By Frank Jack Daniel
CARACAS, Nov 14 (Reuters) - The gunshots that echo every night in the maze-like sprawl of Venezuela’s biggest slums are a danger even to President Hugo Chavez, whose allies may lose ground at local elections across the country this month.
The oil-exporting country elects new mayors and governors on Nov. 23. Chavez’s candidates are expected to hold on to most seats but they risk losing ground to the opposition in some key states and cities.
The elections are an important barometer for the anti-U.S. president, who lost a referendum on extending his powers last year but plans to ask Venezuelans again at some point to change the constitution and let him run for reelection in 2012.
Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates and crime has dominated the campaign in poor neighborhoods that bear the brunt of dozens of weekly murders, including the symbolic Caracas district of Sucre that houses the vast Petare slum.
Tens of thousands of families live in cramped brick homes clinging precariously to Petare’s steep hillsides. Polls there show a tight race for mayor between Chavez’s candidate Jesse Chacon and opposition hopeful Carlos Ocariz.
A defeat in Petare would be a blow to Chavez, a former soldier who calls ex-Cuban leader Fidel Castro his mentor and promises to drag his followers out of poverty.
"Crime is a problem, but you can’t separate it from poverty," Chavez, who has been in power almost a decade, told Reuters. "This is a product of 100 years of capitalism," he said, pointing up at the cramped "barrio".
The traditional left-wing approach to attacking crime via poverty reduction programs has not slowed the killing, and polls show crime is consistently Venezuelans’ No. 1 concern.
Bullets often fly in Petare’s winding narrow streets as street gangs fight for territory and small-time drug deals. Everybody knows someone who has been murdered and even Chavez’s most fervent supporters call for a stronger police presence.
"There has always been violence, but it just gets worse. I’ve seen so many dead kids, kids I watched grow up," said Cerimira Garavito, 52, selling bright plastic toys beneath Communist Party graffiti in a trash-strewn Petare alley.
Heavily armed police scour Petare for trouble every night but they are enormously understaffed and many corners of the barrio, where gang members are equipped with flak jackets and grenades, are considered no-go areas.
According to police statistics cited by human rights group Provea, there were around 45 murders per 100,000 people in Venezuela in 2006. That number rises above 60 in Petare, and compares to 1.4 murders per 100,000 in England and Wales.
DESPITE EVERYTHING, PATIENCE
In slums like Petare, residents grateful for government spending on health clinics and public transport have until now forgiven Chavez’s poor record on fighting crime, but anger with the daily bloodshed may cost his candidates town halls.
Toy-seller Garavito said she used to back Chavez but this time would give a chance to Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate whose campaign has focused on crime.
"This is the most violent municipality in Latin America, it’s where you’re most likely to get murdered," Ocariz said at a small campaign event close to Petare with a group of crime victims. "I am sure the community will vote for change."
Sucre is a large municipality and it includes many middle-class neighborhoods opposed to Chavez’s socialist revolution. Elections have always been close there, and it will not take many voters to swing it to Ocariz.
But the young engineer does not have an easy ride. The current mayor is handing out washing machines and fridges in Petare and Chavez has visited twice in the last week to support his candidate Chacon, a former interior minister who has a small lead according to government commissioned polls.
Chavez’s newly formed Socialist Party is now the strongest in the country and may mobilize more voters than the fragmented opposition groups that back Ocariz.
Most importantly, many poor Venezuelan’s strongly identify with Chavez prioritizing economic benefits over crime and are still willing to give the government a chance.
"We have to have patience," said Carmen de Shaik through thick steel bars that protect her hair salon from theft after Chavez rolled by on a truck, surrounded by cheering supporters. "Despite everything we are better off with this government." (Editing by Saul Hudson and Kieran Murray)