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Saturday, July 5, 2003

Police's anti-Chavez mood causes ructions in Venezuela

sabcnews.com, June 24, 2003, 09:15

Outgunned by criminals, dodging bullets, stones and fireworks at protests, Caracas's Metropolitan Police are under fire from another enemy: the government of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President.

Chavez, a progressive, is threatening to take over control of the 9 000-strong autonomous force for the second time in seven months after officers used tear gas and shotgun pellets on June 13 to disperse a violent stone-throwing mob of Chavez supporters.

The populist president regularly pillories the city police force, run by anti-Chavez mayor Alfredo Pena and known by its Spanish initials "PM", as a murderous, subversive band of coup plotters bent on trying to topple him.

State 'has monopoly of force'
Other regional units controlled by opposition state governors, who under the constitution can run their own police forces, are also viewed by Chavez as hostile. "If I have to take over these police again, I will ... We, as the state, hold the monopoly of force," Chavez said recently.

Venezuela's police and security forces have been sucked into the political maelstrom over Chavez's rule that has kept the world's No. 5 oil exporter in turmoil for over a year. Opponents of the soldier turned politician, first elected in 1998, have attempted a coup, a gruelling two-month strike and waves of street protests to try to unseat him. They accuse him of amassing dictatorial powers in a bid to install a Cuban-style government.

In this topsy-turvy world of polarised politics, Venezuela's police and security forces often appear to operate as rival armies instead of allies in preserving law and order.

Out of control
Chavez ordered the Metropolitan Police force to submit to military control last November. He accused Pena of running the force as a private army and blamed city officers for shooting dead several Chavez supporters during protests.

Opponents condemned this militarisation of the force as a move by the president to neutralise hostile armed groups in the wake of an April 2002 coup that briefly toppled him.

The Supreme Court overturned the takeover five weeks later but the Caracas force is still "policed" by army detachments embedded in their stations. Police officers say their vehicles and heavy weapons have been confiscated, leaving them with only revolvers to confront heavily armed criminals.

Government 'going too far'
"I think the initial move by the government may have been justified because the Metropolitan Police were a bit out of control and had weapons like heavy machine guns and even rocket launchers. But now the government may be going too far," one European diplomat observed.

With the rival security forces all nervously eyeing each other instead of fighting lawbreakers, crime has increased by 30% in Caracas, already one of Latin America's most violent cities. Killings, kidnappings and robberies are rife. - Reuters

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