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Venezuela's military sent into high-crime slums

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A mask of deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been placed in a corridor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Caracas on May 16, 2013. AFP PHOTO/JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO

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By The Associated Press
Friday, May 17, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

PETARE, Venezuela — Stern-looking soldiers clutching assault rifles wave down the beat-up Chevy Caprice entering this sprawling slum on the outskirts of Caracas.

Flashlights in his face, the driver steps out and places his hands on the roof while the soldiers frisk him for drugs and weapons.

He's clean, and he's sent off into the maze of ramshackle homes that is Petare, one of the most dangerous parts of Venezuela's notoriously crime-infested capital.

Since Monday, this scene is playing out day and night at dozens of military checkpoints set up here in the socialist government's latest attempt to control the oil-rich country's pandemic of violence.

With some 15,000 killings a year, Venezuela has a homicide rate that is the fifth highest in the world, according to U.N. statistics. The murder rate doubled during the 14-year rule of the late President Hugo Chavez as cheap access to guns and an ineffective justice system fed a culture of violence.

Critics dismiss the “Secure Homeland” initiative as a political charade. Some of the first military units were deployed in areas under the political control of the opposition to the current regime.

But to many residents, weary of being terrorized by armed gangs, seeing troops on the streets is a welcome projection of government power.

“You have to act forcefully so that people feel the force of the state,” said Irving Garcia, 47, an unemployed former Army reservist.

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