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Spate of murders gives Venezuela grisly distinction

By Andy Webb-Vidal in Caracas | FT.com

Published: April 10 2006 21:21 | Asked which country in South America has the worst track record for murder, most observers would probably respond Colombia. However, Venezuela now appears to have snatched the grisly title of homicide record-breaker.

The country has been gripped by an outpouring of public anger in the past week over a spate of execution-style murders that have underscored a view among locals that President Hugo Chávez has lost control over spiralling crime.

Crime is a big problem in big cities in Latin America and in other regions, but Venezuelans feel increasingly at the mercy of rogue law enforcement officers who they claim are siding with, rather than fighting against, criminals.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the archbishop of Caracas, demanded in a sermon at the weekend that the government do more to fight crime, adding that the authorities were wrong to interpret public outrage as anti-government political protests. “The violence has to stop,” he said. “We’re not dealing with a conspiracy.”

Hundreds took to the streets to protest after three teenage Canadian-Venezuelan brothers were found dead in scrubland near Caracas, along with their chauffeur. Armed men in police uniform had kidnapped them six weeks ago on their way to school.

The previous week, a well-known Italian immigrant businessman was also abducted at a temporary roadblock by men in police uniforms, on the outskirts of a city near Caracas, and found shot dead a day later.

Similar crimes committed with the apparent complicity of police officers have become increasingly common in recent months, while the frequency of murders is rising. Police figures show that there were 11,900 homicides during 2003, equal to 46.5 per 100,000, the last figures available since the government ordered the police to stop releasing weekly crime statistics.

The homicide rate was about 20 per 100,000 in the 1990s but began to soar in 2000. Crime experts believe the annual homicide rate has remained the same since it officially peaked in 2003, or may have risen.

“There has been no official policy that has given anyone the feeling that crime rates have fallen since then,” said Marcos Tarre, a security expert. “In fact, public opinion polls show that insecurity is the issue that people are most concerned about, rather than unemployment.”

Venezuela’s fatal crime rate exceeds that of Colombia, where there were 17,726 murders last year, equivalent to 40.8 homicides per 100,000. Colombia’s population is about 43.4m, that of Venezuela about 25.6m.

Gun ownership is widespread in Venezuela, both among criminals and members of the public. Recent figures show that 93 per cent of homicides took place with the use of a firearm.

Jesse Chacón, the interior and justice minister, who is politically responsible for the police, said last week that a special commission had been created that would make recommendations. But one cause of the problem, experts say, is the gradual breakdown of public institutions under the Chávez government, which in some cases has favoured political loyalists for key posts rather than professionals.

Political turmoil and public protests have been common in Venezuela during the past five years as differences between the government and opposition groups have spilled over on to the streets.

“The political crisis has affected police forces,” said Mr Tarre. “Instead of maintaining independence, they have been politicised and militarised. The majority of police chiefs are not in their post because of a top professional career but because of political loyalty.”

Meanwhile, Venezuelan government officials, some of whom are former or active military officers, also appear to have a penchant for guns as a solution to the country’s security, and political, problems. Venezuela is awaiting delivery of 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles from Russia.

The mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, said recently that more firearms should be liberally distributed around the city’s sprawling slums, where many residents already observe an undeclared curfew after dusk.



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