CARACAS, Venezuela - The gang leader emerges from a darkened bedroom holding two grim trophies: a bulletproof vest and a 9 mm handgun - both taken off a murdered policeman.

Venezuela has long been synonymous with bloodshed.

The country has the second-highest homicide rate in the world after Honduras, and violence is so commonplace that only the most spectacular of crimes (murders of celebrities, at funerals and in broad daylight) seem to make the news.

However, police are now the ones coming under fire. In recent weeks, gangs have ambushed police stations with hand grenades and machine guns. Patrolmen are being hunted for their motorcycles, body armor, and weapons.

So far this year, 125 law enforcement officials have been murdered in greater Caracas alone. If that same rate held in the United States, it would be the equivalent of 6,572 police murders. Instead, there have been 32 shooting deaths of U.S. officers.

"Enrique" - who runs a gang of 15 hardened drug dealers, arms traffickers, thieves and kidnappers - agreed to talk to the Miami Herald under the condition of anonymity. Showing off the Glock pistol that he claims his gang took from an officer a month ago, he said the authorities are outgunned.

"The police want to wage war against us, but they can't," he said. "Our weapons are meaner."

In theory, guns are highly regulated in Venezuela and the government occasionally engages in sweeps to get them off the streets.

But Enrique said cash-strapped officers and military officials will supply the gangs with anything they want. An AR-15, AK-47 or other automatic weapon go for 1.2 million bolivares, or about $1,700 if bought with black-market dollars. A hand grenade runs about $71.

"The police are very corrupt," he said. "They don't earn anything, and so, to make a little more money, they will sell you their guns or ammunition."

In Venezuela, police corruption might be as much about survival as it is profit. Enrique admitted that the officer they killed in October was targeted because he'd arrested a gang member and then refused a bribe to let him go.

"He didn't take the money and our guy is still in jail so he had to die," Enrique explained. "It was just revenge."

Jesus Eduardo Lamas is the assistant director of the 1,658-strong police force of Miranda State - which includes part of greater Caracas. Of police killed this year, six have been his officers.

While he concedes there may be some bad apples within the national police force, the vast majority of officers are honest, underpaid and hardworking.

An entry-level policeman in Miranda state makes 386,000 bolivares a year in salary and benefits. If he or she were forced to exchange that cash for dollars on the street, it would work out to about $550. Any of his men and women could probably make more doing something else, he said, but they're passionate about their jobs.

"To be a policeman in this country right now requires a great degree of heroism," he said. "The criminals are far better armed than we are. ... They have access to weapons we're not even authorized to carry."