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In Rampant Violent Crime, Political Danger for Chávez
Opposition Sees An Opening in Regional Elections

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Three of Miriam Sánchez's sons had already been shot dead in neighborhoods where the crackle of gunfire is a nightly occurrence. So she feared the worst when word arrived one recent night that her 24-year-old son, José Luis Arias, had been shot.

Sánchez found his bullet-riddled body off one of the narrow passageways of a violent slum -- another murder among thousands that have made Venezuela one of the world's most violent countries. Those slayings have exposed the government's inability to formulate a response to the sharply rising crime rate, a central theme of opposition politicians vying for governorships and mayoral posts in Sunday's regional elections.

For the first time in years, Venezuela's political opposition is poised to break President Hugo Chávez's nearly complete hold on local and state offices. Sánchez is one reason why.

She is among those who supported Chávez in the past but is now considering a vote against the president's candidates because of the government's hapless response to rising crime rates. Of her four slain children, three were killed since Chávez took office in 1999.

"This is a nightmare for any mother," said Sánchez, 45, sitting in her tiny, stuffy home high in a poor barrio. "I tell you it hurt, and it still hurts, because I see there are more criminals than police, and there is no safety in this country."

As Chávez completes a tumultuous decade in power, polls show that Venezuelans are most concerned about rampant crime in this oil-rich country. Homicides have soared from fewer than 6,000 in Chávez's first year in office to 13,156 last year, according to official government statistics collected and released by private research organizations. That amounts to a homicide rate of 48 killings per 100,000 people, among the highest in the world and more than in neighboring Colombia, which suffers from a slow-burning internal conflict.

Here in the capital, the rate is even higher -- 130 homicides per 100,000 people, translating last year to a total of 2,710 killings.

"Venezuela is going through the biggest crisis in public security in years," said Luis Cedeño, director of Incosec, a crime policy analysis group in Caracas. "Most Venezuelans live in fear of being in a public space, of being victims in public transportation, and they live in fear of being victims in their houses."

For years, the government has ignored the problem, even as violent crime became a staple of news reports. Some Venezuelans took to the streets to protest the state's inability to protect them. Chávez, although he speaks publicly almost every day, rarely mentions the crime rate. With criticism of government inaction mounting earlier this year, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, then interior and justice minister, announced in a news conference that homicides had plummeted 27 percent in the first half of the year. "You have to be very careful with the figures," he explained. "It all depends on who handles the numbers and what are the variables that are taken into account."

In fact, for three years now, the government has kept homicide statistics secret, although the data are made public by crime research organizations and criminologists who receive the information surreptitiously from law enforcement sources.

The Interior and Justice Ministry, now led by Tarek El Aissami, did not respond to requests for an interview about how the government is responding to the crime surge.

Critics of Chávez , among them prominent opposition politicians, say his government has contributed to the problem with rhetoric that accentuates class warfare. It has also armed citizen militias and radical political groups.

"Here, violence is not controlled. It is either fomented on purpose or is allowed to take place," said Mónica Fernández, a former judge who is director of Penal Forum, which analyzes legal issues.

"There is no recognition of the real problem," said Fernández, who was shot this year in a robbery. "It is not in the state's interest to reveal homicide statistics, and if you deny the problem, you cannot find ways to resolve the problem."

Some criminologists note that cities elsewhere have reduced homicide rates by reforming police departments, using high-tech methods to identify crime trends and starting community policing programs, among other measures. Many of those factors played a role in New York, for instance, where homicides fell from 2,245 in 1990 to 496 last year. But other cities have also registered homicide declines, even here in Latin America, which has traditionally registered high murder rates.

"These are policies that require continuity and take time, and this government just does not do that very well," said Cedeño, of Incosec. "Cities that have had success -- Bogota, Medellin, Naples or New York -- all of them resolved the problem with a multifaceted response."

In Caracas, perhaps the biggest problem is the police, who are considered ineffective and brutal and sometimes are directly involved in crime. Concern over police prompted the government, under Interior Minister Jesse Chacón, to establish a commission to reform the police in 2006.

The commission, which included representatives of the business community, criminologists, neighborhood representatives and officials from the judicial sector, issued a report that highlighted police corruption and proposed reforms. But crime experts here said the findings were ignored after Chacón, who had championed the commission, was replaced as minister by Pedro Carreño in January 2007.

Instead, the government approved a law that will merge police departments into one national force under a central command.

Aristóbulo Istúriz, a longtime confidant of the president who is running for mayor of greater Caracas, said the next step is to start up a disarmament program and establish community policing patrols.

"That is fundamental," said Istúriz, who acknowledged that crime is among the principal concerns in Caracas. "The people have faith in community policing."

In Caracas, the vast majority of people live in fear of being victimized, pollsters and criminologists say.

Fifty-six percent of those recently polled by Datanalisis, a Caracas polling firm, said crime was their top concern, ahead of inflation and economic problems. And a poll by a well-known sociologist who studies crime, Roberto Briceño-León, showed that 64 percent feared being attacked in the streets.

Those who are victimized most often come from the ring of slums around Caracas -- Chávez's base of support -- but they also include people like Luis Horacio Lemoine, a radio program host and magician. Last November, Lemoine awoke to find three men in his bedroom, brandishing a gun.

"I couldn't believe it," recalled Lemoine, who lives in an upscale neighborhood. "I thought it was a bad dream." The robbers tied him up and made off with money Lemoine had kept in his home.

In her hillside home, Miriam Sánchez said she is focused on making sure her five remaining children are safe. She escorts them along the maze of streets when they go to school or work. Sánchez said she prefers that they do not spend too much idle time outside.

Though she acknowledges improvements spurred by the government's generous social spending, Sánchez said she has little confidence that the streets will be getting safer anytime soon.

"I get angry because I feel that Chávez is the one to blame for everything that is happening because he is not watching out for Caracas," she said. "He should be watching more television to see how much crime there is and all the killings there are."

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