CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela began dismantling a notorious police force yesterday as part of moves by President Hugo Chavez’s government to tackle high crime rates that could hurt his re-election chances next year.
The authorities say a fifth of all crime in the country is committed by members of the security forces, including the Metropolitan Police in Caracas, which is linked to offenses such as homicides, kidnapping for ransom and armed robberies.
“We will not tolerate police who commit crimes … nor those who assassinate anyone,” Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said on state television, announcing the disbandment of the Metropolitan Police over the next 90 days.
He said more half the unit had already resigned, but that some of the others would be retrained and given the opportunity to join the new National Bolivarian Police.
Many Venezuelans associated the Metropolitan Police with abuse and extortion and it also became entwined in politics.
Chavez loyalists accused it of acting as the armed wing of the opposition, and three senior Metropolitan officers are serving 30-year sentences convicted of shooting dead Chavez supporters during a brief coup against the president in 2002.
Later Chavez brought the unit under central government control, but that did little to clean up its record.
Opinion polls put crime as the top concern of voters in South America’s biggest oil producer and it will be a major topic for candidates at the Dec. 2012 presidential poll.
The government concedes that the Latin American nation is suffering more violent crime than most of the region, but it says that opposition politicians are exaggerating the problem.
In a bid to counter claims that Venezuela’s murder rate has become one of the worst in the world under Chavez, Aissami released the first official homicide statistics for years last month and said much more needed to be done.