Political violence threatens crime-ridden Venezuela

With one of the world's highest murder rates, Venezuela's daily Russian roulette with violent crime now has an added spin: the threat of political violence due to the country's election impasse.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the archbishop of Caracas who has appealed to Venezuelan leaders to tone down their rhetoric, with little apparent success, worries about the dovetailing trends in a deeply divided society.

"There is an increase in aggressiveness generally among the Venezuelan people and we have to reduce it, eliminate it and strive to respect life," he told AFP.

Common crime and political violence get mixed up, so it is difficult to tell them apart.

"One thing joins another, and a level of influence cannot be established, but we must convince Venezuelans that dialogue is better than conflict," Urosa said.

Venezuela has the highest homicide rate in South America, with 54 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. In the first four months of the year alone, there were 3,400 homicides, according to government figures.

A UN report published in September ranked it number six in the world for murders, out of 206 countries surveyed.

According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a non-governmental agency, the fact that 90 percent of violent crimes are never solved drives Venezuelans to take "justice" into their own hands.

With armed robberies or kidnappings for ransom sometimes playing out in plain view on busy streets in Caracas, daily life has turned into a wary quest for security that affects Venezuelans at all levels of society.

At night, people stay indoors, streets are empty and drivers stop at red lights at their peril.

"We are all afraid of each other," said Adriana del Valle, a 58-year-old pensioner in the crowded center of the city.

"You get on a bus and you're afraid because you don't know who else is on board, and those inside look at you fearfully because they don't know who is getting on."

Meanwhile, the country is angry and on edge over disputed April 14 elections that erupted in violent protests after Nicolas Maduro was proclaimed president with an 1.8 percent margin of victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

The government, which blames Capriles for the violence and accuses him of seeking a coup, has said nine people were killed, 78 injured and 25 clinics for the poor were attacked. The clinics were apparently targeted because Cuban medical personnel work in them.

"We appeal for reflection, that they back off, that they not listen to those calls for violence that have been made in some cases," Health Minister Eugenia Sader said on the state-run VTV television.

The opposition coalition, along with the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers and two human rights advocacy groups, said hundreds of people were arrested after the protests and some reported being beaten beaten.

Government employees suspected of voting against Maduro also have been threatened with dismissal, according to rights groups, the opposition and the Catholic church.

So on top of violent crime -- the top concern of 80 percent of Venezuelans, according to polls -- is an increasingly belligerent political climate of threats and non-stop verbal attacks.

"On the one hand, there is a kind of structural violence, and the other, politically induced attacks," said sociologist Nicmer Evans.

While Evans sees the two as unrelated phenomena, others say the combination of street violence and politics is a bright strand running through Venezuelan history from its war for independence against Spain in the early 19th century.

"There were riots here in 1812 and at every moment of social upheaval," sociologist and essayist Miguel Angel Campos said, recalling the military uprising in 1992 in which the late Hugo Chavez made his dramatic political debut.

Since then, there have been two failed coup attempts, including one that ousted Chavez for 48 hours before it was reversed by loyalist military officers.

"There needs to be recognition of the civil, social and political rights of all Venezuelans on the part of the government," said Urosa, calling on the government to "put aside that aggressive, violent language, those permanent attacks that gain us nothing."

"We have to live as one single people," he said.