CARACAS Venezuela's government says it has cut the murder rate in the capital Caracas and is launching two new organizations to combat a crime wave that is worrying voters ahead of this year's presidential election.
Murders, kidnappings and armed robberies are common in the South American country, and residents routinely list insecurity as a top concern ahead of the October 7 vote, when socialist President Hugo Chavez will seek a new six-year term.
While voters appear not to hold Chavez personally responsible for one of the world's highest crime rates, his government is under growing pressure to crack down on gangsters who have claimed some high-profile victims in recent months.
Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said two organizations were being formed: a security services company to group security workers in the private and public sectors, and a national security center that will collate and publish crime data, bulletins and research.
"We made the biggest effort to continue working in a scientific, efficient and professional way," he told state TV this week. "We have not dodged our responsibility ... We have been working with the people."
Details of what services the company, Corposervica, will offer will be announced soon, he said. And Chavez is also expected to launch another of his signature social "missions" in the coming days targeting public safety issues.
Separately, the director of the National Police, Luis Fernandez, told state media the murder rate in Caracas had been cut by 10 percent each month so far this year, compared with the homicide figures for the same months in 2011.
He did not give detailed figures, but said more than 360 murderers had been arrested this year and 250 firearms seized.
NEW POLICE FORCE
Fernandes leads Venezuela's new, more highly trained National Police force. A year ago, the government scrapped the controversial Metropolitan Police in Caracas after its officers were linked to many serious crimes.
The government says Venezuela's national homicide rate is around 48 per 100,000 residents, worse than the Latin American average. But non-governmental groups put the figure higher.
The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, for example, says murders doubled over the last decade to a record of more than 19,000 last year - or about 60 per 100,000 people.
Nevertheless, the president has been able to maintain a strong lead in most opinion polls over his election rival, youthful Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles.
The biggest wild card ahead of the vote is Chavez's health. He is undergoing radiation treatment after three cancer operations in less than a year, taking himself off the political stage just as his opponent gears up his campaign.
The 57-year-old president returned to Venezuela late on Wednesday after a second session of radiation therapy in Cuba.
The spate of crimes against prominent victims has embarrassed his government, which often accuses the opposition of trying to scare the public with lies about crime aimed at tarnishing the achievements of his socialist "revolution."
A U.S. Major League Baseball player and diplomats from Mexico, Chile and Belarus have been kidnapped, and the teenage daughter of a Chilean consul was shot dead by police last month when the car she was in did not stop at a roadblock.
This week, the former governor of Apure state in southwestern Venezuela died in hospital two weeks after being shot several times by a gunman who walked into the fast food restaurant where he was eating in the central city of Maracay.
Six people have been arrested in connection with that case.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)