Flood victims refuse to budge from slums for fear of looters and broken promises

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LABOURER RAFAEL Camacho is 48 years old and has lived almost his entire life in a narrow gorge beside the Anauco, a normally harmless stream that flows down from the steep slopes of the Cerro del Avila in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

The stream was long ago confined to a concrete tunnel, flowing beneath a twisting alley jokingly referred to as "the boulevard". No more than a few paces separate the two- and three-storey cement and breeze block dwellings crammed together on either side.

The Quebrada Anauco neighbourhood is a deathtrap, built with the blessing of politicians who authorised its construction immediately after the overthrow of the Perez Jimenez dictatorship in 1958.

"Perez Jimenez had evicted everyone from here," recalls Mr Camacho, rubbing the three-day growth of white stubble on his chin. "He sent us all off to uncleared land in Petare," in the east of the city.

No sooner had the general fled into exile than the community was rebuilt, under an emergency plan brought in by the founders of modern Venezuelan democracy. The dictator's slum clearance programme was abandoned.

Today, Mr Camacho looks down from where his top floor window ought to be on to a scene of utter devastation. When the Anauco, swollen to 20 feet above its normal level, swept down the hill a week ago, it took the upper levels of most houses with it, along with many of their inhabitants.

Venezuelan authorities said yesterday that the death toll from the flash floods and mudslides could reach 30,000, making it one of Latin America's worst natural disasters this century.

The lower floors are filled with greenish-brown, liquid mud, and all kinds of debris - from tree branches to twisted car parts and household effects - is piled up along "the boulevard".

"My great friend, my best friend, Sandy, he lived over there," Mr Camacho said. "He died when a wall fell on him. He was a good man. If there's a heaven, he's up there."

It is claimed that as many as 400 people died along the length of this gully alone. "I personally know of more than 30," said Mr Camacho. But still the people refuse to move. They have no faith in the promises of politicians, and President Hugo Chavez's plan to send them into the interior meets with almost total rejection.

"What we want is to move back into our homes," said bricklayer Dionisio Martinez, 38. "We know they want to evict us from here, but they're not sending us off to some mountain where there are no jobs."

Mr Martinez rejects the argument that the riverbed is unsafe for housing. "This was a natural phenomenon - it's no one's fault. Anyone who was swept away by the river must have been asleep."

Jesus Contreras, 29, is in his second year of an economics course. He nearly died trying to save his books and papers, along with some pedigree dogs he was breeding. The dogs survived, but all his coursework is under several feet of mud.

"Chavez is mistaken," he argues. "He says there'll be work, but he's not thinking of these people's average educational level. Many of them can't read or write. How are they going to live?"

In theory, these poor neighbourhoods are fertile ground for Mr Chavez's "fifth-republic" rhetoric. The former paratroop colonel, and failed coup leader, has a strong following among the 80 per cent of Venezuelans who live in poverty. But distrust of politicians of all kinds is deeply ingrained here.

"Seven or eight years ago, there was a similar disaster in a neighbourhood not far away," Mr Contreras said. "They promised the survivors the sun and the moon - furnished houses, you name it. It never happened, and a couple of years later the people went back and built their ranchos (slum dwellings) again."

There is another reason why people will not move away: looters. The people still clinging to the wrecks of their houses cannot afford to lose the little they have left. They believe organised gangs, and not just individuals, are responsible.

"We're ready to turn ourselves into vigilantes, and we've been approaching contacts about getting some weapons - sticks, pistols, whatever," Mr Contreras said.

The police can do little about it, he says. "The cops here are just kids, they're more scared than we are. What they should do is send in the army or the national guard."

The government faces growing calls to do more about the looters, especially down on the coast, in Vargas state, where crime levels are said to have risen alarmingly. Paratroop battalions patrolled La Guaira yesterday, where desperate survivors ransacked the main cargo port Monday. But although the President has not ruled out a curfew, he is reluctant to suspend civil rights.

The riots of January, 1989, when the government of Carlos Andres Perez used the armed forces against looters and hundreds died, remain fresh in the popular imagination. Those events are generally regarded as having led directly to the widespread support given to the two coup attempts of 1992, and hence to Mr Chavez's landslide election victory last year.

"I don't vote anyway," says Mr Camacho. "My vote is abstention - to punish the politicians. They're all the same."

If the government's promises prove as flimsy as those of its predecessors, that is a sentiment that could take hold.