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Venezuela Seeks to End Police Clash

November 16, 2002

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ President Hugo Chavez seized control of the Caracas police Saturday to quell a dispute between officers that has dragged on for 1 1/2 months.

The labor dispute between a maverick police officer and the mayor of Caracas has triggered political violence and an army deployment that has shocked Venezuela.

Police Sgt. Jorge Alvarado, a 21-year veteran, seized a key precinct in Caracas to stop Mayor Alfredo Pena _ an opponent of President Hugo Chavez _ from forcing him into retirement for being a rabble rouser.

``We aren’t going to back down,″ vowed Alvarado, who with fellow dissidents seized the important Cotiza precinct Oct. 1.

They have blocked the precinct entrance with razor-sharp coils of barbed wire. Posters of Pena, painted to resemble Adolph Hitler and covered with swastikas, are taped to the walls.

On Saturday, Deputy Citizen Security Minister Alcides Rondon said the government was taking ``exceptional and provisional″ command of the 9,000-strong police force. It cited laws that allow for government intervention in times of crisis.

Rondon appointed Emigdio Delgado as new director of the police force, replacing Henry Vivas, who had been named by Pena. Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello said that city police would share their duties with the National Guard.

Under normal circumstances, a strike by several dozen offices in a 9,000-strong police force might be seen as a minor labor dispute. But in highly polarized Venezuela, critics say the conflict has allowed Chavez to ``militarize″ Caracas and, possibly, seize control of the police altogether.

Venezuela’s army sent more than 2,000 soldiers into the streets after clashes Tuesday among striking and active police officers, radical Chavez supporters and National Guardsmen killed two people and wounded dozens. Pena was later assaulted by Chavez supporters at a hospital; tensions rose when a grenade exploded outside the home of Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco.

Opposition mayors and state governors with jurisdiction over parts of Caracas vowed to ignore an army order for ``mixed″ police patrols. They say Chavez is trying to intimidate his adversaries and disrupt negotiations on opposition demands for an early referendum on his rule.

Pena claims that dissident officers shot at their brothers-in-arms during Tuesday’s violence, which erupted after striking officers and radical Chavez supporters surrounded city hall.

The strikers claim Pena is ignoring their demands for payment of back wages and food stamps. But other demands, such as the resignation of commanders appointed by Pena, show politics is at work.

Strike leaders claim Pena is using the Metropolitan Police to quash pro-Chavez rallies while protecting opposition marchers calling for Chavez to resign. Under this strategy, they say, many officers are being forced into early retirement.

Pena claims the officers have been paid and their real goal is to create ``chavista cells″ within the police force to weaken its response to armed attacks on city hall by government supporters.

Chavistas have attacked city hall several times. Until Wednesday’s army deployment, Chavez’s government ignored calls to crack down on the raids. It accuses Pena of plotting a coup with other opposition leaders.

Army Gen. Jorge Garcia Carneiro, head of Caracas’ Fort Tiuna, cited the police labor dispute as a reason for the army deployment, saying it threatened public security.

National Guard Cmdr. Gen. Eugenio Gutierrez told reporters Friday the troop presence is a routine operation to increase security during the Christmas holidays.

Though decried by opposition leaders, many citizens have welcomed the army’s presence, since crime of all kinds has been on the rise. Weekend death tolls often top 100. Citizens, especially in hillside slums where police rarely venture, often take justice into their own hands and form lynch mobs.

Emigdio Delgado, head of police operations, is trying to mediate the police dispute. He said it must be resolved the same way political leaders are trying to hash out their differences.

``The only way this is going to be resolved is through dialogue, patience and time,″ Delgado said.

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