Motorcycles swarm Venezuela's capital in protest

Associated Press
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Motorcyclists protest a proposed nighttime curfew for two-wheelers in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. President Nicolas Maduro’s government this month lent its support to proposals to ban motorcycles from circulating at night, arguing that the vehicles are used to carry out murders and kidnappings that have proliferated recently. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — About 2,000 motorcycles swarmed the streets of Venezuela's capital Friday to protest a proposed nighttime curfew on two-wheelers as part of a government crackdown on crime.

The protest barely disrupted traffic as organizers opted against a cross-town caravan and stayed concentrated near the slum of Petare on the eastern outskirts of Caracas.

"Boys, behave. Today we're not going to take anything from anyone," Ricardo Vargas, one of the protest's leaders, said as he walked through the throngs of bikers readying their engines. "Use a helmet. Stop at every light."

In the wake of the shooting death this month of a popular actress and former Miss Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro's government has supported proposals by cities across Venezuela to ban motorcycles from circulating after 7 p.m., arguing that the vehicles are the favored means of escape for hit-men and robbers.

But in cracking down on two-wheelers, Maduro risks offending part of his socialist revolution's base among the poor. The late Hugo Chavez as president actively courted the support of motorcycle drivers, and rolling gangs of armed political shock troops have long been used by the government to break up opposition rallies.

"It's politically dangerous territory," said sociologist David Smilde, who has spent part of the past two decades teaching in Venezuela and is now a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Still, with polls showing security as Venezuelans' top concern, the government has been under pressure to clamp down.

Venezuela's murder has quadrupled in the 15 years since Chavez came to power, with more than 24,000 killings last year alone, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. While the government disputes those statistics, it says the vast majority of the slayings are carried out by motorized assassins.

The bikers themselves, many of whom work as two-wheeled taxis, say that they're being unfairly targeted. They say poor communities where public transport is slim would be the most hurt by any curfew, which they also say is unconstitutional.

The restrictions recall a ban against passengers on the back of motor bikes enforced in Colombia during the cocaine turf wars of the 1980s and more recently in Honduras, one of the few countries in the world with a higher murder rate than Venezuela.

"A delinquent can move by foot, on motorcycle or in a Hummer," said Ivan Contreras, who for more than a decade has earned a living hurrying passengers through Caracas' traffic-clogged streets. "There's no need to punish everyone for the actions of a few black sheep."