easy. The initiatives taken by Venezuela on disarmament are a good step.   In a further constructive step, this year, Venezuela also created the “Mission for All Life in Venezuela” to try to address problems faced by youths who are apt to arm themselves. Through the promotion of coexistence building efforts among disfranchised youths, attempts to strengthen job opportunities for this population, and the provision of psychological attention to victims of violence to break the repetition cycle, the mission promotes prevention of the use of firearms to settle disputes.

But more must be done.  Illegal arms’ trafficking does not happen in a vacuum. Broader issues such as corruption, lack of economic alternatives for youth, and weak judicial institutions also contribute to the problem.  Far more needs to be done in order to guarantee an effective police reform effort that puts in place safeguards to root out corruption. The judicial system’s investigative and prosecutorial abilities need to be strengthened. To address Venezuela’s underlying issues, Venezuelans must come together, put politics aside and work jointly to remedy the illegal arms issue

Gimena Sanchez is Senior Associate for the Andes Program at the Washington Office on Latin America. WOLA most recently visited Caracas in July 2012.