Venezuela sees 'record murder rate' in 2011
A Venezuelan campaign group says the country has suffered a record number of murders in 2011.
The Venezuela Violence Observatory says at least 19,336 people have been killed this year, an average of 53 a day.
The figures suggest Venezuela's murder rate is the highest in South America and four times that of Mexico.
Criminal violence is set to be a major issue in next year's elections, when President Hugo Chavez is seeking another term in office.
"We must inform the nation that 2011 will end as the the most violent year in the nation's history," the Venezuela Violence Observatory (OVV) said in a news release.
Its figures - based on research by several Venezuelan universities - suggest that in 2011 Venezuela had a murder rate of 67 per 100,000 inhabitants.
That compares to 32 per 100,000 last year in neighbouring Colombia and 14 per 100,000 in Mexico, two countries suffering widespread drug-related violence.
The Venezuelan government has recognised the problem of violent crime, though its figures are lower.
Last February, Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami told Congress the murder rate was 48 per 100,000 inhabitants.'Impunity'
The OVV says violent crime has risen steadily in Venezuela since 1999 when President Chavez took office. In that year only 4,550 murders were registered.
The group did not give an overall reason for the rising violence, but said the problem was fuelled by impunity, with the great majority of killings going unpunished.
A high level of gun ownership is also a factor.
Along with the murder rate, levels of robbery and kidnap have also been going up.
In November, President Hugo Chavez announced the creation of a new armed force - the People's Guard - to improve public security.
Thousands of troops were deployed to support police on the streets of Caracas and other regions where crime levels are high.
Several Latin American countries have murder rates far higher than the global average of 6.9 murders per 100,000 people.
The highest rate in 2010 was in Honduras, which suffered 82 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.