Militarization of law enforcement in Venezuela

As is the case with the military in Honduras and Guatemala, both profiled in previous Just the Facts posts, it looks like troops will be on the streets in Venezuela for the next few months, if not longer. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been under pressure to reduce the high levels of crime and violence that continue to plague the country, which has the highest homicide rate in South America. In May, President Maduro deployed troops throughout the country following reports in April of a record high of 58 homicides a day. The soaring crime rate is caused by several compounded factors: a weak judicial system, a dysfunctional penal system, and rampant corruption among government officials,

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the police and the military, the latter of which has been accused of having entire branches that function like drug trafficking organizations.

Critics of Plan Patria Segura, or the “Safe Homeland Plan,” say the only thing it has done is militarize the country, pointing to some data that indicate June was one of the most violent monthsin 2013. For its part, the Venezuelan government says it is making progress and that the opposition and media are attempting to delegitimize the government by magnifying the crime rate.

However, it is difficult to obtain specific data on crime, as the Venezuelan government has admittedto keeping figures secret from the public. In an interview with InSight Crime, WOLA’s Venezuela analyst David Smilde noted that the country has a military tradition that does not promote transparency. “There is very little tradition of transparency or the people’s right to know,” said Smilde. “The military assumes it is the moral backbone of the country, and [Interior Minister] Rodriguez is a military person. From their perspective, the only reason you would release information is if it supports what you’re doing.”

The “Safe Homeland Plan,” or “Plan Patria Segura,” is part of Venezuela’s “Full Life Mission,” an anti-crime initiative launched under President Chávez in June of last year that had a budget of over five billion bolivars (US$ 1.16 billion) for its first year, according to the Venezuelanalysis blog. Marino Alvarado, director of human rights organization PROVEA (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos), has noted that Plan Patria Segura goes against the philosophy of the mission, which promoted the armed forces “should only act under exceptional circumstances and not be used to for public order.” According to the BBC, it is the 21st citizen security plan since 1999, when Hugo Chávez first took office.

Plan “Patria Segura”

On May 13, the Venezuelan government sent 3,000 members of the Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) to the streets of Caracas, marking the start of Plan Patria Segura. The country’s minister for justice and internal affairs, Miguel Rodriguez, said the first phase of the plan was “designed to last “around six months,” at which point the soldiers would be replaced with police and members of the National Bolivarian Police.

 

  • So far, according to some government numbers, about 40,000 soldiers have been deployed. In total, 80,000 troops will be deployed and the military will have a presence in every state in the country.
  • In early July, 1,541 troops were sent to the Guárico state in northern Venezuela and on July 1, President Maduro announced on his Twitter account that there would be a “new stage” of the plan, which included increasing the amount of troops and implementing “intelligent patrol,” which means units now assigned to territories of about a square kilometer will use GPS technology.He also ordered more troops be sent to the Miranda state, which he claimed has double the rate of crime compared to the rest of the county.
  • Most recently 30,000 troops were deployed to the Amazonas, Apure, Portuguesa, and Nueva Esparta states on July 15.
  • WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog noted the government is using the plan to “to round up undocumented immigrants in poor barrios of Caracas and eventually deport them.”

 

The government claims there have been significant reductions in crime, such as a 200 percentdecrease in kidnappings, a 53 percent drop in homicides in Caracas, and a 30-35 percent decline in crime in areas where the plan was focused. In an interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez claimed there had been a 53 percent drop in crime in the first month of the initiative and a five percent decline in murders overall. However, last month Rodriguez claimed there had been dramatic drop in murders of just over 60 percent. As WOLA’s Adam Isacson pointed out in a previous Just the Facts podcast, the government has only presented percentages and no absolute counts, giving little credence to its claims. Smilde highlighted this tendency in the InSight Crime interview, noting, “Any given year if you add up the percent reduction in crime that the government claims, you would end up with zero crime at the end of the year.”

While human rights activists have opposed the measure, saying it marks a return to the country’s tradition of militarized policing, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez has said, “There is no militarization here.” “The National Armed Boliviarian Force is meeting with community councils. You tell people in El Valle (…) you’re going to take the Army away and they will revolt, because they love their Armed Forces.”

Other critiques

In May, when the plan was first announced, Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog highlighted several reasons to question the initiative. Among them were:

 

  • Impunity: Deploying military to the streets does nothing to address the issue of high rates of impunity for criminals. The Economist reported in January of this year that there was 96% impunity for homicides.
  • Human rights training: In 2008, as an attempt to move away from a militarized police force, former President Hugo Chávez created the National Bolivarian Police (PNB) to create a “preventative, professional, and non-militarized citizen security force.” Before the reform, the National Guard was responsible for training the police. The PNB officers now receive training with an emphasis on human rights and deferential force from a civilian-run policing university. As the crime rate continues to climb, citizens and other police officers have accused the PNB of being “soft” for their less aggressive tactics.Deploying the military, which receives no such training, to high-crime areas gives weight to the notion that repression is more effective. Human rights organizations worry the military is not ready to handle law enforcement in a humane way. Such criticism arose recently after three people were killed in two states by the National Guard.
  • Lack of oversight: There are no mechanisms through which citizens can regulate military corruption or abuses against themselves or other citizens. The military and National Guard are not subject to the oversight bodies created by the policing university, the General Police Council and new policing laws. In some states there are citizen-run police oversight committees — some police officers have even expressed concern that the military may commit abuses against detainees and are worried that in the event abuses occur that the police would be blamed, once the detainee is transferred.

 

However, this is not to say that the reform has been a success. Although there has been an ongoing police reform since 2006, the notoriously corrupt force has been consistently accused of extrajudicial executions, torture, involvement with organized crime and kidnapping. Earlier this month, Transparency International published a report on worldwide corruption, which found the police to be considered the most corrupt entity in Venezuela.

Since President Nicolas Maduro took office in April, he has criticized police forces throughout the country, calling the police in Caracas “mafiosos,” alleging they were responsible for 90 percent of the kidnapping in the capital. He also has demanded several forces be investigated for corruption, and has called the force in Amazonas “a disaster,” after announcing it would be investigated for criminal activity.

Taking all this into consideration, Isacson cited several “longer-term solutions” to Venezuela’s security problems, including:

 

  • Improving the capabilities of the new national police force, the PNB
  • Ensuring that the PNB patrol more often and in crime-ridden areas where they often have no presence
  • Reforming the justice system and the notoriously violent prison system.

 

Some aspects of the above recommendations were included in recent public security reforms, however they have yet to be implemented. It will be interesting to see if any non-governmental statistics mark improvement in the midst of Plan Patria Segura and if there will be any indication that some of the foundational flaws with security see some improvement. As Isacson noted, it is “unclear at best” if the Plan Patria Segura’s goals include targeting central problems with law enforcement in the country, such as shortening response times, giving patrols real-time crime-mapping data, improving relations with communities or improving crime investigations.