By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Legislators at the National Assembly are set to take what appears to be a rather unorthodox approach to law and order in a society notoriously renowned for gunslinging and one of the highest per capita murder rates on the planet.
The defense committee at the legislature has been looking at a proposed reform of the 70-year-old Arms and Explosive Law, which apparently has yet to be brought into line with the Bolivarian Constitution adopted by referendum at President Hugo Chávez’s behest in late 1999.
The head of the committee, Deputy Juan Mendoza, said work was “90 percent” complete. Among the proposals is one particularly eye-catching item.
This envisages what Mendoza called a “specific prohibition under which any person cannot buy more than 50 bullets a year.” Mendoza, a middle-ranking member of Chávez’s governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), said the proposal represented “a form of reducing the parameters when it comes to the use of firearms and ammunition.”
The deputy said the proposal had been drawn up in collaboration with the scientific and investigative police, CICPC – the equivalent of the FBI in Venezuela – the state security service, DISIP, the National Guard, and the Procurator General’s Office. As far as is known, none of these organizations are known to be staffed by innocents.
Mendoza said that under the reform, “nobody will be able to carry more than two clips and these must not have more than 34 rounds or bullets for personal defense.” Then he went on to extol advances he claimed had been made by the authorities in the battle against violent crime – although he made no reference to the most serious offence of all, murder.
Instead, citing a bulletin published at the Assembly, he insisted that the incidence of kidnappings had fallen by 17% in June and August. This was a preamble to saying that the reform would establish set prison terms of 20 to 30 years for anybody caught still snatching, hiding and depriving anyone of their liberty by holding them anywhere other than their own home.
Just what the hard-bitten souls at CICPC thought about all this remained a mystery as the slaughter showed no signs of abating in the approach to the weekend. In theory, the cops no longer talk to newspaper reptiles out and about on the crime beat.
But the people down at the city morgue in Bello Monte can count. They remember that in one weekend alone last month, no less than 21 dead bodies turned up in a period of no more than 16 hours. All of them had been gunned to death.
Until that particularly bloodthirsty weekend, government statisticians had been calculating on a Caracas weekend average of 13 cadavers turning up in the same number of hours.
The conservative newspaper, El Universal – not typically a friend of the government there – got to put the question to Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Assaimi in an intriguing interview published earlier this week. The topic was the government’s much-vaunted Safe Caracas Plan, under which 2,000 Metropoli
tan Police officers have sent out on to the streets to rein in the mayhem.
El Assaimi isn’t in the habit of taking, much less answering, questions about crime other than when he’s announcing another big haul of cocaine in order to refute complaints in Washington that Venezuela isn’t pulling its full weight in the war against drugs.
On this occasion, however, the minister seems to have been remarkably candid. There was little sign of the long spoon as he supped with the devil and discussed this most deadly of topics for anyone heading up the interior and justice portfolio.
El Assaimi admitted that the murder rate in the capital hadn’t gone down but hadn’t gone up, either, and had stayed more or less the same. However, he didn’t mention the Metropolitan Police, who are with suspicion if not downright fear and loathing by large swathes of the population.
The Met are supposedly to be disbanded and merged into a new national police force under a law promulgated by the president using his special powers under an Enabling Law last year.
The force’s friends very evidently don’t include Alejandro Moreno, a Jesuit priest who wrote a book entitled “And I Went Out to Kill people.” He said the first thing that had to be done was weed out bad cops from the Metropolitan Police – many of whose officers are said to have put themselves forward for the new national force.
“Here the people see the Metropolitan Police in the street and it gives them fear,” he said. “They don’t feel safe, and that’s because they (the cops) have been involved in a quantity of crimes. The problem of crime in Venezuela isn’t resolved by isolated initiatives but by integral plans,” he argued, without detailing of what these might consist.
Outside the capital, two men were brought before a court and ordered to be held in custody in connection with the slaying on September 12 of Mayor Lluvane Álvarez of Panamericano, a town in Táchira state, which borders on Colombia. Álvarez is said to have been shot at least seven times at the door of this house, which he had opened in answer to a knock.
The mayor hailed from the opposition Social Christian party, Copei, and Táchira was one of three states that ditched Chavez's PSUV at the regional elections in November last year.
CICPC, who say they’re after several other suspects who are thought to have been involved in the murder, have ruled out a political motive in this case. Instead, their working hypothesis is that this killing had something to do with smuggling over the border.
Commerce Minister Ediardo Samán recently claimed that thousands of tons of Venezuelan coffee were disappearing into Colombia in search of higher prices. The National Guard say they’ve arrested whole truckloads of contraband coffee, food and gasoline bound for a clandestine crossing of the border.
In Barquisimeto, capital of Lara state, the fact that police sergeant Eulogio Suáre was out on patrol carrying his regulation issue Glock pistol didn’t deter two bad guys. They attacked him anyway and promptly killed him on a street corner at 11 o’clock in t
It turned out that what they had been after was the gun. This happened in the middle of a high profile crackdown on crime in a rough barrio of the city in which over a hundred officers had been deployed.
In Aragüita, Miranda state, a worker at the state-run low-cost market chain, Mercal, was cut down while he was playing cards with four kids. Afterwards, his sister said that a month ago he’d had a fight with a local villain known as “El Gordo” (The Fat One) and had then run into the same individual on the street that night.
Fatso was in the company of two other thugs locally known as “El Chino” and “Omar.” Henry José López, 20, begged these grim reapers to spare his life, but to no avail. They shot him twice at point blank range. Neighbors who live in terror of this mini-mob say they do this sort of thing all the time, so perhaps it could be said that Henry José should have known better.
In the president’s home state, Barinas, protesters blocked a highway outside a local National Guard barracks in a town called Socopó after a local tradesman, Gerardo Méndez, had been gunned down by men on motorbikes
Back in the capital, on Friday, they buried Carlos Daniel Carrasquel, alias El Bachaco (Big Ant), the head of a notoriously violent gang that went under his nickname. He and nine of his associates in crime met their maker in what’s officially described as a clash with the cops a district called El Cementerio last Tuesday.