29 September 1998
Murders down in Caracas, but police wielding heavy hand


                  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 in
                  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 by
                  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 that
                  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.