By Daniel Wallis and Marianna Parraga
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for a new fight against crime on Tuesday, acknowledging an issue that voters say is their top concern ahead of an election in less than two weeks.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony for more than 8,000 police officers, the socialist leader said the South American country still lacked the specialized forces it needed to solve problems that hit poor neighborhoods the hardest.
"We need preventative, scientific and community-based police who can help resolve the conflicts in the barrios, between relatives and neighbors, and to fight against the crime that causes so much damage to society," Chavez said.
Armed robberies and murders are common in Venezuela, where more people have been killed during the last five years than have died in Mexico's drug war. Many city dwellers are reluctant to venture out after dark, and both candidates ahead of the October 7 vote are promising safer streets if they win.
Chavez's rival, 40-year-old state Governor Henrique Capriles, says he has heard the same story of day-to-day problems - crime, unemployment, inefficient public services - on every campaign stop around the country of 29 million.
At a rally in the eastern city of Maturin on Tuesday, the opposition leader asked the crowd to raise a hand if they knew a victim of violence. A forest of arms went up.
"How can they (the government) speak about independence when 50 Venezuelans are killed every day here?" Capriles asked.
Local researchers say more than 19,000 people were murdered in Venezuela last year. The government rarely publishes any figures, but says the number was closer to 15,000.
Capriles, who is promising to replace 14 years of Chavez's self-styled revolution with an administration that would be roughly modeled on Brazil's government - business-friendly but with strong social welfare programs.
Chavez says those pledges are a ruse to win over undecided voters, and that "the candidate of the right" is in the pay of a rich elite who held power before he took office in 1999.
"BUILDING THE FATHERLAND"
On Tuesday, the 58-year-old Chavez told the graduation ceremony at a Caracas stadium that capitalist, "bourgeois" governments always sought to criminalize their police force.
"They marginalize them, they mistreat them, they often use them for crime, and - above all - for the repression of the people," he told the young police officers.
They were all members of a new national "Bolivarian" force, named for South America's 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar. It is gradually being rolled out to replace a patchwork of forces, many of which had a terrible reputation.
"The Bolivarian National Police has been born, to accompany the Bolivarian people in building the fatherland," Chavez said.
Capriles edged closer to the president in one new opinion poll published this week, but remained 10 percentage points behind the former soldier. Polls are notoriously controversial and divergent in Venezuela, and another well-known pollster has the candidates neck-and-neck.
Investors expect Capriles to end a five-year nationalization drive and reduce state intervention in the economy.
Chavez, who has had three cancer operations since June 2011, vows to deepen his oil-financed socialism if he wins six more years in office. It is likely to mean fresh confrontation with the private sector and more support for his leftist allies.
In a typical piece of populist showmanship by the president, who makes much of his humble roots and emotional connection with the poor, he professed amazement when a female graduate told him she would be starting her new job immediately.
"Not even a day off? Now, I don't want to get involved in this, but ... ," Chavez said, looking to senior commanders sitting nearby. They nodded quickly, and he turned back to the audience.
"OK, a week off to celebrate then!" he declared to applause and raucous cheers, TV pictures showing young officers high-fiving each other and hugging in the crowd.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Xavier Briand)