CARACAS Moments after he registered to run in Venezuela's April 14 election, acting President Nicolas Maduro vowed to go on foot, unarmed, into the toughest slums of Caracas and ask the gangs there to lay down their guns.
Maduro and his opponent, Henrique Capriles, have clashed over a top campaign issue: the daily murders, armed robberies and kidnappings that make the South American country one of the most dangerous in the world.
"We'll go like this, with our chests bare!" Maduro cried at the campaign event, driving the crowd wild as he pulled open his Venezuelan-flag tracksuit top to reveal a red T-shirt emblazoned with the eyes of his late boss, Hugo Chavez.
"We'll go without fear, to tell these youths to stop the killing, to give up the guns, to come to Christ the Redeemer!"
Fears about personal safety routinely top polls of voters' concerns in the country with the world's biggest oil reserves - despite the many programs started by Chavez during his 14-year rule aimed at bringing down the homicide figures.
In a report last week, the U.N. Development Program said that only Honduras, El Salvador, Ivory Coast and Jamaica had worse rates than Venezuela's 45.1 murders per 100,000 people. The rate in the United States was 4.2.
The Venezuelan government concedes the country suffers more violent crime than most of the region. But it accuses opposition politicians of exaggerating the problem and shamelessly stoking fears to tarnish Chavez's socialist "revolution."
On Sunday, Maduro accused the U.S. Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency of plotting to assassinate Capriles and blame it on the government to cause chaos and trigger a coup ahead of the vote. Washington categorically denied it.
The opposition candidate, a 40-year-old centrist state governor who accuses Maduro of exploiting the emotion over Chavez's March 5 death in an effort to win the election, kicked off a provincial tour over the weekend.
Capriles calls Maduro a poor imitation of Chavez and mocked his performance outside the electoral authority offices.
"Do you think Nicolas is going to solve the violence problem? It's not opening your jacket and saying 'I'm Superman and I'm going to go I don't know where,'" Capriles said.
"I'd like to leave my house at 11, 12 o'clock in the night, for my children to be able to go out and me not to be terrified. Can we do that today? Can we live like that? No."
WEAK JUSTICE SYSTEM
At the root of the country's crime problem, experts say, is a proliferation of firearms and drugs, and a weak justice system that means the majority of offenses go unpunished.
Among a spate of attacks on prominent victims, a U.S. Major League baseball player and diplomats from Mexico, Chile, Belarus and Costa Rica have been abducted in recent months.
So-called express kidnappings, where targets are dragged off city streets or from their cars and taken to cash machines, or held for a few hours until a ransom is paid, are common.
The government says there were 16,000 homicides nationwide last year, but non-governmental organizations put the figure much higher. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory said its conservative estimate for 2012 was more than 21,000 murders.
Without detailed statistics from the authorities, it is not possible to crosscheck the numbers.
Stung by allegations that the situation is out of control, Chavez's administration revamped the main investigative police unit last year, created several new public safety bodies, and said it cut the homicide rate in Caracas by 10 percent.
Most afflicted by the gangs of criminals are poor residents living in the myriad shantytowns where the late president found his most fervent followers.
Voters seldom held Chavez personally responsible for the high crime rate. Some viewed him almost as a member of the family, others in near-religious terms. Maduro is trying to forge the same emotional bond, but lacks Chavez's charisma.
On Sunday, he inaugurated a new sports facility in the capital's gritty Petare barrio, briefly taking to the court to play basketball with a group of youths. There were wild cheers when he made a basket on his third attempt.
The acting president, who appeared to have visited the neighborhood with the normal level of security and bodyguards that he normally would, blames violent crime on a decadent legacy left behind by capitalist governments in the OPEC nation.
"They've given us these values from birth through narco-TV shows, fashion linked subliminally to drug consumption, fashion linked to pistols, and the cults of guns and of criminal gangs," he said after he registered his candidacy for the presidency.
He accuses the opposition of cynically allowing bandits to roam unchecked - for example, in Miranda state, which includes poor parts of Caracas and where Capriles is governor.
"You know why?" Maduro said to the crowd. "Because they don't care about people's lives. They prefer barrios that are full of drugs and criminality so they can continue stigmatizing the people like they have done for the last 500 years."
(Editing by Bill Trott)