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Thousands march against crime in Venezuela

/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of Venezuelans lay in the outlines of bodies chalked on a main avenue Saturday to protest against President Hugo Chavez’s handling of violent crime, while supporters held a separate demonstration backing his social policies.

Violent robberies, kidnappings and murders have long been frequent in Venezuela, but a series of particularly heinous killings have sparked protests by largely middle- and upper-class crowds demanding immediate action to make the streets safer.

The opposition group filled a main avenue in a wealthy Caracas neighborhood, lying face-up for about 15 minutes on the pavement in chalk outlines resembling those drawn by police at crime scenes. Some held photos of crime victims.

“We want to live without fear, to go out in the streets without being afraid,” said Yen Diazo, a 21-year-old student.

Counter-protests for Chavez
Meanwhile, thousands of pro-Chavez demonstrators marched to the Justice Ministry on the other side of the capital, calling for Venezuelans to work together to solve the problem. Many were students who accused the opposition of manipulating the issue for political gain.

“The problems of insecurity and crime aren’t the fault of any political movement,” said Arlen Mata, a 25-year-old student. He said social programs and police reforms by Chavez “in the long term can eliminate this problem, or at least reduce it to a minimal level.”

Venezuela recorded 9,402 homicides in 2005, down slightly from 2004, according to government statistics. Some experts argue the real figure is higher.

In one headline-grabbing case this month, kidnappers executed three brothers, ages 17, 13 and 12. A prominent businessman and a newspaper photographer were also murdered.

Police officers have been among those arrested in the crimes.

Violent reputation
The country, with 26 million people, had the third-highest murder rate in Latin America behind Colombia and El Salvador in a recent report by the Pan American Health Organization, which used figures from 2001-2003.

Chavez critics have accused him recently of failing to make crime a priority.

But supporters who gathered at the Justice Ministry said crime is a complex problem that the government has been addressing through police reforms and programs to help the poor.

“It’s a structural problem of Venezuelan society ... a problem of all Latin American society,” Justice Minister Jesse Chacon said after a meeting with the pro-Chavez student demonstrators.

The government has pledged sweeping police reforms and put up $4.6 million for a gun buyback program that will offer people between $140 and $230 to hand in revolvers and pistols.