Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
PETARE, Venezuela (AP) — Stern-looking soldiers clutching assault rifles wave down the beat-up Chevy Caprice entering this sprawling slum on the outskirts of Caracas.
Flashlights in his face, the driver steps out and places his hands on the roof while the soldiers frisk him for drugs and weapons.
He’s clean, and a hand gesture from the commanding officer sends him off into the maze of ramshackle homes that is Petare, one of the most dangerous parts of Venezuela’s notoriously crime-infested capital.
Since Monday, this scene is playing out day and night at dozens of military checkpoints set up here in the socialist government’s latest attempt to control the oil-rich country’s pandemic of violence.
Critics dismiss the “Secure Homeland” initiative as a political charade that risks degenerating into human rights abuses while having no lasting impact on crime. But to many residents, weary of being terrorized by armed gangs, seeing troops on the streets is a welcome projection of government power.
“You have to act forcefully so that people feel the force of the state,” said 47-year-old Irving Garcia, an unemployed former Army reservist, who like many Caracas residents has firsthand experience of violent crime. Garcia said he was shot in the chest when he unknowingly walked into a restaurant robbery. The bullet shattered his sternum, he said, inviting a reporter to feel a piece of protruding bone through his shirt.
With some 15,000 killings a year, Venezuela’s homicide rate is the fifth highest in the world, according to U.N. statistics. The murder rate doubled during the 14-year-rule of the late President Hugo Chavez as cheap access to guns and an ineffective justice system fed a culture of violence in slums like Petare, parts of which have become no-go zones for outsiders, including police.
Chavez banned gun sales, expanded a new national police force and stepped up policing and other programs in high-crime areas. Now, his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is adding military muscle by deploying 3,000 troops on the streets. The initiative started in the Caracas area on Monday and will be expanded to the states of Zulia, Lara and Carabobo next week.
Human rights activists worry that sending soldiers trained for warfare on policing missions will only make things worse for the residents they are meant to protect.
“It’s going to aggravate the situation, unfortunately, because the army isn’t prepared to deal with issues of public safety,” said Liliana Ortega, director of the COFAVIC human rights group. “We have various emblematic cases in which the use of the armed forces resulted in disproportional force.”
She said they include the 1989 street riots known as the “Caracazo,” when 300 people were killed, and a 1992 prison riot in Caracas in which 63 prisoners died.
The soldiers, who work together with the National Guard and national police force, have the power to make arrests but are supposed to hand over the detainees to civilian authorities. Any human rights abuses would be tried by civilian courts, according to the constitution.
In deeply divided Venezuela, there are also concerns over the initiative’s political undertones. Maduro narrowly won an April 14 presidential election that the opposition claims he stole through fraud, voter intimidation and abuse of government powers. Some of the first military units were deployed in areas under the political control of the opposition.
Petare, for example, lies in Miranda state, which is governed by Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s challenger in the presidential election. The mayor overseeing Petare also is from the opposition.
On Tuesday night, the military commander in charge of the troops in Petare, Gen. Antonio Benavides, led a motorcycle-borne unit roaring up deserted, winding streets, with a gaggle of journalists in tow. They stopped for a meeting with grass-roots Chavistas in the hilltop Bombilla neighborhood.
“How often does the mayor come here? How often does the governor come here?” Benavides asked the crowd of about 40 people. “Never,” they replied, unanimously.
A Capriles poster on a staircase above the outdoor gathering indicated not everyone here supports the government.
David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia, said that for Maduro, the security initiative was both “an effort to fight crime and an effort to maintain or recover support in places where it has been declining because of crime and violence, among other issues.”
Though the idea of using military force against criminals resonates among Venezuelans, Smilde said, it would probably amount to little more than setting up road blocks and trying to project a presence on street corners. “But of course that just means that crime takes place a block away,” he said.
Some in Petare said the success of the initiative would depend not only on the soldiers’ ability to hunt down criminals and delinquents, but to win the trust of its law-abiding residents.
“What matters is how they are integrating with society, what they teach our young,” said Carmen Apote, 47.
At one checkpoint, on a potholed street where stray dogs rummaged through foul-smelling litter from a daytime food market, irritated taxi drivers complained that the stop-and-search was bad for business.
“They make it hard for us,” said Jorge Torres, 50. “We can’t stop anywhere we want to and people don’t know where we can pick them up.”
He conceded the area was safer, for now, but predicted the military presence would be short lived. The government has said the soldiers will stay in the streets for a few months until regular law enforcement units can be boosted by new recruits.
“Once they leave, everything changes,” Torres said.
Associated Press video: https://vimeo.com/66289079
AP writer Jorge Rueda in Caracas contributed to this report.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)