CARACAS Under pressure after a string of attacks on diplomats, Venezuela charged four people on Saturday, including a former police officer, with kidnapping the Mexican ambassador and his wife in the capital earlier this year.
Carlos Pujalte and his wife were grabbed by gunmen as they left a reception in a wealthy Caracas neighbourhood at around midnight on January 29. They were held captive for several hours before being freed in a slum on the other side of the city.
The case underlined Venezuela's high crime rate - one of the biggest issues in an election year - and came less than two months before another incident involving diplomats: last week's killing by police of a Chilean consul's teenage daughter.
In a statement, the attorney general's office said three men and one woman in their 20s had been charged with offenses including kidnapping and robbery.
It said two of the men and the woman were arrested last month in Caracas by the CICPC investigative police, and that the 21-year-old woman was found in possession of a gold chain linked to the separate kidnapping of a local politician's relative.
It said two cars were seized, including a Honda Civic thought to have been used during that abduction, the kidnapping of the Mexican ambassador and his wife, and a third abduction.
The fourth suspect was identified as a 28-year-old former Caracas policeman who was detained separately by CICPC officials last month in central Miranda state.
Venezuelan police have often been accused of being involved in serious crimes, contributing to the high numbers of armed robberies, kidnappings and murders that have turned Caracas into one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Though rich and poor alike complain constantly about the lack of security, the issue has traditionally not weighed heavily on President Hugo Chavez's approval ratings.
But with the socialist leader seeking re-election at an October 7 vote the government is under big pressure to come to grips with a crime wave that has claimed some high-profile recent victims.
U.S. Major League Baseball star Wilson Ramos was kidnapped at gunpoint while visiting his parents in Venezuela last November. He was held in the mountains for two days before being rescued by security forces.
Also in November, the Chilean consul in Caracas was shot and beaten during a two-hour abduction. A senior diplomat from Belarus was also briefly kidnapped last year in the city.
But last week's incident - in which the 19-year-old daughter of another Chilean consul was shot dead by CICPC officers who opened fire on a car being driven by her brother in the western city of Maracaibo - caused an uproar at home and abroad.
The police apparently fired because the pair failed to stop at a roadblock. The consul said his son was scared they were being forced to pull over by kidnappers, not the authorities.
Chile's government demanded an explanation from the Venezuelan government, which quickly detained 12 police officers and launched a criminal investigation.
Acknowledging the emotions surrounding the death of the teenager, who was killed just blocks from her home while on the way to meet friends, Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said on Friday that Chavez had ordered the "refounding" of CICPC.
"We will not shirk our responsibility. These deviant police practices that cost the lives of Venezuelans, of innocent people, will be consigned to history," Aissami told reporters.
"We know we must convert these inexcusable, unjustifiable and reprehensible errors into political strength to transform the institutions."
(Editing by Eric Beech)