Lately, the gang known as Los Pegadores (the Hitters) had been hijacking as many as three trucks a week on the freeway that winds from Caracas down through the coastal mountain range to the port of La Guaira. But Thursday, Aug. 23, was a bad day for the highwaymen. Around noon their leader, "El Bemba" (the Mouth), and a dozen of his men staged a fake accident inside one of the freeway tunnels, forcing the driver of a Mack truck to pull over. But as they set about unloading their booty, a special undercover squad of detectives from Venezuela's judicial police arrived on the scene. Soon four hijackers lay dead, their bodies riddled with bullets; five more would meet a similar fate hours later after they fled the scene. In what the police insisted was a "shoot-out," not a single cop received as much as a scratch. The news made the front pages the following day. But, except in scale, it was business as usual for the Venezuelan police.
With crime spiraling out of control in Caracas and other cities, police are taking an increasingly hard line toward crooks. In the process, their critics charge, the forces of order are not merely carrying out a "shoot-to-kill" policy. In recent months, detractors say police have increasingly been hunting down and executing men they term "expendable thugs." It's a charge authorities deny. "This is not a criminal state that... promotes an extermination policy," says Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Luis Camacho Kairuz. "You can be sure that when a mistake is made the perpetrator will be punished." But cops say otherwise. "Of course there are villains who have to be taken out of circulation," one former senior policeman told NEWSWEEK, "because they keep on killing. Or because they are rapists; they rape children, they murder children, they murder women."
Certainly, much of Venezuela has begun to resemble a war zone. One reason: the country has been in economic decline for virtually 20 years. Almost all social indicators, in areas like health and education, show a marked deterioration over that period. Another factor, experts agree, was the release of almost 8,500 prisoners in 1998 under a new criminal-justice code. As a result, in the past decade violent crime has tripled, and in the capital, Caracas, the murder rate has quintupled. An average Venezuelan weekend now sees up to 100 murders. More than 8,000 people were killed last year--a rate of around 33 per 100,000, compared with 5.7 murders per 100,000 in the United States. Recent victims include a prominent businessman, shot dead in his own home, and a 21-year-old dancer from the touring Georgian National Ballet, gunned down as she fled the scene of a mugging.
But, according to some experts, a large part of Venezuela's death toll may be attributable to police. Officially, these murders are listed as "settling of accounts" among criminals or as "shoot-outs with police." "Most of these 'shoot-outs' are nothing of the sort," acknowledged one former police chief. "They're when you grab the guy and take him somewhere else, to..." He didn't complete the sentence, but the meaning was clear. Raul Cubas, director of the Caracas-based human-rights organization Provea, says police executions increased 70 percent last year. (There were 170 in the year to September 2000.) "The 'settling of accounts' often seems to involve hooded men," he adds. "It's likely these are 'parapolice' groups."
The public reaction to the new hard-line has been mixed. In the small state of Portuguesa, a few hours by road to the southwest of Caracas, a parapolice group, or death squad, dubbed the Extermination Group murdered at least 65 alleged criminals in about nine months, beginning in September 2000, according to public prosecutors. Opinion polls showed a majority of locals backed the policy. But when 23-year-old law student Jimmy Rodriguez was killed in October by hooded men, things began to change. Jimmy's father, Ramon, insisted on an investigation. It led to a federal inquiry and the eventual detention, pending trial, of a score of policemen. Ramon even went on national TV. But after the program was recorded, and before it was aired, half a dozen hooded men showed up at his farm and shot him--19 times.
While few would condone such violence, most Venezuelans acknowledge the killings are likely to continue. Commissioner Ivan Simonovis, who oversees the Caracas municipal police, explained it this way: "I have never said--and I never would--'I want that guy dead.' I might say, 'That guy's a rat'--I could go that far. Because the decision belongs to him [the individual policeman]. It's a personal decision. We come from a vengeful culture. The cop knows he's not going to be called to account by society if he does that. And what's more--to the other cops, he's a hero." Under those rules, last month's bloody shoot-out with the members of Los Pegadores must have drawn a lot of cheers.