Murdered journalist and rising crime unnerve Peru

Mon Feb 25, 2013 12:31pm EST

* Police put more officers on the streets of Lima

* Rising crime rate a top concern among Peruvians

* U.S. couple missing, embassy helping in search

By Terry Wade and Mitra Taj

LIMA, Feb 25 (Reuters) - The brazen killing of a journalist in broad daylight and a deadly robbery in Peru's financial district prompted President Ollanta Humala to put 1,000 more police on the streets of the capital on Monday, to tackle a rising sense of public insecurity.

Interior Minister Wilfredo Pedraza rushed to reassign officers from desk jobs and put them in patrol cars as outraged citizens demanded swift action after Luis Choy, a prominent photojournalist for El Comercio, Peru's main newspaper, was gunned down in front of his house in a middle-class district of Lima on Saturday afternoon.

Investigators have said Choy, 34, was murdered by a hitman but have not yet identified a motive. Police officials did not say how many officers in total would now be on patrol.

"I lament that another Peruvian has fallen victim to crime. Even more so because we got to know Luis Choy during the campaign," Humala said in reference to his 2011 election bid.

His killing came days after a businessman was robbed and shot in the head at a notary's office that sits half a block away from a major police station in Lima's financial district.

The murders have further undermined faith in the national police force. Though Humala has moved to improve wages and training, corruption is widespread. Peruvians often share stories of bribing their way out of traffic tickets for just a few dollars.

Poor security could become a political sore spot for the otherwise popular Humala administration, as safety regularly ranks as a top priority for voters in Peru, especially in Lima where about a third of Peruvians live. His approval rating is 54 percent, according to polling firm Ipsos.

Crime in metropolitan Lima doubled between 2000 and 2011, with kidnappings and homicides about tripling, according to government data. One theory is that crime has spiked because the country's long economic boom has created more wealthy targets.

But despite the rising incidence of crime, Peru's murder rate remains relatively low by regional standards. Peru's homicide rate is about 10 per 100,000 people, according to U.N. data. That is twice the rate of the United States but half the rate for South America as a whole.

WORRIES ABOUT TOURISTS

There are also worries that tourists are vulnerable. The U.S. Embassy said it is helping search for an American couple who went missing while on a cycling trip in the Andean country.

Police told the state news agency Andina that they believed the couple had left an ecological commune in Peru's jungle and were bound for Ecuador, but their families have said on Facebook that Garrett Hand and Jamie Neal were last heard from on Jan. 25. They were traveling from Cusco, in southeastern Peru, to Lima and were expected to arrive in the capital on Jan. 26.

The Arcoiris ecological community in the Amazonian region of Iquitos told Reuters the couple departed for an upriver journey to Ecuador on Feb. 16.

The U.S. Embassy said there was no connection between their disappearance and a security warning it issued earlier this month about a potential kidnapping threat against foreign tourists near the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.

That warning was widely interpreted as being linked to efforts by a remnant band of Maoist Shining Path rebels to repel the government's efforts to regain control of jungle valleys in the Cusco region that are rife with coca growing and cocaine trafficking.

Machu Picchu draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Cusco region in Peru every year and locals fear fewer visitors could hurt the tourist-based economy.

In late December, three U.S. citizens said they were beaten by villagers near the highland province of the Ocongate municipality of Cusco. (Reporting By Terry Wade and Mitra Taj; Editing by Eric Beech)

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