Venezuela's political crisis pits soldiers against police

President Chávez ordered the Army to seize control of Caracas police stations this month, raising new tensions.

At the foot of the Avila mountain towering over this capital city, camouflaged, helmeted soldiers rub shoulders nervously with policemen in blue and tan. Here, at the Maripérez headquarters of the city's police motorcycle brigade, the latest episode in Venezuela's deepening political crisis is playing out.

At the order of President Hugo Chávez, the motorcycle squadron's headquarters - along with all other Caracas police precincts and divisional headquarters - was seized by the military Nov. 16. President Chávez has said he made the decision because the police are becoming increasingly politicized. The 9,000-strong municipal police - whom Chávez calls "the armed spearhead of the opposition" - has protected opposition marches and used what the government says is excessive force against the violent, pro-Chávez mobs that attack them.

Rifles at the ready, the soldiers control police access to the Maripérez station. "It's an extremely uncomfortable situation," says motorcycle brigade commander Miguel Antonio Pinto. "We feel like we're under surveillance."

The standoff over control of the police is emblematic of the divisions afflicting Venezuela.

César Gaviría, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, has spent most of the past few weeks in Caracas, chairing talks between the government and the opposition officials aimed at producing "an electoral solution" to the political crisis.The opposition has presented a mass petition for a nonbinding referendum on Chávez's presidency, but government negotiators reject the idea. They say the earliest a vote can be called under the constitution is August 2003 - the halfway point of Chávez's six-year term.

Meanwhile, the government and the opposition are accusing each other of seeking a violent solution. The past week has seen extremist opposition supporters block Caracas's main highway with burning barricades, and the declaration of a general strike to force Chávez out if no solution is found by Dec. 2.

Political analyst and Chávez expert Alberto Garrido says that the president has yielded in the past only when faced with a superior military force. "He surrendered on Feb.4 [1992, after a failed coup d'état] and on April 11 [this year, when the armed forces withdrew their support after 19 died in a street demonstration]."

"What we have here is an application of national security doctrine," Mr. Garrido adds, referring to the use of the armed forces against the domestic opposition - a tactic used by South American dictatorships of the 1970s. "Now they can use provocation, in a country which is both armed and increasingly anarchic."

In early October, the Caracas police command center was taken over by a few dozen striking cops who said they were owed money by city authorities. They put the police radio network out of action, forcing their colleagues to use an inferior alternative loaned by the fire brigade. A judge issued an injunction ordering the strikers removed. But when the government finally ordered the national guard to execute the order, it took the side of the strikers, lending credence to Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña's accusation that the dispute was invented as an excuse for the takeover.

Peña, once an ally of the president, became an avowed foe soon after his mid-2000 election as mayor.

The police radio network is still out of action. "We're working at half-strength," says motorcycle brigade commander Pinto. His men are obliged to patrol in groups, for fear of being unable to call for backup if attacked. They are limited to sidearms, and when opposition groups marched across town last week to protest the takeover, the motorcycle cops were told they could patrol only on foot - and unarmed. Mayor Peña has applied to the supreme court for a ruling that the police takeover is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, one of the most crime-ridden cities in Latin America is increasingly at the mercy of muggers, bank-robbers and drug gangs.

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