In Venezuela, killings of Caracas police are on rise
The increase in cop deaths is attributable in part to Venezuela’s out-of-control crime, which has become the No. 1 issue in the presidential race.
LOS TEQUES, Venezuela — As he and his partner drove at dusk through a warren of metal and concrete-block shacks that’s a haven for car thieves, bank robbers and kidnappers, Alexander Reyes said he’s just hoping to survive eight more years to retirement age.
But sometimes the muscular police squad commander and father of four questions the odds of making it.
Police officers in Caracas’ five boroughs and outlying suburbs such as this one are coming under increasingly deadly fire from gang members and hardened criminals. In metropolitan Caracas, 66 officers have been killed in the line of duty this year. That’s nearly as many as the 72 killed in the United States during all of 2011.
Concern was etched into Reyes’ face as the 37-year-old patrolled in his SUV through the winding streets of El Nacional, one of the densely populated hillside shantytowns that define the capital’s southwestern limits. He knows that criminals love Los Teques’ El Nacional barrio for its easy access to the Panamerican Highway, which connects Caracas with the interior.
“It’s an ideal escape route,” Reyes said. “Rents are pretty low and there is a lot of construction work around,” pointing across a canyon to huge concrete pylons sticking up like giant tuning forks, part of the Caracas subway expansion project.
Asked to explain why the death toll for police in greater Caracas is up 45% over last year, he fingered his Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and said the gun had become a coveted trophy for what he called “delinquents.” Killing a cop also lends prestige to malandros, a Spanish term for bad guys, in Venezuela’s underworld and confers status to gang members who control drug sales and extortion rackets from prisons.
In an interview at his headquarters office, Miranda state police director Eliseo Guzman agreed. “Killing a policeman sends a message to other gangs that they control the territory,” he said.
The spate of police killings can be attributed in part to Venezuela’s out-of-control crime wave. It’s become the No. 1 election issue — topping by a 2-1 ratio the next most important theme, the economy — in this year’s presidential race. Polls show that voters see President Hugo Chavez’s inability to curb the violence as the fiery leader’s biggest liability in the Oct. 7 balloting.
Pictured: Squad commander Alexander Reyes is among the Venezuelan police officers coming under increasingly deadly fire from gang members and hardened criminals in Caracas. (Chris Kraul / For The Times)