Amid political divisions, crime festers in Venezuela

Blanketing walls and lampposts of La Matica, a poor barrio in the hills south of Caracas, is the moustachioed image of the ruling party's candidate.

"Nicolas Maduro presidente." A Miranda state police officer sardonically reads out that name during a nighttime patrol along streets where violent crime is rife and growing worse amid the deep political divisions left with last month's death of president Hugo Chavez.

The state of Miranda, which includes part of Caracas, has been singled out by Maduro's government as the most violent in the country. It blames the state of affairs on its governor, Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate for president in Sunday's election to replace Chavez.

"Politics shouldn't get mixed up with security. In these communities there are all kinds of people and we, indifferent to the colors they wear or how they think, watch out for their security," said Franklin Jose Soto, one of the police officers on the night patrol.

The barrio's streets empty of people as soon as night falls. Drug trafficking, kidnapping, robberies, and deadly score settling form a dismal backdrop in the daily lives of its inhabitants.

On this night patrol, the highest earning police officer makes less than 5,000 bolivars a month, $739 at the official exchange rate.

Speaking in low voices, the officers acknowledge that having an opposition leader for governor does not help with salary increases or obtaining equipment. In recent years, dozens of fellow officers have gone to other police forces or taken jobs with private security firms.

"Everything has become politicized. We are working for everyone equally but if we stop someone with a red shirt (Chavez's color) we are accused of being opposition police," said Martin Garcia, the officer in charge.

Two years ago, Soto was shot six times during a night patrol. He was saved by good luck and a bullet-proof vest.

"I have been here 15 years and I have worked with very different governments. I've been the same policeman with all of them. But this is difficult, because the criminal is better armed than we are and there isn't a quiet day. You know what time you leave on patrol but you don't know if you'll come back," he said.

The night patrol stops to check out a group of young drunks who clearly do not appreciate police who work "under Capriles' orders."

"Chavez, I swear to you, I will vote for Maduro," taunts one of them, using a Maduro campaign slogan.

"The criminals hide weapons up there," Garcia says, pointing to a hillside. "We are allowed to carry only a revolver and vests designed to stop 3.57 caliber bullets. That is worthless against them because they have the best assault rifles."

Counting the dead instead of preventing deaths

Venezuela had more than 16,000 homicides in 2012, according to official figures, making it one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America. Despite millions invested to combat it, violent crime is the biggest source of public anxiety.

Last year, the government spent nearly 1.6 billion bolivars, nearly $250 million, to strengthen the National Bolivarian Police, according to official figures.

Curbing violence is also a priority of the two candidates for the Venezuelan presidency.

According to the government, there were 2,576 homicides in Miranda in 2012. "The state of Miranda continues being the champion in everything bad," Interior and Justice Minister Nestor Reverol said recently.

Of the 3,400 murders committed in Venezuela during the first three months of this year, 545 were in Miranda.

"For me the idea isn't to count deaths but to prevent them, but that is something that not everyone in Venezuela understands," Elisio Guzman, chief of the Miranda police, told AFP in an interview.

Guzman has 2,500 police officers working under him, which represents 30 percent of the state's security forces. Municipal police forces, national police and the National Guard also operate in Miranda.

Guzman refuses to talk about politics, but he spends a lot of time rebutting the government's statistics on violent crime, and laments that he has no direct contact with the government to coordinate efforts.

He avoids laying blame for the increase of violence in Venezuela over the past 10 years but acknowledges that Chavez "was a factor."

"I would ask Minister Reverol how is it possible that in the Capital District, (which encompasses much of Caracas) -- a smaller area with fewer inhabitants and nearly 3,000 more agents than in all of the state of Miranda -- you have a murder rate that is higher than ours," he said.

The police chief admits that the Miranda police force is held hostage to the political struggle between the central government and Capriles, and is being slowly suffocated, starved of equipment and financial resources.

"It would seem that the politicians are not pursuing the security of the people but rather that of the government. And it should be noted, we Venezuelans weren't like this before."