CARACAS (Reuters) - After finishing a routine overnight shift, Venezuelan policeman Edgar Perez was walking home from the bus stop when two armed men pulled up on a motorbike.
Perez, 41, had time to draw his gun and injure one of the attackers in the shootout near his modest home in the town of Ocumare del Tuy outside Caracas, but the other shot him in the head and took his weapon.
The officer died shortly afterwards in a nearby clinic, leaving a widow and three children.
That same week in November, five other police officers were shot dead across Venezuela - among 268 murdered in 2014 in one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a cop.
Most of the officers were killed for their guns, cars, motorbikes or even telephones, according to local monitoring and rights group Foundation for Due Process, or Fundepro.
The rest were victims of revenge killings or shootouts with criminals, and one officer was killed during political protests.
With gangs running poor neighborhoods, weapons easily available, judges and police often on the take, and prosecution rates low, Venezuela is the world’s second worst country for homicides overall, the United Nations says.
Lawlessness and violent crime have for long plagued daily life in Venezuela, and police are increasingly at the sharp end.
“The criminals have conflict weapons, their firepower is infinitely superior to ours,” said a friend and colleague of Perez, still upset over the death and asking not to be named.
“If I put a criminal in jail, he’ll be out within days, and without doubt, he’ll look for me in my house to shoot me dead. And on police salaries, we can’t live in luxury mansions but in ‘barrios’ or lower middle-class zones right next to the gangs.”
Police murders rose 25 percent in 2014 and have accelerated so far in 2015 to a rate of nearly one a day, Fundepro says.
‘LET THEM DIE’
Under pressure to beat crime after President Nicolas Maduro declared it his priority at the start of his term, his socialist government does not give official data on police killings.
Government officials did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.
The public is aware of the police murders via media and talk on the street, but sympathy does not run deep because of disgust at well-known corruption and crime within police ranks.
“In the U.S., if one policeman is killed, there is an outcry. Here, no-one raises a voice to support policemen,” said Jackeline Sandoval, a former police lawyer and public prosecutor who heads Fundepro. “If there’s no security for police, what does that say for the rest of us?”
Her Twitter feed, chronicling police deaths, often draws distasteful comments. “For me, let them all die, they’re mistreating the students,” someone wrote this month, referring to last year’s clashes with demonstrators.
International comparisons show the depth of Venezuela’s problem. In the United States, which has a population 10 times bigger, the FBI says 27 law enforcement officers were killed in 2013. In Venezuela, the number that year was 214.
Even the world’s worst homicide hot spot, Honduras, has far fewer killings of policemen than Venezuela.
Ravaged by gang and drug violence, Honduras had a murder rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people in 2012, versus 53.7 in Venezuela, U.N. data shows. But Honduras’ government says there were 35 police killings in 2013 and 32 in the first 11 months of last year.
Though murders of policemen have been shockingly high for several years now in Venezuela, Fundepro said criminals are becoming ever-more brazen with some assaults on whole police stations in order to steal weapons.
In November, 30 men stormed a police base in Guarico state before dawn to carry off weapons, bullet-proof jackets and uniforms.
Among the victims so far this year, Alvaro Blanco was buying bread in the small town of Tacata when two men followed him in.
One shot the 49-year-old policeman in the back of the head as he was at the counter, a security camera video showed.
The gunman then coolly leant over Blanco’s body to take his gun before fleeing. Both men were later tracked down by police and killed in a shootout, local media said.
Blanco’s boss, Elisio Guzman, who runs Miranda state’s police force, complained impunity for criminals was endangering his men. He said his force last year arrested 1,073 people in the act of committing crimes but 653 of them quickly returned to the street unpunished.
“On top of this, the prisons are overflowing, the (police‘s) weapons are inadequate, there are constant death threats.”
Private monitoring groups say only about 10 percent of murder cases end in convictions in Venezuela.
The government concedes that police are often involved in crimes themselves and it recently “intervened” in several units around the country, meaning they were raided and had their supervisors removed.
In one, a senior detective was caught cashing a ransom for a kidnapped businessman, said Freddy Bernal, head of a presidential commission to “revolutionize” Venezuela’s police.
As well as working to root out bad apples, Bernal’s team is making proposals to improve wages, insurance, training and equipment for policemen. “We need to recover the authority of the state ... give security to the police,” he said.
The government has also launched a disarmament drive, but only brought in a tiny fraction of the estimated 9-15 million guns circulating in the nation of 30 million people.
Despite the perils of the job and starting wages of around 7,000 bolivars ($1,628 at the strongest official rate but a mere $39 at the black market rate), police recruitment days still draw huge numbers of unemployed young men.
“I know it’s dangerous,” said Martin Gomez, 21, a youth from Caracas’ Petare slum who was heading to a recruitment event for the Bolivarian National Police Force set up by Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez. “But I have to eat, don’t I? And I’d love to help my country.”
Editing by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Kieran Murray