BBC News, Caracas
The police in Venezuela are involved in 20% of all crimes committed in the country.
That startling admission was made by none other than the country’s interior minister, Tarek El-Aissami.
For many Venezuelans, it was a surprisingly frank assessment of a problem which the the government has been accused of denying for years.
But there are now signs that, at an official level, the taboo about the state of the police is being broken.
“We know that part of the drama which our country is experiencing is because the majority of police agencies have been penetrated by criminal elements,” Mr El-Aissami said at a recent police convention. “And that is simply intolerable.”
The Venezuelan police are considered among the worst in Latin America in terms of corruption and violence.
“I would say they are a very similar phenomenon to the police in Rio de Janeiro or Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala” says Venezuelan criminologist Andres Antillano.
“Such police forces were generally established during military regimes and are still seen by the state as an instrument of repression, of social control.”
Code of conduct
For the government of Hugo Chavez, the solution has been to set up a national police force for the first time.
There are currently 144 different police agencies in Venezuela, all of them with their own entry criteria and guidelines.
“At the moment, there is no police system in Venezuela,” says Soraya El Achkar of the General Police Council “There are just lots of different police bodies.”
All have members who are involved in repression or are linked to crime rings, she adds.
“So we need to transform the police, we need to standardise them and make them professional.”
The government hopes to phase out some of the agencies with the worst reputations, such as the metropolitan police in Caracas, and replace them with the new force.
A code of conduct has been launched and recruits will be obliged to take classes in human rights. In addition, any officer who has charges pending against him or her will not be allowed to join.
Police officers are put through their paces in Caracas
Some are excelling in the sprints, the chin-ups and the 2km-run. Others haven’t been out from behind their desks in years.
Speaking anonymously, a number of the officers tell me that they are not yet convinced that the force they are trying to join will be a success.
“It all depends on the wages and the pension offer they make us” says one. A Venezuelan policeman earns little more than $120 (£76) a month – a salary which many analysts say has helped push them into corruption.
According to Ms El Achkar, the wages are being decided by committee and will be a significant improvement on the current situation.
But there are many in Venezuela who find it hard to believe the Venezuelan police are capable of change. One of them is Genny Cedeno.
Genny is an Ecuadorean migrant who lives in one of the capital’s roughest neighbourhoods, La Vega. Her 17 year-old son, Carlitos, was killed by the police for allegedly trying to steal a motorbike from an off-duty policeman.
Fighting back the tears, Genny points out the spot on the pavement where Carlitos was shot dead.
“He already had an expensive motorbike, so it just doesn’t make sense” she says, alleging that the police killed him when he was already on the ground, injured and unarmed.
Hoping for change
For Genny, the concept of a national police force with new values and a better understanding of human rights is a remote idea.
“It will take so much for them to win the trust of the community. And the community itself has to change too. I don’t know if that can happen.”
Genny plans to leave Venezuela after more than 20 years in Caracas, fearing for the safety of her youngest son.
“It isn’t easy to change the police,” says criminologist Andres Antillano. “First off, we must remember that they’re not new officers. It is made up of officers from other agencies.
Peru tried to purge its police after the rule of Alberto Fujimori but nothing really happened and Colombia has had a number of aborted attempts at police reform too.”
It’s still to early to say if this effort by President Chavez will reap results, he says.
“There is a grave disconnect between the police and the citizens they are supposed to serve. The police in Venezuela have killed around 10,000 people in recent years.
That violence in turn fuels the crime and insecurity problems in the shanty-towns. Changing the police is about more than new uniforms. It’s about institutional reform.”