Crime and class in Caracas.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 27 2006 6:56 AM

Crime and Class in Caracas

Security is the No. 1 issue in Venezuela's Dec. 3 presidential election.

(Continued from Page 1)

The motorcycles used by the Libertador police bear little resemblance to the powerful and bulky bikes ridden by police in the United States. Climbing the steep and often narrow streets of the city's hillside barrios requires something lighter and more flexible, a motorcycle that is more akin to a dirt bike than a patrol vehicle. Strapped to the back of one such bike, I joined a squadron of 20 motorcycles for a sweep of the Zea de Cochebarrio in southwest Caracas.

Ironically, the city's poorest neighborhoods make for a hauntingly beautiful sight when seen from a distance. Shantytowns made of metal and concrete are stacked on top of each other like a house of cards. Many of the homes in the Caracas barrios have a single light bulb hanging over their front door. When seen from a distance, the sea of barrio lights appears to waver and twinkle. It is a staggeringly beautiful effect made possible by the gasses rising from the open refuse and sewage, a product of a dense concentration of people and poverty.

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As the patrol pulled off the highway and into the barrio's narrow entrance, the inhabitants immediately scattered. Riding toward the head of the pack, my bike stopped short when the driver spotted the first group of teenage boys. Like a well-rehearsed play, guns were drawn, legs were spread, and hands were pressed up against the nearest wall. These kids had done nothing to provoke the suspicions of the police, but that didn't make any difference. They were detained for a good 15 minutes as their pockets were searched and their criminal records were checked. No one was arrested.

For roughly three hours, we swept through the entire barrio. There was no planning or intelligence involved, no probable cause was ever cited for stopping men at gunpoint and demanding identification. It was a demonstration of pure muscle, nothing more than a blunt show of force. When I asked one officer why he had thrown a passing vagrant onto the ground, handcuffed him, and searched the man's pockets when his only crime had been to walk in front us, his answer was simple: "The man looked like a crackhead, didn't he?"

Around 11:30, we left Zea de Coche and headed back to headquarters. To my surprise, the patrol was over. We had stopped 30 to 40 people but made just one arrest. As I dismounted, I wondered why the night had come to an end so soon.

"Don't you guys need all your manpower on a Friday night?" I asked the officer who had been driving my bike. "You have 2 million people in this district."

"Sure, we have police who stay on patrol all night in case of emergency, but who wants to do what we did all night?" he answered. "What's the point?"

Sacha Feinman is a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. He has written for the New Republic, Fortune, and Reason.

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