PETARE, Venezuela – Stern-looking soldiers clutching assault rifles wave down the beat-up Chevy Caprice entering this sprawling slum on the outskirts of Caracas.
Flashlights in his face, the driver steps out and places his hands on the roof while the soldiers frisk him for drugs and weapons.
He’s clean, and a hand gesture from the commanding officer sends him off into the maze of ramshackle homes that is Petare, one of the most dangerous parts of Venezuela’s notoriously crime-infested capital.
Since Monday, this scene is playing out day and night at dozens of military checkpoints set up here in the socialist government’s latest attempt to control the oil-rich country’s pandemic of violence.
Critics dismiss the “Secure Homeland” initiative as a political charade that risks degenerating into human rights abuses while having no lasting impact on crime. But to many residents, weary of being terrorized by armed gangs, seeing troops on the streets is a welcome projection of government power.
“You have to act forcefully so that people feel the force of the state,” said 47-year-old Irving Garcia, an unemployed former Army reservist, who like many Caracas residents has firsthand experience of violent crime. Garcia said he was shot in the chest when he unknowingly walked into a restaurant robbery.
The bullet shattered his sternum, he said, inviting a reporter to feel a piece of protruding bone through his shirt.
With some 15,000 killings a year, Venezuela’s homicide rate is the fifth highest in the world, according to U.N. statistics.
The murder rate doubled during the 14-year-rule of the late President Hugo Chavez as cheap access to guns and an ineffective justice system fed a culture of violence in slums like Petare, parts of which have become no-go zones for outsiders, including police.
Chavez banned gun sales, expanded a new national police force and stepped up policing and other programs in high-crime areas. Now, his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is adding military muscle by deploying 3,000 troops on the streets. The initiative started in the Caracas area on Monday and will be expanded to the states of Zulia, Lara and Carabobo next week.
Human rights activists worry that sending soldiers trained for warfare on policing missions will only make things worse for the residents they are meant to protect.
“It’s going to aggravate the situation, unfortunately, because the army isn’t prepared to deal with issues of public safety,” said Liliana Ortega, director of the COFAVIC human rights group. “We have various emblematic cases in which the use of the armed forces resulted in disproportional force.”
She said they include the 1989 street riots known as the “Caracazo,” when 300 people were killed, and a 1992 prison riot in Caracas in which 63 prisoners died.
The soldiers, who work together with the National Guard and national police force, have the power to make arrests but are supposed to hand over the detainees to civilian authorities. Any human rights abuses would be tried by civilian courts, according to the constitution.
In deeply divided Venezuela, there are also concerns over the initiative’s political undertones. Maduro narrowly won an April 14 presidential election that the opposition claims he stole through fraud, voter intimidation and abuse of government powers. Some of the first military units were deployed in areas under the political control of the opposition.
Petare, for example, lies in Miranda state, which is governed by Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s challenger in the presidential election. The mayor overseeing Petare also is from the opposition.
On Tuesday night, the military commander in charge of the troops in Petare, Gen. Antonio Benavides, led a motorcycle-borne unit roaring up deserted, winding streets, with a gaggle of journalists in tow. They stopped for a meeting with grass-roots Chavistas in the hilltop Bombilla neighborhood.
“How often does the mayor come here? How often does the governor come here?” Benavides asked the crowd of about 40 people. “Never,” they replied, unanimously.
A Capriles poster on a staircase above the outdoor gathering indicated not everyone here supports the government.
David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia, said that for Maduro, the security initiative was both “an effort to fight crime and an effort to maintain or recover support in places where it has been declining because of crime and violence, among other issues.”
Though the idea of using military force against criminals resonates among Venezuelans, Smilde said, it would probably amount to little more than setting up road blocks and trying to project a presence on street corners. “But of course that just means that crime takes place a block away,” he said.
Some in Petare said the success of the initiative would depend not only on the soldiers’ ability to hunt down criminals and delinquents, but to win the trust of its law-abiding residents.
“What matters is how they are integrating with society, what they teach our young,” said Carmen Aponte, 47.
At one checkpoint, on a potholed street where stray dogs rummaged through foul-smelling litter from a daytime food market, irritated taxi drivers complained that the stop-and-search was bad for business.
“They make it hard for us,” said Jorge Torres, 50. “We can’t stop anywhere we want to and people don’t know where we can pick them up.”
He conceded the area was safer, for now, but predicted the military presence would be short lived. The government has said the soldiers will stay in the streets for a few months until regular law enforcement units can be boosted by new recruits.
“Once they leave, everything changes,” Torres said.