CARACAS, Venezuela – Thousands of opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lay down on a main avenue Saturday to protest violent crime, while government supporters marched to call for peace and insisted Chavez was making progress on the issue.
The opposition group filled a main avenue in a wealthy neighborhood of eastern Caracas, lying down on the pavement in chalk outlines resembling those drawn by police at crime scenes.
Thousands of others, many of them pro-Chavez students, marched to the Justice Ministry holding signs saying "For Peace" and accusing the opposition of manipulating the issue for political gain.
Many of those who lay down on the street said not enough has been done about crime.
"We want to live without fear, to go out in the streets without being afraid," said Yenny Diaz, a 21-year-old student.
The demonstrators lay face-up on the asphalt for about 15 minutes. Some held photos of crime victims.
Crowd estimates from organizers and local authorities varied widely, but reporters estimated the two demonstrations totaled more than 20,000 people.
Marchers who gathered at the Justice Ministry under the slogan "Get going for life," said crime is a complex problem that the government has been addressing through police reforms and programs to help the poor. They called for the issue not to be politicized by the opposition, and some accused government opponents of trying to provoke tensions.
"The problems of insecurity and crime aren't the fault of any political movement," said Arlen Mata, a 25-year-old student. He said Chavez's social programs and police reforms "in the long term can eliminate this problem, or at least reduce it to a minimal level."
Chavez's government says it is making progress on crime, but a series of high-profile murders sparked protests earlier this month by largely middle- and upper-class crowds demanding immediate action to make the streets safer. Police officers have been among those arrested in the crimes.
In one case, kidnappers executed three young brothers — ages 17, 13 and 12. A prominent businessman and a newspaper photographer were also murdered.
Venezuela recorded 9,402 homicides in 2005, down slightly from 2004, according to government statistics. Some experts argue the real figure is higher.
The country had the third-highest murder rate in Latin America in a recent report by the Pan American Health Organization, behind Colombia and El Salvador. The ranking used 2001-2003 figures.
The government has pledged sweeping police reforms and put up US$4.6 million (euro3.7 million) for a gun buyback program that will offer people US$140 to US$230 (euro110 to euro190) in exchange for handguns.
Justice Minister Jesse Chacon met with the student demonstrators, who handed in a document saying they hoped to be involved in searching for solutions to crime.
"It's a structural problem of Venezuelan society... a problem of all Latin American society," Chacon said, adding that the government is seeking to create better police forces and that "the doors of this ministry are open" for suggestions.
In their document, the demonstrators said they believe Venezuela's traditional capitalist values have fed the problem, and added that they were concerned some opposition groups have sought to use the issue "immorally as a political banner."
"We reject any attempt to hijack the issue of violence for political ends," said 45-year-old demonstrator Julio Ramirez. "We're here asking to participate in the search for solutions."