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Venezuelans Despair Over Rampant, Deadly Violence

Venezuela has stopped publishing official crime rates, but murders, kidnappings, assaults, and robberies have skyrocketed during the past decade.

Funerals of murder victims are a daily sight in Venezuela, where hospitals treat an unending stream of assault victims. Far from containing the violence, police increasingly find themselves targeted by criminals. Every day, mourners crowd Caracas' morgue, including this sister of a slain officer.

"What security can there be if armed officers are killed? Where does that leave the rest of us?" she asked.

The relative, who declined to be identified, notes that rarely are criminals apprehended, much less convicted.

"Tens of thousands of crimes, and where is the justice?" said the relative.

A non-governmental monitoring group, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, reports the country suffered more than 16,000 homicides last year, more than triple the total in 1998 when President Hugo Chavez was first elected. The group says 2009 saw more violent deaths in Venezuela than in war-torn Iraq and civil war-weary Colombia combined.

Violence is heaviest in poor areas. But even in middle and upper class Venezuelan neighborhoods, many homes resemble small fortresses, encircled by stone or brick walls topped by razor or electric wire. In Caracas' fashionable Chacao neighborhood, Roberto Blanco, 27, says he rarely leaves his home at night.

"There are many robberies in a nearby plaza, where it is dark at night," he said. "And up by the bakery, there are car thefts."

Critics of the government, like retiree Clarise Dominguez, 80, are quick to blame President Hugo Chavez.

"People get killed over pocket change," said Dominguez. "And where is the president? Why doesn't he take charge and eliminate the criminals?"

Even Chavez backers, like Caracas chef Edgar Sifuentes, list controlling crime as the president's biggest failing.

"The lack of security - the president needs to use a stronger hand to combat it," said Sifuentes.

President Chavez says Venezuela's capitalist past is to blame for the high crime rates

"In the 1980s and 90s, the young had little access to education or work. Prisons began to overflow with young people, many of whom became involved in drugs and drug trafficking. Unfortunately, those habits continue," said Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Chavez says socialism will reduce inequalities - what he sees as the root cause of crime.

But Caracas-based political analyst Luis Vicente Leon says the president's words are wearing thin.

"Chavez will either be blamed for his policies or for failing to control the situation," said Leon.

Opposition leaders say Mr. Chavez has no interest in combating violence, noting that a terrified populace is less likely to take to the streets to protest his administration.

Amid all the finger-pointing, some, like Caracas resident Leslie Contreras, fear a breakdown of Venezuelan society.

"Wherever you go, there is misery. The people have changed, caring only about themselves and not the country as a whole," said Contreras. "And I think we Venezuelans are to blame for the situation - our errors and lack of caring."

Demonstrations against rampant crime have grown in Caracas. Criminals are paying no heed.