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Monday, 17 November 2008

Ammunition plant in Petare, a suburb of the capital often counted as Latin America’s largest barrio, was found crammed with lead ingots, lathes

Ammunition plant in Petare, a suburb of the capital often counted as Latin America’s largest barrio, was found crammed with lead ingots, lathes and moulds used to make 2,000 bullets a day of various calibres.People would drop by and pick up a box of bullets as if they were buying something from the local pharmacy,” says Chief Inspector Wilmer Flores Trosel, who oversaw the raid.Mr Flores, who recently took charge of the Metropolitan police in Caracas, faces a tough task.Although the nationwide homicide rate reached 48 murders per 100,000 people in 2007 – representing a 67 per cent jump since Hugo Chávez was elected president a decade ago – in Caracas the rate is at 130 per 100,000, according to official figures. The US rate hovers around six and the UK’s is around two.“There is a civil war going on here,” says Jesus Torrealba, an activist in the Caracas slums who is critical of the government.“But because it is a low intensity war, when 50 people die a weekend in Caracas, the world doesn’t want to hear about it – unlike, say, when a car bomb kills as many in Fallujah.”Venezuela is not alone: the average homicide rate in the region is four times higher than the global average, according to a recent report by the Organization of American States.But Venezuela is one of the worst. Since 2004 its murder rate has even exceeded that of neighbouring Colombia, which has been mired in a decades-long conflict involving a guerilla insurgency, paramilitary death squads and ruthless drug cartels.A recent poll by Caracas-based company Datanalisis found that 54 per cent rank personal insecurity and the rise of delinquency as Venezuela’s principal problem. Inflation came a distant second, with just 13 per cent considering it the country’s most pressing concern.However, the violence has so far had a limited impact on Mr Chávez’s popularity, which will be tested at regional elections in a fortnight.

While insecurity has consistently topped polls of citizens’ worries for the past three years, during the same time Mr Chávez’s popularity has fluctuated wildly. It fell from 70 per cent in 2006 to 46 per cent early this year, but has since rebounded to 57 per cent, according to Datanalisis, indicating little correlation between the problem of rising crime and the president’s popularity.

“The people don’t blame the president for this,” says Luis Vicente Leon, a director at Datanalisis.

Other problems such as the high and rising cost of living, unemployment and scarcity of basic goods – coffee is the latest item to have disappeared from supermarket shelves – are likely to have a bigger impact on the election result on November 23, Mr Leon argues.

Experts point to a number of reasons for Venezuela’s plight. High on the list is the fact that of over 6m arms circulating among a population of about 27m, some 4.5m are illegal, according to official estimates. Increased drug trafficking and usage combined with brutal gang warfare have exacerbated the bloodbath. Meanwhile, a corrupt and ineffective police force has so far done little to solve the problem, contributing to a general climate of impunity.

Mr Flores argues that gun crime is an inherited problem that started to become serious as long ago as the 1980s.

“You can’t change a country in just 10 years after 40 years of misrule,” he says.



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