Wave of Violent Crime Sweeps Venezuela

Victims reach the emergency room soaked in blood and dazed — wheeled in on stretchers, carried in people's arms, some still walking with the last of their strength. An elderly man shot in a robbery, a young man sprayed with gunfire, a woman who took a stray bullet in the head while on her way to church.

Venezuela is among the most violent places in Latin America, and critics of President Hugo Chavez are increasingly accusing him of failing to make crime a priority.

The government says it is making progress on the problem, but a series of particularly heinous murders sparked protests earlier this month by people demanding safer streets, and more rallies are planned for Saturday. While crime has long bedeviled Venezuelans, particularly the poor, some protesters say there's a new element to the danger now — class tensions incited by Chavez himself.

"There has always been crime, but not like this. Now they open fire and that's it," said Freddy Dos Santos, standing beside his father, who lay wounded on a gurney at a public hospital.

Relatives of 89-year-old Rodolfo Dos Santos, who was breathing through an oxygen mask, said he was shot while driving to a construction site to pay his workers. He had just braked at a hilltop when a teenager approached and shouted: "Stop!"

Dos Santos yelled for help. The teenager fired, wounding him in the chest, and then fled.

Dos Santos' son accused Chavez of virtually ignoring crime while also inciting the poor: "The president is always saying it's OK to steal in order to eat."

Chavez has not used those exact words, but he regularly launches into tirades against wealthy Venezuelans. "The rich are condemned to hell. Christ himself condemned them," Chavez said in a speech Tuesday. "I say it from the heart: to be rich is evil."

Class tension has long been a part of life in the South American country, where armed robberies, carjackings and kidnappings are frequent.

There were 9,402 homicides reported in 2005, down slightly from 2004, according to government statistics. Some experts argue the real figure is higher.

Venezuela's murder rate ranked third in Latin America in a recent report by the Pan American Health Organization, behind Colombia and El Salvador. The ranking used 2001-2003 figures and showed Venezuela just ahead of Brazil.

An underlying cause of the violence is the stark gap between rich and poor, which remains despite Chavez's talk of bringing equality, said Jonathan Jakubowicz, director of the acclaimed film "Secuestro Express," or "Express Kidnapping," which is set in Caracas.

"Chavez didn't invent the class tension; he just gave it a flag and made it a political movement," said the 28-year-old Venezuelan filmmaker. "I just hope at some point in the next few decades he is forced to control the violence, for the sake of all of us."

The film has come under fire from Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who called it a "miserable" movie that aggravates class hatred. Jakubowicz said it actually is meant to help heal societal divisions.

Angry protests broke out in Caracas earlier this month after kidnappers executed three young brothers — ages 17, 13 and 12. The protesters also cited the killings of a prominent businessman and a newspaper photographer who was shot just as he arrived at one of the protests.

With unusual speed, police have arrested suspects in all three cases. The accused include police officers — confirming public distrust of security forces widely seen as corrupt, ineffective and at times complicit in crime.

The government has pledged sweeping police reforms and also put up $4.6 million for a gun buyback program that will offer people money to hand in revolvers and pistols.

Chavez said the latest killings show symptoms of a "sick society" warped by capitalist ambitions. "It made me want to take to the streets, too," he said, accusing his enemies of trying to manipulate the issue for political gain.

Reflecting political divisions, two separate anti-crime demonstrations are planned this Saturday: one by Chavez opponents and another by students who share his view that the issue shouldn't be politicized.

Experts disagree on how much blame Chavez bears. Criminologist Fermin Marmol Leon, a former justice minister, says Chavez has failed to define a clear anti-crime strategy. Sociologist Luis Damiani argues Chavez is making progress through gradual reforms and programs aimed at reducing poverty.

In the meantime, nurses at Domingo Luciani Hospital sometimes have to treat the wounded on the floor due to a shortage of beds.

The elderly gun shot victim, Dos Santos, opened his eyes while his wife, Rosa Porras, stroked his silver hair. "You can't even go out nowadays because you're afraid of everything," she said.

Later, police burst in carrying a man with bullet wounds in his head and torso. His pulse had stopped. Two nurses made the sign of the cross over him, and one pulled a sheet over his head.

"The saddest thing is that people seem to be getting used to it," Dr. Carlos Rodriguez said. "No one is doing anything about it."