Maduro Announcements Mark a Return to Militarized Policing

David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson

The fact that President Maduro went on national television and directly addressed the tragic murders of actress Monica Spear and her husband should be welcomed, as it is all too easy for the government to ignore the issue of security in the country. Many Venezuelans do not see crime as a public policy issue and therefore do not blame the government for it. This creates incentives for leaders to avoid the issue because once they begin to address it, they risk “owning it” in people’s eyes and then could suffer political consequences if their initiatives seem to fail. Thus it is tempting for leaders to simply ignore the problem and allow people to continue blaming it on a decline in values and the family. Thus, Maduro deserves credit for confronting the issue directly.

Nevertheless, the actual content of Maduro’s announcements are consistent with his policies over the past eight months and should cause concern as they represent a new stage in the militarization of citizen security.

Perhaps the most important announcements were the replacement of Soraya El Achkar as Rector of the National Security University (UNES) with Ronald Blanco la Cruz, a retired army general and former governor of Tachira, and the replacement of civilian police official Luis Karabin as director of the National Police (PNB) with retired army general Manuel Eduardo Pérez Urdaneta.

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El Achkar is an activist who worked on issues of police violence for over twenty years before heading up the Police Reform Commission in 2006, which lead to the new policing law in 2008. This law called for the creation of the new Policia Nacional, the new security university, as well as the General Police Council (Conesjo General de Policía, CGP), which presides over the implementation of police reform. El Achkar served as the Secretary of the CGP as well as the Rector of the UNES as well as serving as the public face of police reform. She resigned from the CGP in August 2013 and now has been removed from the UNES.

This follows the removal of Pablo Fernández in July 2013 as head of the Full Life Venezuela Mission, which has the task of coordinating the various efforts to improve citizen security. Fernández is also a human rights activist and headed up the Presidential Commission on Gun Control. He was replaced by retired National Guard official Ildemar Soto.

The change in fortunes of civilian police reform—which through mid-2012 seemed to have the upper hand over the military model—came with the resignation of Tarek El Aissami as Minister of Interior and Justice in 2012 to run (successfully) for governor of Aragua state. El Aissami was replaced by a provisional minister before Maduro named army general Miguel Rodriguez Torres as the new minister.

From the beginning the reform process, which aimed at creating a civilian police force, had tenuous political support and was vigorously opposed by the military behind the scenes. Indeed at the same time that Chávez signed off on the creation of the new PNB and the UNES in 2009, he also signed off on the creation of the Dispositivo Bicentenario de Seguridad (DIBISE), controlled by the National Guard.

The DIBISE pursued the traditional Venezuelan strategy of crime reduction by putting up roadblocks to check people’s papers; roar around neighborhoods with big motorcycles and jeeps with flashing lights; and carrying out “operativos,” in which the National Guard go into a crime-ridden neighborhood with machine guns and anti-ballistic gear to detain suspicious individuals, without warrants.

In June Maduro repackaged the DIBISE as “Plan Patria Segura” (PPS) with the same poor results: human rights violations and little reduction in crime. While Minister Rodriguez Torres recently made evidence-free claims that the plan had reduced the homicide rate to 39 per 100,000 in 2013, the non-governmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia suggests the 2013 rate was at 79, more than twice the official figure.

In light of this militarization Maduro’s call for a new “Pacification Law” is disturbing. In the best light one can imagine a strategy in which the National Guard and Army begin to receive the training in human rights and civilian police techniques that the UNES offers, and combine forces with the police for a comprehensive, professional initiative. However, the futility of the DIBISE and PPS suggest this will not be the case. In the worst case this will represent a new stage of militarization as the civilian policing model gets rolled back and the armed forces are called on to carry out a task they are not trained for, with the usual unintended but predictable consequences: violations of human rights, corruption, and an unabated crime wave.

If so, this should not be seen as a new direction in Venezuela’s approach to citizen security but rather a return to its traditional, militarized model of policing after a five-year experiment with police reform. Since Rafael Caldera placed police forces under the direction of the National Guard in 1969 in response to several police forces having risen up against the government, Venezuelan police have received military, not civilian training, and have had a military structure. This can be seen at every turn in the policing techniques that seem bizarre to outsiders: police roadblocks instead of patrolling; police cars conspicuously driving around with their strobe lights on instead of trying to discretely observe; detentions and inspections without warrants; and offensive instead of defensive shooting—for example shooting fleeing suspects in the back.

We can only hope that this return to tradition will be a short one and that the 2009-2014 civilian police reform planted the seeds of future reform.