Death of consul's daughter spurs Venezuela outcry

March 18, 2012 - 6:26 PM
Venezuela Chile Consul

Chilean Consul in Venezuela, Fernando Berendique, right front, helps to carry the coffin with the remains of his 19-year-old daughter Karen to a waiting hearse, in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Saturday March 17, 2012. Berendique said his daughter was shot early Saturday, while riding in a vehicle with her brother and another young man, when the trio ignored a command to stop by police at a checkpoint, fearing the officers might be robbers. The Prosecutor General's Office says in a statement that 11 police officers are under investigation for their roles in the death. Berendique's daughter is reported to have died after suffering three bullet wounds. (AP Photo/Fabiola Portillo)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The killing of a Chilean diplomat's teenage daughter by police is reigniting concerns among Venezuelans about excessive force by officers and their frequent involvement in violent crimes.

Nineteen-year-old Karen Berendique was riding in a vehicle with her older brother and another young man when police at an unmarked checkpoint opened fire early Saturday in the western city of Maracaibo, said her father Fernando Berendique, Chile's honorary consul in the city.

He said they disobeyed a police command to stop, fearing the officers might be robbers.

Twelve police officers were detained and are under investigation, the Justice Ministry said.

Radio program host Beatriz Navas said Sunday the case reinforces deep concerns many Venezuelans have about police misconduct.

"I wouldn't have stopped and they would have killed me, too," Navas said. "The problem is that we don't believe in the police."

She criticized the widespread practice by police in Venezuela of setting up such checkpoints, saying officers should instead be investigating crimes.

President Hugo Chavez's government expressed condolences to the family as well as to the Chilean government, and pledged that those responsible will face justice.

"We reject and repudiate this type of bad police practice," judicial police chief Jose Humberto Ramirez said.

He said the officers were in the area to investigate car thefts and hadn't set up cones as police typically do for checkpoints. Ramirez called the shooting inexplicable.

"They'll have to respond in criminal court," Ramirez said.

Violent crime is widespread in the country, which has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America.

Venezuelans have long been distrustful of the police. The government began building a new national police force in 2009, saying it was part of an effort to professionalize the police.

Justice Ministry Tareck El Aissami said in 2009 that the authorities believed police were involved in 15 to 20 percent of all crimes, particularly kidnappings and murders.

The Justice Ministry said in a statement Saturday that the government will "continue promoting the radical transformation of police forces, deepening the implementation of the new police model: human and professional."

Opposition politicians joined in the criticism over Berendique's killing.

"They shoot first and aim later," Ricardo Sanchez, an opposition lawmaker, said at a news conference Sunday.

He said that many questions remain about the behavior of the officers who opened fire on the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and that police officials should be summoned for questioning before the National Assembly.

Berendique's father told reporters Saturday that his daughter was on the way to see some friends when she was shot.

"They left and four blocks from my house they intercepted them," Berendique said, saying the officers didn't show any identification. "They told them to stop. The kids got nervous because it was night. The least that could have been expected is that the police would have turned on the lights (of their patrol cars). They didn't do it and they fired."

"The first impact was in the windshield, while my son was desperately backing up," Berendique added. "Seeing that Karen was unconscious and wounded, he stopped. The officers identified themselves and said they fired because they didn't stop the car."

Police said the university student suffered three bullet wounds, including one to the head.

Berendique said the car appeared to have been hit by six bullets. He suggested his daughter's killing is symptomatic of bigger problems in Venezuela.

"Crime is killing us," said Berendique, who has lived in Venezuela three decades. "I don't think Venezuela deserves this."

In a downtown plaza in Caracas on Sunday, Francisco Rodriguez was taking a stroll with his two young children and said the death of the consul's daughter worries him and reinforces Venezuelans' distrust of the police. He noted police have been arrested for involvement in kidnappings and other crimes.

"This is a case that obviously is going to make a lot of noise due to the person involved, but this is happening to common citizens all the time," said Rodriguez, a publicist. "The problem is that the people who are supposed to defend and protect us from crime act like this."

The Venezuelan human rights group Provea said in its annual report in November that the country's security forces were responsible for 173 deaths during the past 12-month period, including seven victims of "excessive force," 15 victims of "indiscriminate use of force," and others who were executed, tortured or died due to other cruel treatment.

"We have to get rid of the bad police," said Maria Leon, a retired clothes seller who called the latest shooting a travesty.

The government, which has not released detailed annual murder statistics in recent years, has said the murder rate last year was 48 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest rates in the region.

The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an organization that tracks crime, said its tally of police homicide figures totaled more than 19,000 killed during 2011. Roberto Briceno Leon, the group's director, said that was the highest annual number on record in the country of 29 million people.

Kidnappings have also been on the rise. In an unrelated incident in November, Chile's consul in Caracas was the victim of an "express kidnapping," and was released by his captors two hours later. He was shot and wounded during the ordeal.

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Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

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Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap