Violence Without Let-Up Rages In Poor Venezuela Neighborhood

By Dialogo
October 27, 2009

A 7-year-old girl is injured by a stray bullet in a shootout that leaves one dead and another three wounded: yet another weekend drama after dark in Petare, a poor, sprawling expanse in the Venezuelan capital that is regarded as one of the most violent neighborhoods in the Americas. Little Catherine is taken to the Perez de Leon Hospital, where she is treated and released the same night at a crowded emergency room where the few doctors struggle to treat an avalanche of new patients, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. Not far away at police headquarters in Sucre, the Caracas municipality that includes Petare, a man is confined on suspicion of starting the shootout in this district of almost a million inhabitants victimized by crime gangs, illegal arms, drugs and alcohol. Just one more incident in the tragic reality of poor Caracas neighborhoods, in a capital where the crime index continues to rise and where violence can take more than 50 lives on any given weekend. A score of people arrested that night are taken to police headquarters in Sucre, where the man elected mayor last year, Carlos Ocariz, tries to deactivate the violence with social programs in a district without hope. Up to 9:00 p.m., police work concentrates on traffic. But then the violence grows hour by hour, especially with the abuse of alcohol and gangs settling their scores. Drugs and arms keep the death toll rising. Chief Inspector Jose Alvarez and Inspector Hector Quintero begin their rounds at around 5:00 p.m., about an hour before nightfall. In a white Jeep they patrol the streets of the suburbs that make up Sucre, where a few middle-class residential areas are surrounded by slums. Their main job at this hour is prevention. They watch young people drinking in the street, men on motorcycles...they ask for their documents and search them for weapons. At a bridge into one of the poor neighborhoods is a police patrol on the lookout for the motorcyclists. Criminals driving around on small motorcycles constantly attack pedestrians and motorists caught in traffic. An agent tells Efe of the need for more resources, more patrols and complains of the hundreds of thousands of weapons in the hands of slum dwellers. Alvarez and Quintero's patrol heads for the narrow, labyrinthine streets of Petare, but only to part of the district. Higher up in the endless hills covered with rudimentary housing, patrols have to be done on motorcycle. On the steep streets, one group after another, mostly made up of young people, sits in front of poor shanties swigging beer. The police greet some of them. In the poor neighborhood at night, the streets are alive with salsa music blaring from loudspeakers, but the fun can turn into drama as the hours pass and shots ring out because of an argument or gang rivalry, as in the shootout where Catherine was wounded. "Three people have been admitted for gunshot wounds tonight," Dr. Julia D'Angelo, who has worked at the Perez de Leon Hospital for two years, tells Efe. Besides Catherine, a 15-year-old girl is admitted, wounded in a leg, while a man in his early 20s lies on a cot with a gunshot wound and slashed with a razor on one side. D'Angelo speaks calmly of the dozen who have been admitted with knife wounds tonight, but recalls how "her legs shook" when she first began at the hospital. She tells of the day when emergency personnel had to hide from a clash between the companions of two who had been brought in and who had apparently shot each other. There is always a cop on duty in the emergency room. In the wee hours, a hundred people wait at door to the emergency room for news of a friend or relative, close to a police post that a group tried to burn one night in an attempt to "rescue" one of their buddies, wounded and confined in the hospital. Another night ends on a Petare weekend. Fairly quiet. It's worse, the police say, on paydays every two weeks or at the end of the month.