Rampant violence plagues Venezuela

Victims reach the emergency room soaked in blood and dazed—wheeled in on stretchers, carried in others’ arms, some still walking with the last of their strength: an elderly man shot in a robbery, a young man sprayed with gunfire, a woman who took a stray bullet in the head while on her way to church.

Venezuela is among the most violent places in Latin America, and critics of President Hugo Chávez are increasingly accusing him of failing to make crime a priority.

The government says it is making progress on a complex problem, but a series of particularly heinous murders sparked protests earlier this month by crowds demanding immediate action to make the streets safer, and more rallies are planned for Saturday. While crime has long bedevilled Venezuelans, particularly the poor, some of the protesters say there’s a new element to the danger now—class tensions incited by Chávez himself.

“There has always been crime, but not like this. Now they open fire and that’s it,” said Freddy dos Santos, scowling with his arms crossed beside his father, who lay wounded on a gurney at a public hospital.

Relatives of 89-year-old Rodolfo dos Santos, who was breathing through an oxygen mask while a monitor beeped with his pulse, said he was shot while driving to a construction site to pay his workers.
He had just braked at a hilltop when a teenager approached and shouted: “Stop!”

Dos Santos yelled for help. The teenager fired, wounding him in the chest, and then fled.

Dos Santos’s son accused Chávez of virtually ignoring crime while inciting the poor: “The president is always saying it’s OK to steal in order to eat.”

Chávez has not used those exact words, but he regularly launches into tirades against wealthy Venezuelans. “The rich are condemned to hell. Christ himself condemned them,” Chavez said in a speech on Tuesday. “I say it from the heart: to be rich is evil.”

Class tension

Class tension has long been a part of life in the South American country, where armed robberies, carjackings and kidnappings are frequent.

There were 9 402 homicides reported in 2005, down slightly from 2004, according to government statistics. Some experts argue the real figure is higher.

Venezuela’s murder rate ranked third in Latin America in a recent report by the Pan American Health Organisation, behind Colombia and El Salvador. The ranking used 2001-to-2003 figures and showed Venezuela just ahead of Brazil.

An underlying cause of the violence is the stark gap between rich and poor, which remains despite Chávez’s talk of bringing equality, said Jonathan Jakubowicz, director of the acclaimed film Secuestro Express (Express Kidnapping), which is set in Caracas.

“Chávez didn’t invent the class tension; he just gave it a flag and made it a political movement,” said the 28-year-old Venezuelan filmmaker. “I just hope at some point in the next few decades he is forced to control the violence, for the sake of all of us.”

The film has come under fire from Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel, who called it a “miserable” movie that aggravates class hatred. Jakubowicz said it actually is meant to help heal societal divisions.

Angry protests broke out in Caracas earlier this month after kidnappers executed three young brothers—aged 17, 13 and 12. The protesters also cited the killings of a prominent businessman and a newspaper photographer who was shot just as he arrived at one of the protests.

With unusual speed, police have arrested suspects in all three cases. The accused include police officers—confirming public distrust of police forces widely seen as corrupt, ineffective and at times complicit in crime.

The government has pledged sweeping police reforms and put up $4,6-million for a gun-buyback programme that will offer people between $139 and $232 to hand in revolvers and pistols.

‘Sick society’

Chávez said the latest killings show symptoms of a “sick society” warped by capitalist ambitions. “It made me want to take to the streets, too,” he said, accusing his enemies of trying to manipulate the issue for political gain.

Reflecting political divisions, two separate anti-crime demonstrations are planned this Saturday: one by Chávez opponents and another by students who share his view that the issue shouldn’t be politicised.

Experts disagree on how much blame Chávez bears. Criminologist Fermin Marmol Leon, a former justice minister, says Chávez has failed to define a clear anti-crime strategy. Sociologist Luis Damiani argues Chávez is making progress through gradual reforms and programmes aimed at reducing poverty.

In the meantime, nurses at Domingo Luciani hospital sometimes have to treat the wounded on the floor due to a shortage of beds.

The patient Dos Santos opened his eyes while his wife, Rosa Porras, stroked his silver hair. “You can’t even go out nowadays because you’re afraid of everything,” she said.

Later, his condition improved and 21-year-old Keyla Isturiz was moved to his gurney. With a bullet lodged in her brain and a bandage over one eye, she squirmed uncomfortably but made no sound.

Doctors said they hoped she would live, but it was too late for others.

Police burst in carrying a man with bullet wounds all over his head and torso. His pulse had stopped. Two nurses made the sign of the cross over him, and one pulled a sheet over his head.

“The saddest thing is that people seem to be getting used to it,” Dr Carlos Rodriguez said. “No one is doing anything about it.”—Sapa-AP

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