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Venezuela Faces Crime Epidemic


Now, let's talk about law enforcement in a lawless place. Venezuela had more than 16,000 homicides last year. That's the world's second-highest murder rate. John Otis reports on why criminals have the upper hand.


JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: I'm on night patrol with the police in Petare, a sprawling mountainside slum that's one of the most dangerous areas of Caracas. The upper reaches of Petare are so steep that the streets give way to a winding foot paths and staircases which make perfect hideaways for criminals.


OTIS: At this checkpoint, for example, the police stop a stolen SUV. The driver jumps out and runs, and the police pursue him on motorcycles.


OTIS: But the thief ducks into a dark alleyway and vanishes. It's like that all night, with the police seemingly helpless to do much about crime. Venezuela's lawlessness, analysts say, is fueled by the country's economic crisis, a rise in poverty and drug trafficking and the expansion of the street gangs.

ORLANDO NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Another problem is that there just aren't enough police officers to chase after delinquents," so says Orlando Nunez, a 23-year police veteran. Even as crime rises, Nunez says the number of police officers in Petare has fallen. Recruiting new cops is difficult because their monthly salary amounts to just $50 on the black market exchange rate. What's more, they receive limited training and are sent into the streets with poor equipment.

NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This police pickup I'm riding in lacks bulletproof glass and armor plating. Officers carry pistols but are sometimes ambushed by gangsters with automatic rifles and explosives.

NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Nunez tells me he's been shot once in the right hand, twice in the legs, twice in the back and once in the head.

NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Despite protests from his wife and five kids, Nunez says he keeps at it because he loves the adrenaline rush from battling criminals. Another survivor is motorcycle policeman Dehiber Rodriguez, who's had several grenades thrown at him.


OTIS: "I was lucky," Rodriguez says. "They blew up underneath cars or some distance away from me." But many of his colleagues have been less fortunate. Last year, criminals killed 268 Venezuelan police officers. By contrast, in the United States, which has 10 times Venezuela's population, just 27 law enforcement officers were killed in 2013. That was the last year for which FBI data were available.


OTIS: For all the danger they face, Venezuelan police receive little support from the population. As we venture on foot into an especially rugged part of the slum, people eye us with suspicion. Veronica Villamizar, who was recently mugged, claims the police mistreat people and usually avoid the most dangerous areas of Petare.

VERONICA VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It's really strange to see the police patrolling here," she says, "this rarely happens." Near the end of his shift, Rodriguez, the motorcycle policeman, detains his first and only suspect of the night. He's an 18-year-old carrying a fake handgun that looks so real it could easily be used to rob people. But putting bad guys behind bars is difficult in Venezuela due to low conviction rates and overcrowded prisons.


OTIS: Rodriguez handcuffs the suspect and puts him in a squad car, but because he was not caught in the act of committing a crime, he will soon be released. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Caracas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.