Crime Brings Venezuelans Into Streets

A protest sign reads,
A protest sign reads, "Justice for the Faddoul Brothers," three recently slain teens. (By Gregorio Marrero -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The swelling bruise on Dorian Ricardo's cheekbone was pink in the middle, marking the precise point where the butt of a pistol struck him before the gunman wrestled away Ricardo's $100 electrician's tool kit.

Now he was thinking about vengeance. Standing outside a police forensics office to file an official report, Ricardo admitted little faith in the Venezuelan justice system. But for about $50, he said, he could hire someone to kill the man.

"If you're not rich, the police here don't care about taking your case," said a humiliated Ricardo, 41, who described his attacker as a neighborhood thug. "That's why so many people here take justice into their own hands. You need to do something to protect your family. I have to do something, because I see the man who did this every day."

It's that sort of cycle that gives Venezuela a solid claim to the dubious title of the world's capital of violent crime. According to U.N. figures, the rates of gun-related violence are higher here than anywhere else on earth. The rank stench coming from the police office -- a building that doubles as a morgue -- is a rotten byproduct of a homicide rate that in recent years has eclipsed that of Colombia, a country torn by 40 years of civil strife between armed militias. Bullets fly so often in Caracas that even the white truck that ferries dead bodies from the barrios to the forensics building has a bullet hole in its driver's-side door.

The frustration among crime-weary Venezuelans recently has become a political issue, erupting into several large street protests demanding that Hugo Chavez's government do something to stem the violence. Chavez's opponents are trying to make crime a central theme of the December presidential elections, demanding action from a president they say has neglected the issue since taking power in 1999.

Many of the protesters have suggested that Chavez has divided Venezuelan society with his frequent criticism of the country's upper class, rhetoric they say has incited lower classes to violence against the wealthy. They also argue that crimes against the poor have been overlooked by a police force tainted by widespread corruption.

Venezuela, a country of 26 million, has recorded an average of nearly 10,000 homicides a year since Chavez took office. The homicide rate, 37 deaths per 100,000 people, is more than double what it was in the 1990s.

Though the number of reported homicides peaked at about 11,900 in 2003, the public outcry reached its highest pitch in recent weeks after several high-profile cases. Three Venezuelan-Canadian teenage brothers were found dead with their chauffeur after being abducted by armed men in police uniforms in Caracas, and a well-known Italian-born businessman was killed after being abducted at a temporary roadblock near the capital.

Among the suspects arrested in the businessman's killing were a police officer and a former police officer. Their possible involvement underscored the feeling many Venezuelans have about the police: that they're part of the problem, not the solution.

"Here, everything moves with money," said Sandra Molina, complaining about police corruption. "We just hope the man who did it doesn't find someone that he can pay to make everything disappear."

The government has responded to the recent complaints by promising police reforms and a gun buyback program. But such measures are unlikely to calm the fears of those who believe solving the problem of escalating violence demands deeper structural changes.

"The characteristic response of the Venezuelan government, historically, has been that of evasion, following the law of least resistance and a complete lack of accountability," said Rafael Rivero Muñoz, a founder of one of Venezuela's top investigative police units who now works as a consultant. "There is an absence of political will to change it because crime causes fear, and that fear helps the government control the people. Neither the government nor the opposition wants to destroy the machinery that will help them in the future."

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