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Crime Comes Down Hard on Caracas as High Life Ends

Monday, November 12, 1990
The Miami Herald
Page 11A
MARY D'AMBROSIO, Associated Press

A story that Venezuelans tell on their Colombian neighbors is coming true at home.

CARACAS -- A traveler tells a friend: "I saw the Eiffel Tower, so I knew we were in Paris. I saw the pope and figured we were in Rome. One day I reached for my wallet and it was gone. I knew I was in Colombia."

With the oil boom of the early 1980s long gone, Venezuela is earning its own reputation for missing wallets, armed robbery, stolen cars, business fraud and government corruption.

Caracas was a small colonial city of unlocked doors 40 years ago. Now it is a metropolis of apartment buildings surrounded by walls of stone and steel, patrolled by armed guards and dogs.

Nightlife has dwindled. Hardly anyone stops to help a stranger. Squatter shacks sprout near mansions.

There are no safe zones. One of the city's most hazardous areas is Las Mercedes, known for fancy restaurants, expensive boutiques and armed robbers.

The mayor of Caracas outlawed liquor sales after midnight, figuring that less drinking would mean less crime, but the trend continued upward.

Last month, President Carlos Andres Perez sent a 600-member National Guard unit into the streets.

Crime "has forced us to require the National Guard in new roles, with greater importance, more members" and a mandate to work "permanently in cities such as Caracas," he said.

Venezuela had a decade-long oil boom, during which its people felt immune to such problems. The rich times were followed by seven years of economic decline that exposed the immunity as a myth.

Half the nation is desperately poor, and nearly half of the workers earn less than $100 a month, but most of those who try to explain the crime wave blame other things.

Many mention a national desire to continue living high with little effort, known as facilismo.

Andres Coba of the national neighborhood association FACUR said in an interview at a fashionable outdoor cafe: "We had so much money the whole world aspired to it. We sat at tables like these in our New York clothes, and talked about France and Madrid."

Police Chief Gonzalo Elias Bajares Colmenares, who has 7,000 men in a city of about 4.5 million, took a similar view.

"People aren't stealing eggs or ham or bread or meat, " he said, but generally "trying to get money to pay for luxury items."

Authorities blame youths under age 18 for 75 percent of street crime, but many run free because of lenient punishment for juveniles and become pawns of adult gangs. Overcrowded jails and political judges clog the criminal justice system.

Here are some recent cases:

* A youth gang attacked a 15-year-old handicapped boy and stole his wheelchair.

* Just before breakfast, a lone armed robber raided the residence of the Argentine ambassador, on Embassy Row half a block from a police station. He got away with $10,000 worth of loot, including the cook's paycheck, leaving the ambassador and his wife bound and gagged.

* Thieves broke into the home of Jules Waldman, a 77-year- old American who founded the city's English-language newspaper. Waldman, in delicate health, was hospitalized and died of a stroke a month later.

* On two occasions, gangs followed Germans on package tours to the same resort, held up the hotel staff and made off with passports, cameras and the contents of the hotel safe.

* Thieves who tried to steal his car shot the son of a former government minister to death in a wealthy neighborhood last New Year's Eve.

Sometimes, police are the criminals. Thirteen Caracas officers were suspended in July, accused of burglarizing downtown shops. White-collar crime is estimated to have cost billions of dollars in the 1980s, but no one has been sent to jail under an anti-corruption law passed in 1983.

Crime threatens to suffocate the tourist industry. According to a Tourism Ministry survey, more than 70 percent of tourists said they would not return.

"As long as Venezuela is such a den of thieves and corrupt peacekeepers, the country will not be able to attract tourists in significant numbers or persuade those who do come to return, " a British tourist wrote to to a Caracas newspaper.