Venezuelans protest rampant violence, some liken bloodshed to 'undeclared war'

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Opponents of President Hugo Chavez marched through Caracas on Saturday to protest rampant violence that claims thousands of lives each year in Venezuela and has been worsening in the past decade.

Protesters beat on drums and held signs with images of skulls and crossbones and slogans such as "Enough" and "No more deaths."

Journalists estimated the crowd that marched through scattered rains at roughly 1,500. A hearse rolled past with a sign saying, "You could be next."

Nurse Gladys Perez said she is flabbergasted by the steady stream of people with gunshot wounds who are brought to the emergency room at the hospital where she works.

"We've had up to 60 wounded people in a weekend," said Perez, 55, adding that in her three decades as a nurse she has never seen so much bloodshed.

"There's an undeclared war here. I don't know what to call it," she said.

Venezuela has one of Latin America's highest murder rates. The government has not released complete annual statistics recently, but last year authorities said there were more than 12,000 homicides nationwide in the first 11 months of 2009.

The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an organization dedicated to crime research, has estimated more than 16,000 homicides last year in the country of 28 million people — up from less than 6,000 in 1999 when Chavez took office. According to its tally, there have been more than 123,000 homicides between 1998 and 2009.

The bullet-ridden bodies of victims fill the morgue in Caracas on weekends.

Chavez has accused his opponents of playing politics with violence that has been a long-term problem in Venezuela. He has in the past year established a new national police force.

Many protesters said the president has failed to take any significant action to confront crime. Some opposition candidates who are running for the National Assembly in Sept. 26 elections marched behind trucks with music blaring from loudspeakers and said they back measures to crack down on gun violence.

Several protesters said they are particularly incensed about one of the latest victims: a 5-year-old girl slain by a stray bullet. Her family said she died during a shootout Thursday between criminals and National Guard troops, and her killing ran atop front pages of newspapers on Saturday.

Perez said she has seven grandchildren, and "I worry about their future."