Group: Near 14,000 murders in Venezuela last year

Close to 14,000 people were murdered in Venezuela last year and the figure could be significantly higher, a prominent human rights group said Thursday, alluding to the rampant crime that has become a central concern of Venezuelans.

Venezuela has one of Latin America's highest murder rates and the government has stopped releasing complete annual figures, making arriving at an exact figure difficult.

In its annual report, the Provea human rights group said a total of 13,985 people were slain last year, but thousands more in this country of 28 million inhabitants were likely killed. The group accused government officials of using statistical loopholes to "hide the true dimension of the phenomenon."

The report said official homicide figures fail to included the number of "unresolved deaths," a term that means authorities have not yet determined the cause of death. Those deaths topped 4,200 in 2009.

Incomplete official statistics also leave out the number of Venezuelans killed during clashes with police, which accounted for 2,685 violent deaths, according to the report.

"There's no coherent anti-crime policy," Provea leader Marino Alvarado said in a telephone interview after the report was released. "The government needs to develop short, medium and long-term policies based on consensus with other representatives of society."

Government officials could not be immediately reached Thursday evening for comment.

President Hugo Chavez has conceded that crime is a major problem and he argues that his government is doing everything it can to make Venezuela safer. But he also accuses non-governmental organizations, along with the media, of exaggerating the scope of the problem.

Venezuelans consistently identify rampant crime as the country's most-pressing problem.

In a survey carried out by Venezuela's National Statistics Institute last year, which was cited in Provea's report, 61 percent of the 6.42 million people surveyed called violent crime a "very serious" problem while 33 percent called it "serious." Some 4.7 percent called the problem "fairly serious" while between 1 and 2 percent said crime was not a major problem or refused to respond to the inquiry. The poll did not give a margin of error.

Chavez's government has not released complete annual statistics recently, but last year authorities said there were more than 12,000 homicides in the first 11 months of 2009.

"Not making the statistics public doesn't help develop good policies," Alvarado said.

The bullet-ridden bodies of victims fill morgues on weekends, and the vast majority of murder cases go unsolved.

Venezuelans are generally distrustful of the country's police. Many citizens were not surprised when Justice Minister El Aissami revealed last year that police are involved in 15 to 20 percent of all crimes, particularly kidnapping and murder.

In its report, Provea said police were responsible for more than 230 slayings over the last year, including 26 people who died of excessive force or torture.

"It's very difficult to fight crime when police are involved in so many violations of human rights," Alvarado said.

Provea said it arrived at its numbers by reviewing police reports, the media, independent investigations and sources inside the federal police department who they declined to identify.