CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- When the murder rate soared early in the
decade, Caracas residents who could afford it bunkered down, shielding
themselves behind steel bars and high walls topped with broken glass.
They spent millions of dollars on security patrols, guard dogs and bulletproof
The police also took action, staging mass roundups and detentions and
setting up roadblocks to frisk motorists.
Now the murder rate is down dramatically, and many parts of the city are
Yet the people of Caracas aren't claiming victory. Some districts remain
exceedingly dangerous, and the cost of fewer murders by civilians appears
to be more killings and other abuses by police.
Police officers "combat the situation of poverty with indiscriminate
repression," said Tarek William Saab, a human rights lawyer.
Government agents throughout Venezuela killed 151 people over the past
year, the highest figure yet during President Rafael Caldera's four years in
office, according to the private group Venezuelan Program of Education and
Action in Human Rights. In Caracas, the number of killings by police rose
from 40 in 1995 to 46 in 1997.
Government officials admit police officers sometimes commit human rights
abuses, but say the numbers are exaggerated. They also stress the
improvement in crime.
The city has seen a 37 percent drop in murders in recent years from 3,989
1994 to 2,515 in 1997, according to the Judicial Technical Police,
Venezuela's equivalent of the FBI.
The plunge has brought a noticeable change from the atmosphere that gave
Caracas such a bad reputation it was called one of Latin America's most
violent cities in a recent study by the Pan-American Health Organization.
In the past year or so, night life has picked up in upscale neighborhoods.
Movie theaters have reinstated midnight showings and Las Mercedes, the
city's main district for restaurants and night clubs, is alive until dawn.
Nonetheless, downtown Caracas and the hillside shantytowns surrounding
the capital remain very dangerous, especially after dark. Most Caracas
residents still don't feel safe returning to nighttime activities that were
common a decade ago, such as meeting in public squares and in the streets.
The decrease in homicides "does not mean that crime has gone down," said
Roberto Briceno, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela.
The sound of gunshots is still common in the slums. Dozens of adults and
children die each year from stray bullets in shootouts between rival gangs or
clashes between criminals and police.
Caracas' crime has been fueled by rapid urbanization, high unemployment
and an abundance of guns. An inefficient and corrupt judicial system often
fails to punish criminals.
Crime and poverty feed off each other in Caracas. The drop in world oil
prices wreaked havoc on Venezuela's oil-based economy, and social
programs have been cut, leaving the poor to fend for themselves.
Meanwhile, government abuses have risen, human rights groups contend.
Young people complain of a police force that detains people without
explanation, without respecting rights.
"Violence also comes from the police. There are decent people out there
who the police beat ruthlessly," said Milange Arberlay, a 16-year-old who
recounted recently seeing a policeman strike a young man before arresting
him and then insult a woman who went to his defense.
While Caracas is less murderous, much of the violence seems to have been
transplanted to nearby cities, where swift population growth is overwhelming
local governments' capacity to provide services.
Official statistics on murder rates are scarce and incomplete, but a study
Briceno, the sociologist, found big increases in outlying cities.
In Valencia, for instance, the number of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants
rose from 21 in 1994 to 28.6 in 1996, the study said. In Maracay, the rate
jumped from 15.7 to 21.2 in the same period.
Some experts contend that one reason for Caracas' falling murder rate is
people have learned to coexist with levels of violence unthinkable a few
decades ago, when most Venezuelans lived in the countryside before an oil
boom brought them to the cities.
"People have learned to protect themselves, not to be in dangerous places,"
said sociologist Antonio Cova.
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.