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In Venezuela, killings of Caracas police are on rise

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela — As he and his partner drove at dusk through a warren of metal and concrete-block shacks that's a haven for car thieves, bank robbers and kidnappers, Alexander Reyes said he's just hoping to survive eight more years to retirement age.

But sometimes the muscular police squad commander and father of four questions the odds of making it.

Police officers in Caracas' five boroughs and outlying suburbs such as this one are coming under increasingly deadly fire from gang members and hardened criminals. In metropolitan Caracas, 66 officers have been killed in the line of duty this year. That's nearly as many as the 72 killed in the United States during all of 2011.

Concern was etched into Reyes' face as the 37-year-old patrolled in his SUV through the winding streets of El Nacional, one of the densely populated hillside shantytowns that define the capital's southwestern limits. He knows that criminals love Los Teques' El Nacional barrio for its easy access to the Panamerican Highway, which connects Caracas with the interior.

"It's an ideal escape route," Reyes said. "Rents are pretty low and there is a lot of construction work around," pointing across a canyon to huge concrete pylons sticking up like giant tuning forks, part of the Caracas subway expansion project.

Asked to explain why the death toll for police in greater Caracas is up 45% over last year, he fingered his Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and said the gun had become a coveted trophy for what he called "delinquents." Killing a cop also lends prestige to malandros, a Spanish term for bad guys, in Venezuela's underworld and confers status to gang members who control drug sales and extortion rackets from prisons.

In an interview at his headquarters office, Miranda state police director Eliseo Guzman agreed. "Killing a policeman sends a message to other gangs that they control the territory," he said.

The spate of police killings can be attributed in part to Venezuela's out-of-control crime wave. It's become the No. 1 election issue — topping by a 2-1 ratio the next most important theme, the economy — in this year's presidential race. Polls show that voters see President Hugo Chavez's inability to curb the violence as the fiery leader's biggest liability in the Oct. 7 balloting.

Statistics tell a grisly story. Since Chavez took office in 1999, Venezuela's homicide rate has more than tripled to 67 victims per 100,000 people last year, up from 19 per 100,000 in 1998. That's more than 13 times the U.S. rate in 2010, the last year for which figures were available, when homicides were 4.8 per 100,000 people.

Venezuela now is the most violent country in South America, with twice the homicide rate of drug- and war-scarred Colombia, according to statistics compiled by the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, a consortium of seven university departments that track crime in the country.

Homicides in Venezuela rose to 19,336 last year, compared with 4,550 in 1998. Even worse for some is the lack of prosecution. Although homicides have soared over 13 years, arrests of suspects have fallen by more than half, to fewer than 2,000 last year from 5,017 in 1998, according to observatory statistics. (The government has not released crime statistics since 2004.)

Observatory director and criminologist Roberto Briceno-Leon believes that the violent tone set by Chavez in promoting his socialist Bolivarian Revolution is partly responsible for rising crime rates — a belief that he says is shared by 58% of Venezuelans polled by his university group.

"Chavez has promoted the idea that violence forms part of the class struggle against the rich and the landowners, and so it's not so bad," Briceno-Leon said. "He has always rationalized high crime by saying the problem exists on every country on Earth, and that it's the fault of poverty and capitalism. He won't hire more police because he sees it as a right-wing policy."

But the increase in police killings stems from more than just the general trend in rising crime, said Briceno-Leon, who just completed a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

"The moral force that police should have in a society has been lost in Venezuela. It wasn't so great before Chavez arrived, but it's gotten worse. Chavez himself has referred to police as mafiosi. His interior minister has said police are responsible for 20% of the crimes in Venezuela," Briceno-Leon said.

Feeling the brunt of Chavez's disrespect are street-level officers such as Reyes. Their problems are compounded by the fact they often are outgunned by criminals. Guzman, the Miranda police director, said Chavez took away the state force's 2,000 high-caliber rifles in 2009.

Chavez said it was illegal for state police to have rifles, but some saw it as a punitive move: The year before, the president's handpicked candidate Diosdado Cabello had lost the Miranda governor's race to Henrique Capriles, who now is running against Chavez for president.

"We're left to use pistols and in some cases they aren't sufficient," Guzman said.

Reyes acknowledged that he is afraid, but said the fear keeps him on his toes. "We use it to take care of ourselves more on the job," he said. "We're working harder at staying alive."

Reyes and his partner, Esteban Calderon, spent much of their time on patrol looking up at the looming hillsides, perfect vantage points for gang lookouts and snipers.

"It's easy to surprise delinquents in the middle of drug deals and chopping up stolen cars," said Reyes, who hopes to begin a second career as a criminal defense lawyer when he retires from the force.

Patrolling has become so dangerous that he and his fellow Miranda state police officers respond to crimes in progress only in groups of eight or more.

Breaking that informal rule can be fatal.

The morning after a Times reporter accompanied Reyes on the night patrol, his friend and colleague Patrolman Cesar Rodriguez Orellana was killed in an ambush after he and his partner responded to a bank robbery in the nearby suburb of San Pedro de los Altos, a five-minute drive from El Nacional.

Orellana apparently surprised a group of eight bank robbers, who shot him in the chest with high-caliber assault rifles that pierced his bulletproof vest. His partner, Nestor Echenique, was shot in the legs but is recovering.

Guzman said the eight-man response rule wasn't in effect for San Pedro de los Altos. "It's always been a quiet little pueblo, where people mainly raise flowers and other plants," Guzman said.

Several days after the killing, Reyes was still in a somber mood over Orellana's death.

"He was extremely brave, always helping people, and he was a hard worker," said Reyes of his friend. "Cesar also wanted to be a lawyer and was just starting law school himself. We talked about our futures all the time."

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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