CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez ordered the federal takeover of the Caracas police force Saturday, sending soldiers and armored vehicles to stations throughout the capital. His opponents vowed to block the move and mounted street protests.
Thousands jammed a central highway, while other Venezuelans demonstrated in city streets. The police chief refused to resign and the man appointed by the Chavez government to replace him refused the post.
Citizens gathered outside at least one police station, banging pots to protest Chavez's move and yelling "Get out!" at soldiers in armored vehicles who aimed their rifles at the building.
It wasn't clear by late Saturday night if Chavez's takeover order had been fully carried out. But the move overshadowed efforts by the Organization of American States to broker a democratic solution to the increasingly violent conflict between Chavez and the opposition in a major oil supplier to the United States.
Chavez's Deputy Citizen Security Minister Alcides Rondon said the government was taking command of the 9,000-strong police force to end a 1-month dispute among officers. He cited laws that allow government intervention in times of crisis.
Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello said that city police would share duties with the National Guard, Venezuela's countrywide police force, but opposition mayors and state governors with jurisdiction over parts of Caracas vowed to ignore an army order for "mixed" police patrols.
The government said it had to move to end the dispute between police officers that has lasted 47 days. Pro-Chavez Police Sgt. Jorge Alvarado seized a key precinct in Caracas in October to stop opposition Mayor Alfredo Pena from forcing him into retirement.
On Wednesday, the government sent 2,000 soldiers into the streets, a day after police officers clashed with each other and Chavez supporters. Two people were killed and dozens wounded.
Opposition leaders claim the move is aimed at neutralizing Pena, a major Chavez adversary. Chavez has repeatedly claimed Pena is plotting a coup with opposition leaders.
Rondon appointed Emigdio Delgado as new director of the police force, replacing Henry Vivas. But Delgado recognized Vivas as the legitimate director and declined the post. Later, Rondon appointed commissioner Gonzalo Sanchez as new chief.
The officers who seized the key precinct in Caracas rejected Delgado's unexpected resignation and vowed to ignore orders handed down by Vivas.
Gunshots were heard outside the precinct, located in Caracas' Cotiza district. It wasn't immediately clear who was firing.
Rondon told reporters the National Guard was being deployed in Cotiza to maintain public order.
Pena urged dissident officers to give up control of the precinct, which serves as the police force's communications center and arms depot, "to avoid a bloodbath."
On the other side of town, flag-waving Chavez opponents and officers loyal to Pena gathered outside the local Globovision television station, where Delgado quit, to voice their support for his decision.
Pena called the intervention "a coup ordered by Chavez" and vowed to challenge the measure at the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the nation's highest court. Opposition leaders planned to stage a march in Caracas on Tuesday to protest the measure.
Several leaders already said they would not recognize the police takeover.
"We don't recognize Emigdio Delgado as the head of the metropolitan police," said Henrique Capriles, mayor of Caracas' Baruta district.
The measure threatened to jeopardize negotiations between Chavez' government and the opposition. They want an early, nonbinding referendum on whether he should step down, while Chavez argues the earliest a referendum can be called under the constitution is August 2003 — halfway through his six-year term.
Pena called on leaders of the Democratic Coordinator, an assemblage of opposition groups pushing for Chavez' ouster at the ballot box, to end talks with the government.
Opposition leaders claim Chavez is trying to intimidate his adversaries and disrupt the negotiations. They promised to keep talks going.
"This is Chavez' strategy, he's trying to make the opposition leave the negotiation table. But we aren't going to fall into that trap," said Henrique Salas, governor of central Carabobo state.
Chavez supporters claim Pena is using the Caracas police to quash pro-Chavez rallies while protecting opposition marchers.
"I cannot permit the metropolitan police to continue trampling the people, violating the people's rights," Chavez said during a recent broadcast of his weekly radio program.
Chavez survived a two-day coup in April, one sparked in part by a general strike and the slayings of 19 people at an opposition march.