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Violence tops debate ahead of Venezuela vote

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Natalia Guzman stepped hesitantly into the morgue looking for her only son. She was led to rows of refrigeration units, where after peering at more than a dozen corpses she finally found 17-year-old Jaime.

Trembling and in tears, she embraced relatives outside the building and said her son's body had been riddled with bullets. She blamed a drug-dealing gang in her slum for the killing and complained that police might have prevented it had they been patrolling her neighborhood.

The rising tide of violent crime that has engulfed Venezuela has become a top issue in the country's presidential campaign, with opposition candidate Henrique Capriles blaming President Hugo Chavez's government for failing to halt the bloodshed. Yet Guzman and many other Venezuelans appear to have lost faith in the ability of any government as well as the police to address the problem, no matter who wins the October vote.

"Crime is out of control, and I don't think any politician, neither Chavez, nor Capriles, is going to change that," Guzman said, speaking in a low voice that at times cracked when she cried.

The government says more than 14,000 people were killed in Venezuela last year, giving the country a murder rate of 50 per 100,000 people and making it one of the most violent countries in Latin America and the world. The murder rate has more than doubled since 1998, when Chavez was first elected.

At campaign rallies, Capriles has been promising to fix what he calls one of Chavez's most glaring failures, declaring: "We will have to choose between life or death."

Chavez has responded by banning gun sales, expanding a new national police force and launching an anti-crime plan with stepped-up policing and other programs in high-crime areas.

It's unclear how the political tug-of-war on crime may affect the race. But Chavez's opponents are hammering away on the issue, convinced that some voters will be swayed.

Capriles' campaign manager, Leopoldo Lopez, said as he presented the opposition's "Security for All" anti-crime plan that nearly 14 years after Chavez was first elected, the president's promises are too little, too late. "He's never made the issue of security a priority, until now when he tries to use it as a political banner," Lopez said.

Experts say violent crime has increased in the country due to easy, cheap access to guns, a culture of violence among young men in the slums, and severe shortages of police officers and prosecutors.

Criminologist Fermin Marmol Garcia said Venezuela's fundamental problem is that for more than a decade, "the institutions that weigh heavily on crime prevention and suppression were not strengthened."

In polls, Venezuelans consistently rate violent crime as their top concern. But many tend to blame long-standing institutional problems such as police forces viewed as corrupt and incapable, rather than pointing fingers at politicians.

"For Capriles, the challenge is putting the issue on the pedestal, linking it directly to Chavez, showing that he's responsible and creating hope that it's possible to solve the problem," said Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based pollster and political analyst. He said Capriles, who has been trailing in the polls, hasn't yet been able to gain traction on the issue.

Guzman isn't committed to either presidential candidate, and so far Capriles' anti-crime message hasn't resonated with her.

She said her son's motorcycle was stolen when he was killed after a street party, and she suspects the gunmen who killed him are the same toughs who terrorize her neighborhood.

"The police are almost never around when there's a problem. They always arrive hours afterward and they never capture anybody," Guzman said. "It's the thugs, not the police, who control the neighborhoods."

The authorities say a majority of the country's killings involve young men, often battling in poor neighborhoods over turf or drug dealing, or in simple rivalries. Crime has also been expanding into places once seen as safe, such as movie theaters, shopping malls and parking garages where security guards stand watch.

Shooting victims are often brought to the Perez de Leon Hospital near Petare, Venezuela's largest slum, where Guzman's son was gunned down. At the hospital, janitors mop blood from the white tile floor while doctors scramble to save lives. The victims' friends and relatives anxiously wait outside the emergency ward.

Abductions for ransom have grown rapidly in the past decade, with kidnapping reported to police rising from 52 in 1998, when Chavez was first elected, to 618 in 2009. Security experts say the real number of kidnappings is much higher because most cases aren't reported to authorities.

Recently diplomats from Costa Rica, Mexico and Chile were kidnapped, and all were eventually freed after ordeals lasting from two hours to more than a day.

Among the middle and upper classes, growing numbers of Venezuelans have been trying to take their security into their own hands by enrolling in self-defense courses, hiring bodyguards or bulletproofing their vehicles.

"Business has multiplied," said Ernesto Carrera, director of the School of Personal Protection, which offers intensive self-defense courses. He said his clientele has grown by about 80 percent in the past five years.

Jose Berrios, a 34-year-old businessman, decided to enroll after surviving an armed robbery, and now spends three nights a week at the school learning self-defense techniques and struggling through exercise sessions that include tossing medicine balls, doing pull-ups and lifting weights.

In one training session, an instructor demonstrated how to avoid a carjacking by using a martial arts move to disarm an attacker.

Capriles has been trying to capitalize on Venezuelans' concerns by accusing Chavez of ignoring the issue for most of his presidency. He has promised to take a different approach and make crime-fighting a top priority, laying out a plan that includes putting more police on the streets, raising officers' salaries and bringing more sports and art programs to poor neighborhoods.

Chavez responded by launching his latest anti-crime program last week, dubbed the "Great Mission For Every Life Venezuela." It includes allocating more money to expand training programs for police, starting community programs for troubled youth, expanding a fledgling national police force and targeting law enforcement resources to high-crime areas.

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said the country now has about 92,000 police officers in a patchwork of state, local and national police force but acknowledged Venezuela would need about 20,000 more police officers to meet U.N. standards. This September, El Aissami said, about 9,500 new recruits are scheduled to join the Bolivarian National Police after they undergo training.

El Aissami said that the challenge of combatting violence goes beyond hiring more police and building more prisons. Part of the government's program, he said, focuses on giving young men in the slums alternatives through sports and community programs so that they no longer view "a pistol and a motorcycle" as status symbols.

El Aissami told reporters last week that crime "is the most serious problem, the one of greatest concern and the one of greatest attention for the government."

Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report from Caracas.