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Will Venezuela's murder rate hurt Chávez?

Since Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, the homicide rate has gone from 63 to 130 murders per every 100,000 inhabitants. It's one of the world's worst rates.

By Staff writer / December 3, 2008

Hands up: Police searched suspects during a recent patrol in the hillside slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela. The city now has one of the world's highest murder rates.

Jorge Silva/Reuters

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Caracas, Venezuela

It's Friday night in Petare, a hillside slum in Venezuela's crime-ridden capital, Caracas. A barber cocks his head back, and lets out a laugh, as he trims a client's hair. A child runs across the street after a ball. Teens gather precariously on a ledge.

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It's a slice of "barrio" life in all its intensity, and even joy, but Oscar Arenas, a police officer who patrols Petare, says visitors should not be deceived. This is now one of the deadliest neighborhoods in Latin America, and at any moment the salsa music pouring out of cars, corner stores, and living rooms can be interrupted by a hail of bullets.

Caracas has become the murder capital of South America – registering a homicide rate that exceeds that of Bogotá, Colombia, where a decades-long civil war has simmered, and Mexico City, where escalating drug violence generates some of world's most gruesome headlines. Last year, there were 130 murders for every 100,000 habitants in Caracas, according to government numbers released by the Center for Peace and Human Rights at the Central University of Venezuela.

Crime sits at the top of the list of concerns for Venezuelans. And while allies of President Hugo Chávez won the majority of seats across the country during local elections last month, the party lost key municipal mayoral seats in Caracas, even in rough-and-tumble neighborhoods like Petare, which have long been strongholds for the leftist leader.

"Insecurity is horrible here; the government does nothing about it," says Roni Escalona, a resident of Petare who says he knows people who kill and sell drugs but face no justice because the system does not work and corruption reigns. "You feel a grand impotence."

From afar, Petare looks like a Christmas tree – with homes along the hill lit up with simple bulbs. Climbing deep into the neighborhood, as the police patrol on a recent Friday night – the deadliest night in Caracas along with Saturday – the streets get darker and sparsely populated. A pack of men lets out a whistle warning others that police are in the area.

Right then, Mr. Arenas's cellphone rings: It's an anonymous call about a man shot on a sidewalk. A woman has seen a gang of men head behind a house to stash their arms. It's nothing unusual, Arenas says. With 2,710 homicides in Caracas last year, that's an average of seven killings a night.

Since president Chávez was elected in 1998, the homicide rate in the capital has more than doubled from 63 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants to 130 today. The country has experienced a parallel spike: from 20 to 48. That compares with a homicide rate in the US of 5.6, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

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