By Guillermo Parra-Bernal. May 22, 2007 (Bloomberg}
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, addressing citizens highest-ranked concern for the first time in two months, said he'll create community police forces to help curb rising murder and robbery rates.
Giving communities more power over their own security and supplying them with training and equipment from national police will cut crime, Chavez said. Currently, municipalities and states in Venezuela have their own police, and the central government runs investigative and
intelligence police forces.
The change in tack by the Chavez administration, which for the first four months of the year stopped the release of crime figures, reflects growing concern that a surge in homicides and robberies may hurt the president's popularity. Citizens rated crime as the nation's worst
problem in two polls released since March, even as poverty rates are falling, family income is surging and the economy is the fastest-growing in the region.
``We are going forward with this plan because we know that this is something that hurts Venezuelan families,'' Chavez said at a ceremony today in Caracas.
Chavez blamed crime on consumerism and capitalist values and set Cuba, a Communist-ruled nation, as an example of citizen safety where homicides are a ``rare event.''
``The marrow of the problem is about values, about the model of society that we have,'' Chavez said. ``Our society is contaminated with all these capitalist values. In Cuba there is a different lifestyle.''
Chavez also cited rampant drug use and the proliferation of alcohol as reasons for crime. Chavez didn't give a timetable for the change. A national police force was one of the recommendations made by a government-commissioned committee in January.
Under the plan, which is under congressional discussion, metropolitan, municipal and state police officers would be ``assimilated'' into a new national force intended to unify federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, lawmaker Juan Jose Molina told reporters in Caracas on May 15.
``Chavez for long ignored the extent at which crime is afflicting citizens, and at some point it will haunt him,'' said Marco Tarre, president of Caracas-based non-government organization Safe Venezuela. ``This reflects that the government has little idea how to deal with this problem.''
The average annual murder tally nearly tripled during Chavez's eight years in office, prompting one in two Venezuelans to name crime as the country's most serious problem, according to data collected by Caracas-based crime research group Venezuelan Violence Observatory Group and pollster Datanalisis.
There were 12,256 homicides last year, compared with 4,550 in 1998, the year before Chavez took office, the group said, citing police data. Chavez was re-elected in December for a six- year term.
Nine in every ten Venezuelans polled last month said they were ``unsatisfied'' with the government's security policy, and eight out of ten regarded the police as either inefficient or a threat, Datanalisis found in a March poll. One in every two citizens cited crime as the nation's worst problem -- topping unemployment and food shortages.
``One would think that the president is feeling obliged to do something to avert a drop in his popularity,'' said Luis Vicente Leon, director of Datanalisis, in a phone interview. ``Crime is becoming a pressing issue for the government.''
The poll surveyed 1,300 people in the nation's main cities between March 12 and March 23, and has a margin of error of 2.72 percentage points.
To contact the reporter on this story: Guillermo Parra-Bernal in
Caracas at email@example.com