By Andrew Cawthorne and Carlos Garcia Rawlins
CARACAS, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Strewn with smashed headstones, empty whisky bottles and the odd spent bullet casing, Caracas' 19th century Southern Cemetery is a sprawling symbol of the violent crime engulfing Venezuela.
Grave diggers tell of attacks on mourners by gunmen from the surrounding slums, drug-fueled parties at tombs, and night-time desecration of graves to steal bones for rituals.
Corpses of murder victims are brought in daily, mostly young men gunned down in gang fights.
"Violence is the modern fashion in Venezuela. Not just the killing, but they way they behave around the dead," says Oscar Arias, 50, who has dug graves here for 33 years and recently buried his own nephew, who was shot in a nearby slum.
Arias and the other 44 members of his grave diggers' cooperative are never short of work.
Both the official national rate of 39 deaths per 100,000 people in 2013 and a tally of double that from monitoring group the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVA) make Venezuela an international leader in homicides, vying with gang-plagued nations such as Honduras and El Salvador.
A perpetually edgy city full of guns, Caracas' murder rate is more than 100 per 100,000 residents, according to OVA. The government does not publish an official figure.
By comparison, the United States' current rate is about 4.7 deaths per 100,000.
A decades-old problem in Venezuela, armed robberies, kidnappings and murders climbed during the 1999-2013 rule of President Hugo Chavez, despite his anti-poverty programs.
Even official figures show the murder rate doubling in that time.
Critics blame a corrupt and broken judicial system, from the local police station up to the Supreme Court. "Chavistas" point to the influence of "capitalist evils" such as drug trafficking and violent U.S. TV shows.
Whatever the causes, Venezuelans across the political spectrum agree crime is their No. 1 problem and it is a major complaint fuelling recent political protests and unrest.
Chavez's successor Nicolas Maduro has declared it the priority for his six-year term. "Put your arms down! Stop the violence!" he thunders over-and-over in speeches.
"MORE KILLED ON WEEKENDS"
As well as grave diggers, there is no lack of demand for undertakers, tomb-chisellers, flower-sellers, permit-handlers and a plethora of other mini-businesses purveying to death.
"Mondays are the busiest. They kill more people at the weekends," says Jhonny Aguilar, 24, describing his work matter-of-factly as he picks up bodies from a morgue to wash and dress at La Central undertaker's in west Caracas.
Upstairs from him and next to a huge oven on La Central's top floor, Giovanni Vespoli bakes photos of the dead onto ceramic for use on marble headstones, at between 1,300-1,600 bolivars ($206-254) each, in a country where many earn the minimum wage of about 3,300 bolivars a month.
"Having a funeral parlor is a money-maker. There are deaths here, there and everywhere, the situation is out of control," says Vespoli, 28, who can bake 90 images on a busy day.
So terrified of crime are the middle- and upper-classes that some affluent Caracas neighborhoods are like ghost towns from as early as 8 p.m. The few vehicles out tend to shoot through red lights in case of carjack, while friends and relatives call or text each other to confirm they got home safely.
"Express kidnappings", where victims are snatched for a few hours while families pay a ransom or they are made to withdraw as much money as possible from cash machines, are common.
Embassies and foreign businesses in Venezuela discourage expatriates with children from coming given the risks.
The British School in Caracas, for example, has barely any British kids. Most are from wealthy local families who often drop off kids in armored cars with guards present.
Worst-hit though are the poor barrios where police often dare not enter, gangs rule, murders are routine, and stray gunfire sometimes takes out innocents, leaving parents in fear when children play outside or go to and from school.
SLAIN BEAUTY QUEEN
The fear over violent crime crystallized this year around the murder of a beloved former beauty queen and soap opera star, Monica Spear.
On holiday from the United States to show off her homeland to her five-year-old daughter, Spear exuded pride and happiness in photos posted to social media from various beauty spots.
That all came to an end when robbers blocked and ambushed her car on a highway after dark. They shot her and her ex-husband dead in front of the little girl.
Overnight, Spear became a national symbol of the crime wave.
As well as an outpouring of grief, her death prompted Maduro and his rival, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, to shake hands in a meeting about crime, the first time they had come face-to-face since a bitterly-disputed election last year.
Police have arrested about half a dozen men over the killings. At least one of them had a history of violent crime.
"There is so much impunity in this country that it's totally normal for a criminal to commit a crime and simply pay the police if by chance he's detained, or the prosecutor, or the judge, or the jailer so that he can go free," says Roberto Briceno Leon, an academic who runs the OVV.
The group says the murder rate has risen from about 19 per 100,000 people in 1998 to about 79 last year - or nearly 25,000 in total in 2013 - with no arrests in 90 percent of cases.
Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, an army major-general once jailed with Chavez for a failed coup attempt, says the OVV data is inflated.
He says the figure actually dropped by about a quarter last year to 39 per 100,000, from a record high of 52 in 2012, thanks to a government anti-crime drive called the Safe Homeland Plan that includes more soldiers on the streets.
"We're not happy, but we are optimistic," he told Reuters at a flashy new surveillance center in Caracas where policemen track streets via new cameras and even a small drone.
He accused the OVV, private media and opposition politicians of trying to heighten perceptions of widespread insecurity and inaction by the government.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
Beyond the debate over data, there is a huge divergence of opinion on the causes of crime. "Chavistas" point to the poverty and inequality which they say characterized four decades of rule by traditional parties prior to Chavez.
Neighboring Colombia's relatively successful pacification of guerrilla and paramilitary bands also drove guns and criminal know-how across the border, they add.
Critics, though, say such talk is a smokescreen. If poverty levels fell dramatically and capitalism lost ground under Chavez, they ask, why did crime rise?
The government is responsible, the opposition argues, for being soft on crime, for politicizing and corrupting institutions such as the judiciary, and for glorifying violence in public discourse.
They point to government leaders' often-bellicose language and the annual celebration of Chavez's 1992 coup attempt as implicit endorsements of violence.
"It's so sad. Young people grow up here with gunmen on motor-bikes for role models," muses Atilio Gonzalez, 60, a priest whose sun-tanned face and worldly-wise demeanor bear out the 24 years he has spent at the Southern Cemetery.
Trudging to his next funeral on a scorching afternoon, Gonzalez says the Brazilian-style raids on slum gangs that some want here would not work.
"When Christ preached to the people, first he made sure they had bread to eat. The people need food, a roof, education and health before you can start changing things," says Gonzalez.
Despite ever-growing demand for their services, the funeral businesses in Caracas are hardly happy. They complain of a lack of respect for the dead, with many mourners drinking, partying and joking around coffins. Undertakers say fights, and even some fatal shootings, have occurred on their premises during wakes.
Sometimes, motorcycle gangs hijack hearses en route to cemeteries, putting a gun to the driver's head to make him parade a friend's coffin around their neighborhood as a final farewell before burial.
Then there are Venezuela's tough economic realities.
The government wants to cap prices for funeral services, shortages of products from marble to screws are widespread, and few people can afford top-end coffins or tombs.
"Venezuela was a paradise when I arrived," says Laudelino Morales, a 76-year-old Spanish immigrant who has spent half a century chiseling tomb-stones, in his dust-covered workshop round the corner from the Southern Cemetery.
"Now it's a No. 1 disaster." (Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Kieran Murray and Martin Howell)