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World

Venezuelan runners hit road in groups to elude crime

CARACAS — Andrea Pereira just shakes her head at how carefree she used to be, when she would strap on her running shoes and jog alone at night in the streets of this gritty capital.

Then came the ‘‘express kidnapping’’ plague — ordinary people snatched off the street, sometimes in broad daylight. Homicides skyrocketed, with Caracas recording nearly 4,000 slayings last year, more than any other city in the world. Stories of robberies — and worse, robberies gone horribly, fatally wrong — became standard workplace chatter.

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Pereira still jogs at night. But she goes with friends, plenty of friends — as many as 300 of them, a huffing, heaving mass of people who chug in unison along darkened streets three nights a week.

Their club, Runners Venezuela, underscores a central reality here: Despite the dangers, the people of this city are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to have as normal a life as possible.

‘‘My family, they were really worried because I was, you know, going alone running in the street,’’ said Pereira, 23. ‘‘So I said, ‘Mom, I am going with a big group.’ She said, a big group running at night, here in Caracas? You have to be kidding me.’ ”

There are many other violent metropolises in Latin America: Rio de Janeiro, with its heavily armed drug gangs ensconced in hillside slums, and Cali in Colombia, where the heirs to the old cocaine cartels battle it out.

But Caracas is far worse, with homicides rising nearly threefold from 1,998 to 3,973 last year for a murder rate of 122 per 100,000, said Active Peace, a group that studies crime trends here. That is 32 times the homicide rate in New York, a far larger city.

The problem partly explains why late President Hugo Chavez’s handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, almost lost an April presidential vote that he had been polled to easily win, analysts say. Facing an outcry about crime, among many other deep-seated problems, Maduro has responded by sending troops into the street to bring order to a city populated with heavily armed pro-government militias, drug gangs, common thugs, and a corrupt police.

Crime analysts say the tactics will have little lasting impact. And nationwide, most Venezuelans fear for their lives.

A Gallup poll released in May showed that residents here are the least likely to feel safe among the inhabitants of 134 nations. Forty percent said there was drug trafficking in their neighborhoods, and 10 percent told Gallup that a relative or close friend had been slain in the previous 12 months.

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