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Takeover curbs police patrols

Residents of Venezuela's capital face a new hardship: Fewer cops on the street following the president's takeover of the city police department.

When President Hugo Chavez sent soldiers to restrict access to Caracas police stations, the police chief ordered most of his 9,000 officers to stay in their barracks to avoid confrontations with the army.

Chief Henry Vivas said patrols are down 40 percent in a city that struggles with crime.

"There are some areas that police can't even go into because the military won't let them," he said Thursday. "It's very risky."

Aggravating tensions are plans for a Dec. 2 strike, which the Organization of American States warned could sabotage talks to end the political stalemate between the president and opposition. An April strike helped provoke a bloody two-day coup.

Chavez sent in the army Saturday, accusing Mayor Alfredo Pena of losing control of the department in a labor dispute. Armored personnel carriers now encircle police stations. Troops monitor police officers and restrict their movement.

The takeover has sown confusion among officers.

"We don't even know who's in charge," said bicycle cop Jose Arteaga, one of the few officers still patrolling downtown's busy Candelaria market district.

Soldiers have stripped some officers of their firearms and uniforms.

"It's like working with our hands tied behind our backs," Arteaga said. "We're completely defenseless."

Appliance salesman Jose Lopez disagreed. Last week, burglars stole two microwaves and a wad of cash. "The police in Venezuela have never been good for anything," he said. "Maybe this will show them that it's time to clean themselves up."