When the murder rate soared early in the decade, Caracas residents who could afford it bunkered down, shielding themselves behind steel bars and high walls topped with broken glass.

They spent millions of dollars on security patrols, guard dogs and bulletproof windows. The police also took action, staging roundups and detentions and setting up roadblocks to frisk motorists.Now the murder rate is down dramatically, and many parts of the city are safer.

Yet the people of Caracas aren't claiming victory. Some districts remain exceedingly dangerous, and the cost of fewer murders by civilians appears to be more killings and other abuses by police.

Police "combat the situation of poverty with indiscriminate repression," said Tarek William Saab, a human rights lawyer.

Government agents throughout Venezuela killed 151 people over the past year, the highest figure yet during President Rafael Caldera's four years in office, according to the private group Venezuelan Program of Education and Action in Human Rights. In Caracas, the number of killings by police rose from 40 in 1995 to 46 in 1997.

Government officials admit police officers sometimes commit human rights abuses but say the numbers are exaggerated. They also stress the improvement in crime statistics.

The city has seen a 37 percent drop in murders in recent years - from 3,989 in 1994 to 2,515 in 1997, according to the Judicial Technical Police, Venezuela's equivalent of the FBI.

The plunge has brought a noticeable change from the atmosphere that gave Caracas such a bad reputation it was called one of Latin America's most violent cities in a recent study by the Pan-American Health Organization.

In the past year or so, night life has picked up in upscale neighborhoods. Movie theaters have reinstated midnight showings, and Las Mercedes, the city's main district for restaurants and nightclubs, is alive until dawn.

Nonetheless, downtown Caracas and the hillside shantytowns surrounding the capital remain very dangerous, especially after dark. Most Caracas residents still don't feel safe returning to nighttime activities that were common a decade ago, such as meeting in public squares and in the streets.

The decrease in homicides "does not mean that crime has gone down," said Roberto Briceno, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela.

The sound of gunshots is still common in the slums. Dozens of adults and children die each year from stray bullets in shootouts between rival gangs or clashes between criminals and police.

Caracas' crime has been fueled by rapid urbanization, high unemployment and an abundance of guns. An inefficient and corrupt judicial system often fails to punish criminals.

Crime and poverty feed off each other in Caracas. The drop in world oil prices wreaked havoc on Venezuela's oil-based economy, and social programs have been cut, leaving the poor to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, government abuses have risen, human rights groups contend. Young people complain of a police force that detains people without explanation, without respecting rights.

"Violence also comes from the police. There are decent people out there who the police beat ruthlessly," said Milange Arberlay, a 16-year-old who recounted recently seeing a policeman strike a young man before arresting him and then insult a woman who went to his defense.

While Caracas is less murderous, much of the violence seems to have been transplanted to nearby cities, where swift population growth is overwhelming local governments' capacity to provide services.

Some experts contend that one reason for Caracas' falling murder rate is that people have learned to coexist with levels of violence unthinkable a few decades ago, when most Venezuelans lived in the countryside before an oil boom brought them to the cities.

"People have learned to protect themselves, not to be in dangerous places," said sociologist Antonio Cova.