In Rampant Violent Crime, Political Danger for Chávez

Opposition Sees An Opening in Regional Elections

A gunshot victim grimaces in pain as doctors treat him in an emergency room at a public hospital in Caracas. The homicide rate in the capital last year was 130 killings per 100,000 people.
A gunshot victim grimaces in pain as doctors treat him in an emergency room at a public hospital in Caracas. The homicide rate in the capital last year was 130 killings per 100,000 people. (By Ariana Cubillos -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 18, 2008; Page A16

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.

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