CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez ordered thousands of National Guard soldiers into the streets of Venezuela's capital and surrounding states Thursday, urging them to help outgunned police curb widespread violent crime.
"We've been fighting and reducing overall crime rates, but we've fallen short when it comes to the number of homicides," Chavez told National Guard troops holding assault rifles as they stood in formation at a downtown plaza.
More than 3,200 troops were deployed to the streets of Caracas as well as the surrounding states of Miranda and Vargas, according to Gen. Miguel Vivas Landino, commander of the new security force.
Venezuela has one of Latin America's highest murder rates. The government has not released official statistics tallying annual killings for several years, but statistics released by human rights groups and academic organizations indicate Venezuela has become one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America.
From 1998 through 2010, the yearly homicide rate tripled, rising from 19 for every 100,000 residents in the South American nation to 57 per 100,000, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a Caracas-based academic organization that closely tracks crime statistics and trends.
Other violent crimes such as kidnapping and armed robbery have also increased in recent years in Venezuela.
As ransom kidnappings have soared, the government passed a revised law in 2009 that stiffened prison sentences for kidnapping and also allows authorities to freeze the banks accounts of victims' families to prevent them from paying ransom.
Kidnappings have soared over the last decade, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory says. Reports of kidnappings increased from 52 in 1998 to 618 in 2009, when the organization last compiled complete statistics.
Last week, professional baseball player Wilson Ramos was seized at gunpoint outside his family's home in the city of Valencia. The Washington Nationals catcher was rescued by police commandos two days later at a remote hideout in the mountains of central Carabobo state.
His kidnapping captured the attention of many Venezuelans, but few were surprised that one of the country's major league players had become a crime victim because the problem is now so widespread that it affects citizens of all social classes.
Rising crime is among the problems that have weakened Chavez's standing with his countrymen, although he remains the country's most popular politician heading into next year's presidential election.
During Thursday's speech, Chavez turned to politics by warning the massed soldiers that his opponents are preparing to cause chaos and upheaval ahead of the election.
He said the foes of his socialist-oriented government know they cannot win at the polls, so they hope to cause disorder in the streets and then blame government supporters for the chaos and denounce alleged voter fraud to smear his election triumph.
Chavez provided no proof to support his allegations, and he has made similar charges in the past without offering evidence.
Opposition leaders have repeatedly said they plan to unseat Chavez through the ballot box — not by violent or unconstitutional means.
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.