CARACAS, Venezuela — On their daily cable car rides to and from home in Venezuela's capital, Maria Gonzalez and Jose Rafael Suarez soar in a bubble of safety far above the deadly, trash-strewn streets below.
Untouchable for 17 minutes, they peer at the expanse of dank, narrow alleys and the zinc roofs of shanties, some built four stories tall. Stray bullets and thugs on motorcycles fly through the streets, and people scurry home as soon as night falls.
"There are a lot of kids in the street using drugs, with guns," said Gonzalez while riding the newly inaugurated cable car one afternoon to the plastics factory where she and Suarez work.
Her 27-year-old friend gazed down at the sea of slum roofs.
"It's very hard to change all this," he said.
That frustration defines this 28-million-person country, which has seen shootings, kidnappings and other crime infiltrate every aspect of daily life. Whole neighborhoods that used to buzz with street life are abandoned at night, while foreign diplomats and working-class Venezuelans alike fall prey to so-called express kidnappings that whisk victims away to the nearest cash machines.
Amid a list of woes, including double-digit inflation and crumbling infrastructure, rampant crime is seen by many as the main failing of the late President Hugo Chavez's government, and one that a whole swath of this shell-shocked country has lost hope of correcting.
Just last week, the U.N. Development Program found that Venezuela suffered the world's fifth highest homicide rate, with 45 out of every 100,000 people killed in 2010, trailing only Honduras, El Salvador, the Ivory Coast and Jamaica. The nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates the homicide rate was much higher last year, at 73 per 100,000 people.
That murder rate has doubled since 1999, when Chavez was first elected president, officials say. And kidnappings increased 26-fold from 1999 to 2011, according to a study by the civic group Active Peace, which studies safety issues.
The government not only can't rein in the problem, it won't even say how bad it is. Officials stopped releasing official crime statistics in 2005, leaving it to nonprofit groups to sort through the casualties.
"I calculate that 20 to 25 years back, we had a problem that was moderate to grave and became a critical one in the last 15 years," said Active Peace director Luis Cedeno. "We are at war with each other."1 comment on this story
Now, the violence has emerged as a top campaign issue as opposition Gov. Henrique Capriles challenges Chavez successor Nicolas Maduro in an April 14 election.
Capriles has repeatedly blamed Maduro for failing to stop the killings and assaults, although he has offered few details on the campaign trail about what he would do.
"We are living the worst situation of public safety in the history of our country in the last 100 days," Capriles told thousands of supporters Saturday.
Capriles campaign public safety coordinator Luis Izquiel said the opposition plan advocates spending more federal money on fighting crime, depoliticizing the criminal justice system and building more prisons.