Friday, April 21, 2006

Wave of Violent Crime Sweeps Venezuela

Wave of Violent Crime Sweeps Venezuela

Venezuela is among the most violent places in Latin America, and critics of President Hugo Chavez are increasingly accusing him of failing to make crime a priority.

The government says it is making progress on the problem, but a series of particularly heinous murders sparked protests earlier this month by people demanding safer streets, and more rallies are planned for Saturday. While crime has long bedeviled Venezuelans, particularly the poor, some protesters say there's a new element to the danger now - class tensions incited by Chavez himself.

"There has always been crime, but not like this. Now they open fire and that's it," said Freddy Dos Santos, standing beside his father, who lay wounded on a gurney at a public hospital.

Relatives of 89-year-old Rodolfo Dos Santos, who was breathing through an oxygen mask, said he was shot while driving to a construction site to pay his workers. He had just braked at a hilltop when a teenager approached and shouted: "Stop!"

Dos Santos yelled for help. The teenager fired, wounding him in the chest, and then fled.

Dos Santos' son accused Chavez of virtually ignoring crime while also inciting the poor: "The president is always saying it's OK to steal in order to eat."

Chavez has not used those exact words, but he regularly launches into tirades against wealthy Venezuelans. "The rich are condemned to hell. Christ himself condemned them," Chavez said in a speech Tuesday. "I say it from the heart: to be rich is evil."

Class tension has long been a part of life in the South American country, where armed robberies, carjackings and kidnappings are frequent.

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