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.
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).
Venezuelans consistently rank security as their top concern, even ahead of inflation, which rose to a 36 percent in September. According to a survey by the Caracas-based polling company Datanalisis, 80 percent of respondents report being unsatisfied with how the president has handled crime.
Still, over the past decade, Chávez has not been punished at the ballot box. Alfredo Marquez, a retired teacher, says he never leaves his house in Petare after 6 p.m. – a form of house arrest that never existed before. But he doesn't blame the president. "We have inherited the problem," he says. "The only way to end it is to continue with the revolution."
Both extreme poverty and unemployment have been halved since Chávez took office, from about 16 percent to about 7 percent last year, according to the national statistics office.
Yet the rampant violence has other residents questioning whether poverty reduction alone will work. Betty Diaz, a Petare resident, became active in the campaign of the opposition mayoral candidate, who won last month, in large part because of crime. "The situation is horrible," says Ms. Diaz, whose adult son was killed six months ago in broad daylight.
The government has begun to address the situation, including establishing a commission to address police reform and moving toward the creation of a national police force. Six months ago it also launched a program called Secure Caracas, consisting of more street and motorbike patrols by municipal police and the National Guard in the city's hot spots.
But critics of Chávez say that he does little to tackle the root causes of violence. Monica Fernandez, a researcher with the Institute for Research for Coexistence and Citizen Security, a think tank that analyzes crime, says that the impunity rate is as high as 97 percent. Of 6 million guns on the street, 4.5 million are illegal, she says. And public opinion polls show that most residents consider the police to be corrupt and inept – a view that Arenas bristles at. "They have no idea what we have to deal with," he says.
It is unclear whether crime will severely undermine Chávez's popularity. Even though it hurt him in some local races last month, most residents tend to blame the violence they suffer on a confluence of factors that has poverty at its root and the stubborn gap between rich and poor – on startling display as the municipal police wend their way down the hill of Petare, into the adjacent neighborhood of El Marques, an affluent area of orderly streets lined with laundromats, supermarkets, and restaurants.
At the subway stop here, a reggae singer called Mumbo hops into a train car and begins strumming. "The police have attacked again; the victim was surely innocent; even though the media called him a delinquent, it's not true," he croons. "Put down your guns; we can't continue like this."
Subway passengers usually ignore such performances during their commutes, but this night they clap when Mumbo finishes. Almost everyone reaches into their pockets to hand him change. Everyone, it appears, is sick of the violence.