Fernando Llano, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela — Natalia Guzman stepped hesitantly into the morgue looking for her only son. She was led to rows of refrigeration units, where after peering at more than a dozen corpses she finally found 17-year-old Jaime.
Trembling and in tears, she embraced relatives outside the building and said her son's body had been riddled with bullets. She blamed a drug-dealing gang in her slum for the killing and complained that police might have prevented it had they been patrolling her neighborhood.
The rising tide of violent crime that has engulfed Venezuela has become a top issue in the country's presidential campaign, with opposition candidate Henrique Capriles blaming President Hugo Chavez's government for failing to halt the bloodshed. Yet Guzman and many other Venezuelans appear to have lost faith in the ability of any government as well as the police to address the problem, no matter who wins the October vote.
"Crime is out of control, and I don't think any politician, neither Chavez, nor Capriles, is going to change that," Guzman said, speaking in a low voice that at times cracked when she cried.
The government says more than 14,000 people were killed in Venezuela last year, giving the country a murder rate of 50 per 100,000 people and making it one of the most violent countries in Latin America and the world. The murder rate has more than doubled since 1998, when Chavez was first elected.
At campaign rallies, Capriles has been promising to fix what he calls one of Chavez's most glaring failures, declaring: "We will have to choose between life or death."
Chavez has responded by banning gun sales, expanding a new national police force and launching an anti-crime plan with stepped-up policing and other programs in high-crime areas.
It's unclear how the political tug-of-war on crime may affect the race. But Chavez's opponents are hammering away on the issue, convinced that some voters will be swayed.
Capriles' campaign manager, Leopoldo Lopez, said as he presented the opposition's "Security for All" anti-crime plan that nearly 14 years after Chavez was first elected, the president's promises are too little, too late. "He's never made the issue of security a priority, until now when he tries to use it as a political banner," Lopez said.
Experts say violent crime has increased in the country due to easy, cheap access to guns, a culture of violence among young men in the slums, and severe shortages of police officers and prosecutors.
Criminologist Fermin Marmol Garcia said Venezuela's fundamental problem is that for more than a decade, "the institutions that weigh heavily on crime prevention and suppression were not strengthened."
In polls, Venezuelans consistently rate violent crime as their top concern. But many tend to blame long-standing institutional problems such as police forces viewed as corrupt and incapable, rather than pointing fingers at politicians.
"For Capriles, the challenge is putting the issue on the pedestal, linking it directly to Chavez, showing that he's responsible and creating hope that it's possible to solve the problem," said Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based pollster and political analyst. He said Capriles, who has been trailing in the polls, hasn't yet been able to gain traction on the issue.
Guzman isn't committed to either presidential candidate, and so far Capriles' anti-crime message hasn't resonated with her.
She said her son's motorcycle was stolen when he was killed after a street party, and she suspects the gunmen who killed him are the same toughs who terrorize her neighborhood.
"The police are almost never around when there's a problem. They always arrive hours afterward and they never capture anybody," Guzman said. "It's the thugs, not the police, who control the neighborhoods."
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