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Venezuela deploys National Guard against crime

The Americas Post - Venezuelan shoplifters beware. Photo Credit: AFP

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent thousands of National Guard soldiers into the streets of Caracas and surrounding states on Thursday,  to reinforce  police overwhelmed by widespread violent crime.

“We’ve been fighting and reducing overall crime rates, but we’ve fallen short when it comes to the number of homicides,” Chavez said to troops at a downtown plaza.

More than 3,200 soldiers were ordered to the streets of Caracas and the surrounding states of Miranda and Vargas, according to Gen. Miguel Vivas Landino.

Venezuela suffers one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. The government has not reported official statistics for several years, but numbers released by human rights groups and academic researchers indicate it as one of the most dangerous countries the hemisphere.

According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a Caracas-based academic organization that tracks crime  trends, from 1998 through 2010 the annual homicide rate tripled from 19 to 57 for every 100,000 residents.  Other violent crimes such as kidnapping and armed robbery have also increased in recent years in Venezuela.  Reports of kidnappings increased from 52 in 1998 to 618 in 2009.

As kidnapping has increased, the government in 2009 stiffened prison sentences for kidnapping and allowed authorities to freeze bank accounts of victims’ families to block them from paying ransoms.  Last week, Major League baseball player Wilson Ramos was taken at gunpoint from his home in the city of Valencia. The Washington Nationals catcher was rescued by police from a remote mountain hideout two days later.

Rising crime and other problems have hurt Chavez’s standing in the polls, although he remains Venezuela’s most popular politician heading into next year’s presidential election.

During Thursday’s speech, Chavez warned soldiers that his opponents are preparing to cause chaos and upheaval ahead of the election.  He claimed his enemies know they cannot win at the polls, so they are planning disruption and accusations of voter fraud to smear his election triumph.

Chavez has made similar charges in the past without any proof, and offered no evidence this time either.  Opposition leaders have stated repeatedly that they plan to unseat him via the ballot box, without resorting to violence or unconstitutional methods.