Children armed with assault weapons spark controversy in Venezuela

President Hugo Chavez has condemned photos of children posing with assault rifles at a pro-government group's event. But the opposition still blames Chavez.

By , Guest blogger

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Images of children armed with what look like assault weapons have sparked a heated debate in Venezuela over President Hugo Chavez’s support for armed militias in the country.

Colectivo La Piedrita is a pro-Chavez group based in western Caracas which bills itself as a community political organization but which Chavez himself has previously denounced (in Spanish). On January 23, La Piedrita celebrated the anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958.

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This week, photos emerged which appear to have been taken at the event and posted on the group’s Facebook page, showing children carrying M-16 assault rifles. The children are wearing bandanas and seated in front of a mural depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary holding Kalashnikovs. Other photos, seemingly from the same event, suggest that Venezuelan congressman Robert Serra was present, indicating some level of official support for the display.

The release of the photos caused something of a political firestorm in Venezuela. Potential presidential opposition politician Pablo Perez (in Spanish) criticized the photos, saying: "Instead of guns, these children should have a computer, a book, a bat, a ball, a glove, or a musical instrument."

The Chavez administration itself has condemned the images, with Interior Minister Tarek El-Aissami calling them “morally reprehensible" (in Spanish).

Diego Arria, another strong opponent of Chavez, criticized the president via Twitter, claiming that the President only distanced himself from the photos because they were distributed so widely.

For his part, Serra has said that the photos taken of the children were taken at a separate event in November, which he did not attend. Meanwhile, Colectivo La Piedrita claims that the rifles were made of plastic (in Spanish), and were part of a skit meant to commemorate the demobilization of guerrilla groups in the country during the 1960s. The children allegedly handed over toy rifles in exchange for copies of the Constitution.

InSight Crime Analysis

The incident draws attention to the highly politicized nature of Venezuelan society. Ever since Chavez took office, the discourse used by his supporters and detractors has become extremely polarized. Chavez has not helped this issue by arming civilian militias for political purposes, which may have contributed to the rise in street violence in the country.

The sight of small children with guns in their hand, real or not, touches on the broader issue of youth violence in Venezuela. As InSight Crime has reported, guns are widely available among poor youths in the country, and gun violence disproportionately affects those between 15 and 29 years old.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey  is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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