Abductions for ransom have grown rapidly in the past decade, with kidnapping reported to police rising from 52 in 1998, when Chavez was first elected, to 618 in 2009. Security experts say the real number of kidnappings is much higher because most cases aren't reported to authorities.
Recently diplomats from Costa Rica, Mexico and Chile were kidnapped, and all were eventually freed after ordeals lasting from two hours to more than a day.
Among the middle and upper classes, growing numbers of Venezuelans have been trying to take their security into their own hands by enrolling in self-defense courses, hiring bodyguards or bulletproofing their vehicles.
"Business has multiplied," said Ernesto Carrera, director of the School of Personal Protection, which offers intensive self-defense courses. He said his clientele has grown by about 80 percent in the past five years.
Jose Berrios, a 34-year-old businessman, decided to enroll after surviving an armed robbery, and now spends three nights a week at the school learning self-defense techniques and struggling through exercise sessions that include tossing medicine balls, doing pull-ups and lifting weights.
In one training session, an instructor demonstrated how to avoid a carjacking by using a martial arts move to disarm an attacker.
Capriles has been trying to capitalize on Venezuelans' concerns by accusing Chavez of ignoring the issue for most of his presidency. He has promised to take a different approach and make crime-fighting a top priority, laying out a plan that includes putting more police on the streets, raising officers' salaries and bringing more sports and art programs to poor neighborhoods.
Chavez responded by launching his latest anti-crime program last week, dubbed the "Great Mission For Every Life Venezuela." It includes allocating more money to expand training programs for police, starting community programs for troubled youth, expanding a fledgling national police force and targeting law enforcement resources to high-crime areas.
Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said the country now has about 92,000 police officers in a patchwork of state, local and national police force but acknowledged Venezuela would need about 20,000 more police officers to meet U.N. standards. This September, El Aissami said, about 9,500 new recruits are scheduled to join the Bolivarian National Police after they undergo training.
El Aissami said that the challenge of combatting violence goes beyond hiring more police and building more prisons. Part of the government's program, he said, focuses on giving young men in the slums alternatives through sports and community programs so that they no longer view "a pistol and a motorcycle" as status symbols.
El Aissami told reporters last week that crime "is the most serious problem, the one of greatest concern and the one of greatest attention for the government."
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report from Caracas.