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The heavy hand on Venezuela's streets

Faced with soaring levels of crime and violence, Venezuela's government continues to militarize the police. The public disproves of the crime, but not the response. Why? 

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has deployed well over 40,000 police and military troops in response to rising public dissent over high violence levels. Soon this number will surpass 80,000, with soldiers present in every state. The operation, known as Plan Patria Segura (Secure Homeland), began in May with the deployment of 3,000 soldiers to the streets of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, and has escalated since. The plan was originally designed to target high-crime areas and last just six months, but as the crime rate continues to climb the government has extended the plan and there now appears no end in sight. 

Crime and violence in Venezuela has skyrocketed over the past 15 years due to dysfunctional penal and judicial systems, a flailing economy, an influx of drug trafficking and rampant corruption within the government, military and police. Despite the use of militarized tactics, security conditions have only continued to deteriorate. In 1995, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes reported 20 homicides for every 100,000 residents in Venezuela. By 2010, that number officially quadrupled to 50 homicides per 100,000.

And that is a conservative figure. Research by the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (Observatorio Venezuelano de Violencia), a respected non-governmental security organization, recorded over 19,000 homicides in 2011, or 67 murders per 100,000 people. According to the NGO, this increased to 73 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012, compared to the government’s count of 56 homicides per 100,000 that year. Using either official or independent rates, murder levels doubled or tripled in the two decades after Hugo Chávez took power. Various reports place impunity levels anywhere between 93 percent and 97 percent, and the country has become a major departure point for drugs heading to the United States and Europe.

Given endemic police corruption and Venezuela’s strong military tradition, it was little surprise that Maduro recently turned to the armed forces to serve as a defacto police force, as a short term – but increasingly permanent - solution to widespread insecurity.

Failed police

In Venezuela, local law enforcement bodies provide only a limited option to target violence in high-crime areas. Corruption has soured the public’s opinion towards the police - in 2012, Transparency International found that the police were considered among Venezuela’s most corrupt institutions. This is partly because the military tradition in the country has translated to a normalization of heavy-handed police tactics, leading to widespread human rights abuses. Security forces, particularly police, have been accused for decades of excessive use of force, unlawful killings, extortion, torture, forced disappearances and involvement in organized crime.

By 2009, even the Venezuelan government admitted police were responsible for up to 20 percent of all crimes. In one poll 70 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: "Police and criminals are practically the same." As Venezuelan crime specialist and security journalist Javier Mayorca noted, when police are corrupt and fail to protect, “people take security into their own hands and are also too afraid of reprisal to report it, allowing the cycle to continue.”

The high rate of corruption is due in large part to increasing penetration of organized crime into many federal, state and municipal institutions. As drug traffickers set up shop in Venezuela and as an underfunded and dysfunctional justice system allowed for high impunity, citizens became victims of extortion and violence. The central government lacks control over the separate forces as decentralization policies in the late 1980s and early 1990s turned responsibility for the country’s 134 police forces over to local governments.

To confront these issues, in 2009, President Hugo Chávez began implementing a series of police reforms, creating the National Bolivarian Police (PNB). The new force was part of an effort to move away from the militarized police culture and create a preventative, community-based, citizen security force. A body made up of human rights activists, police and government representatives would oversee the process. The reform called for PNB officers to receive training from a civilian-run policing university that focuses on human rights and deferential force. Previously, the National Guard trained the police. The new force's salary would be doubled and a vetting process put in place. The PNB was also the first step towards consolidating all 134 police forces into a single, centralized force with standardized training, methods and equipment.

While observers and analysts have applauded the reform initiative, it has not yet led to improved law enforcement. One problem is that it remains underfunded – some measures, such as the wage increase, have yet to be implemented. The PNB also lacks recruits; currently the force has 14,478 officers, falling short of the 16,424 needed to meet the ratio of four police for every 1,000 people, the international standard for crime-ridden developing countries. This lack of manpower has fed the public perception that the PNB are not patrolling where they are needed most.

The process is still in its early stages. The PNB will in theory replace all police, but until then, police bodies throughout the country remain poorly trained, poorly equipped and under-staffed. These deficiencies make it easier for the Venezuelan state to justify calling the military to step in as a stopgap to violence. 

However, perhaps one of the biggest challenges to the reform’s success is public perception of this more humanist approach. No hard statistics have been released, but anecdotal reports indicate a paradoxical response from the public: they are in favor of the idea of a more holistic, community-based strategy, but when confronted with continuous soaring crime rates, want an immediate response. Those in poor, high-crime areas see PNB tactics as “soft” and ineffective, according to Venezuela experts David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson. 

The civilian police’s dysfunction and corruption left the path open for a military-focused government to call in the troops, reinforcing a militarized culture in which those enduring the brunt of the rampant insecurity see a heavy-handed approach as the best alternative. How did Venezuela get here?

A military history

Venezuela has an entrenched institutional military culture dating back to the 19th century that resurged with Hugo Chávez’s military-led revolution in 1998. While Maduro’s most recent security surge militarized law enforcement with more manpower than any initiative implemented under Chávez, it is not much of a change from past trends.

When Chávez took power, the military became more prominent in both Venezuelan politics and society. Under the former army lieutenant, military members took over powerful positions in the government while military personnel gained the right to vote in elections, and it was not unusual to see soldiers present at festivals, distributing food or constructing housing. Chavez’s so-called 'Bolivarian Revolution' strongly promoted this sort of close civilian-military relationship.

Because of this militarized history and culture – and Chávez’s popularity - large portions of citizens do not necessarily oppose the military’s presence in the streets. With the escalating violence, many residents see no other option than this hardline approach. For the average Venezuelan citizen, the military “represents order and efficiency against a background of chaos and dysfunction, and giving it an important social role appears logical,” as David Smilde has noted.

Chávez capitalized on this perception. While he promised police reform, he gave much more attention and resources to the armed forces. Most of his reform measures were also accompanied by military initiatives. Around the time he created the PNB, he also established a fifth branch of the armed forces, the Bolivarian National Militia (MNB). The MNB was a group of civilians that would be trained by the armed forces and was intended to act as a link between communities and the armed forces. Shortly after creating the militia, in 2010, Chávez set up a military unit run by the National Guard that was designed to target crime in high areas, having soldiers patrol streets, managing roadblocks and carrying out raids.

Maduro’s vulnerability

Because of Chávez’s charisma, popular support and political acumen, he was able to sweep the rising insecurity under the rug and shirk responsibility for issues like police abuses, instead focusing on political enemies at home and abroad. President Maduro does not have this luxury.

His short tenure in office has been marred by diplomatic gaffes, power outages, food shortages, massive inflation, high murder rates and corruption scandals and the lack of political prowess to distract the public. By deploying the military, he is able to visibly show the public the Venezuelan government is doing something about the security problem in the short term. “It is a political response to a political problem,” says Venezuelan expert and NYU professor Alejandro Velasco.

For the time being, it seems Chávez’s supporters are giving Maduro the benefit of the doubt- his approval ratings remain at around 45-50 percent in most polls. However as the New York Times recently reported, “there is a growing sense that things are falling apart.” By carrying on with Chávez’s strategies and playing up the tight links between the military and the “Bolivarian Revolution,” the troop deployment can also be seen as Maduro’s attempt to maintain Chávez’s legacy and rally public support for the government at a time when people are starting to doubt his ability to govern. On the Venezuelan Vice President’s website, the operation is hailed as “not only based on military police, but also a joint action between the people and their armed forces.”

While troops on the streets can sometimes deter violence in the short term merely through their presence, crime is often pushed into other communities only to return when the soldiers are gone. As the better-funded institution, the armed forces have traditionally had better equipment and greater intelligence capacity than the police. However, there are huge drawbacks to relying on the armed forces for law enforcement, as soldiers lack the community ties that police should cultivate (in theory).

Most notably, military deployments carry risks of human rights abuses. Venezuelan soldiers are conditioned for combat and trained to employ heavy-handed tactics necessary to defeat “the enemy.” However, in a crime-heavy society, there is a blurred line between “the enemy” and those the security forces are assigned to protect.  Unlike PNB officers, members of Venezuela’s armed forces receive no civilian-run human rights training and there is no oversight mechanism for citizens to report abuses by the military. There is no accountability and the Venezuelan public is starting to bear the burden.

Since July, there have been at least eight incidents of abuse, including the shooting of a mother and her daughter by the National Guard. The crime rate has remained high, despite government claims that the surge has brought murders down by 31 percent. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, the country is on track to register 25,000 murders this year, up from 21,000 murders last year.

“The public in general accepts the presence of soldiers initially, until an abuse occurs or the crime continues,” says Mayorca. In light of recent polls, it is unclear how much longer the public will accept this measure. A poll taken by the Venezuelan Institute of Analysis and Information (IVAD) in July found that 64.5 percent of respondents approved of Plan Patria Segura. Another poll released two months later pointed to a drastic change in perception, with 53 percent opposed, saying Maduro’s surge would not fix insecurity.

However, unless there is a drastic change in the current government, which has a strong military faction and is plagued by rampant corruption, the military policing model is likely to stay. Chávez did not put in place an institutionalized, adequate plan to target Venezuela’s insecurity before he died in March, and after seven months, it does not look like Maduro has a sustainable plan either. What happens when the military leaves the streets? Maduro needs a plan that includes an overhaul of the justice system, adequate and expanded funding for the PNB and oversight mechanisms to target high-level military corruption and human rights abuses. 


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