November 17, 2002
CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez moved to take control of the Caracas police force Saturday, but opponents of the leftist leader rejected the maneuver as a threat to talks on resolving the country's deepening and violent political crisis.
Further complicating the situation, the commissioner appointed by the government to take control of the police said he wouldn't take the post.
The government was taking "exceptional and provisional" command of the 9,000-strong police force to end a 11/2-month dispute among officers, said Alcides Rondon, Chavez's deputy citizen security minister. He cited laws that allow government intervention in times of crisis.
The move only heightened political tensions in Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier. Chavez's opponents say he must step down, and both sides have repeatedly held mass protests in the capital.
Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello said city police would share their duties with the National Guard, but opposition mayors and state governors with jurisdiction over parts of Caracas vowed to ignore an army order for "mixed" police patrols.
After Chavez moved to take control of the capital city's police Saturday, opponents and the ousted police chief said they would try to block the takeover.
The government said it had to move to end the dispute between police officers that has lasted 47 days. Pro-Chavez police Sgt. Jorge Alvarado seized a key precinct in Caracas in October to stop opposition Mayor Alfredo Pena from forcing him into retirement.
On Wednesday, the government sent 2,000 soldiers into the streets, a day after police officers clashed with each other and Chavez supporters. Two people were killed and dozens wounded.
Opposition leaders claim the move is aimed at neutralizing Pena, a major Chavez adversary. Chavez has repeatedly claimed Pena is plotting a coup with opposition leaders.
Rondon appointed Emigdio Delgado as new director of the force, replacing Henry Vivas, who had been named by Pena. But Delgado recognized Vivas as the legitimate director of the police force and said he wouldn't take the post.
Later, Rondon appointed commissioner Gonzalo Sanchez as new chief.
The officers who seized the key precinct in Caracas rejected Delgado's unexpected resignation and vowed to ignore orders handed down by Vivas.
Rondon told reporters the National Guard was being deployed in Cotiza to maintain public order.
"The intervention continues. The police force is leaderless right now and this power vacuum is being filled by my presence here, until a new chief is appointed," said Rondon. He said a new chief would be named soon.
Pena urged dissident officers to give up control of the precinct, which serves as the police force's communications center and arms deposit, "to avoid a bloodbath."
On the other side of town, flag-waving Chavez opponents and officers loyal to Pena gathered outside a local television station, where Delgado quit, to voice their support for his decision.
Pena called the intervention "a coup ordered by Chavez" and vowed to challenge the measure at the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the nation's highest court.
Several leaders already said they would not recognize the police takeover.
"We don't recognize Emigdio Delgado as the head of the metropolitan police," said Henrique Capriles, mayor of Caracas' Baruta district.
Capriles said the intervention provides a dangerous precedent, and he warned Chavez could seize control of other police forces.