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Weapons proliferate in Venezuela

Supporters and opponents of President Chávez are reportedly forming militias in the run-up to next month's referendum.

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In a Venezuela deeply polarized over President Hugo Chávez, reports of groups arming themselves have raised the specter that an Aug. 15 recall vote on Mr. Chávez could trigger violence if the losing side refuses to accept the result.

The conflict over Chávez's rule has already left several dozen dead in street confrontations and has been punctuated by unsolved bomb attacks on political targets. Representatives of both sides - supporters who say Chávez is the savior of the poor, opponents who say he is an authoritarian who has run the country's economy into the ground - have accused each other of arming irregular paramilitary groups.

"The government's thesis is to surround itself with urban and rural militias in order to prevent a loss of power by whatever means it takes," says National Deputy Pedro Castillo, a member of the opposition who chairs a parliamentary commission investigating the illicit arms trade.

But Chávez has warned repeatedly that his opponents, who have charged the government with preparing to manipulate the referendum, might take up arms if they lose. "If they go for the route of violence, we will be ready to confront them," he said on June 27.

Mr. Castillo says that since January 2003 his commission has investigated more than 10 cases of suspicious or illegal arms shipments, including 120 Uzi submachine guns and 1,200 Croatian pistols imported ostensibly for the police force of a small rural state; a hundred assault rifles from Iran discovered at a port in a container labeled "scrap metal"; and several crates of ammunition.

Besides feeding fears of political violence, the profusion of guns and other light arms here has fueled a soaring rate of violent crime. Anti-Chávez newspapers regularly headline the latest murder tolls as a sign of growing lawlessness. And in a recent series of spectacular robberies, attackers have blown open armored cars using rocket-propelled grenades.

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