CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez launched a federal police force on Sunday that he hopes will change the overwhelmingly negative image most Venezuelans have of their public security forces while reducing crime in one of Latin America's most violent countries.
"We are going to defeat crime," Chavez told uniformed cadets belonging to the newly formed National Bolivarian Police Force during his weekly television and radio show. "We are tackling one of our population's most sensitive problems: crime prevention."
Chavez greeted and shook hands with the officers before they began patrolling in Catia, one of the most dangerous districts of Caracas.
The 950-agent force will initially operate in the capital's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, but the government plans to boost the number of officers to 6,000 and extend its reach beyond Caracas by the end of next year.
Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said the nascent police force would seek to reduce crime through preventative rather than repressive measures and embrace the socialist ideals of Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution," a political movement named after 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"The National Police will impose a culture of peace in the barrios to eliminate the violence of the capitalist, bourgeois model that we've inherited," El Aissami said.
Armed robbery, kidnapping and murder are widespread in this poverty-stricken South American country, and polls consistently show that most Venezuelans view violent crime as the nation's most pressing problem.
Police figures released by the Justice Ministry show there were 12,257 homicides nationwide in the first 11 months of 2009 — more than eight times higher than in Texas, which has roughly the same population as Venezuela.
Venezuelans are generally distrustful of the country's police. Many citizens were not surprised when El Aissami revealed earlier this month that police are involved in 15 to 20 percent of all crimes, particularly kidnapping and murder.
In its annual report released this month, the local Provea human rights groups said police were responsible for more than 200 slayings over the last year, including 55 people who died of excessive force or torture.
"You can't trust them because you don't know if they're honest or not," said Gabriela Silva, a 34-year-old street vendor.
Silva repeated a joke that some Caracas residents tell visitors: "If you get robbed, don't shout. The police might come."