“Mano Justa” Policing

Rebecca Hanson

At the recent graduation of 25 new Citizen Committees for Police Supervision (see previous post here) Soraya El Achkar, the Rector of the National Police University, and Luis Fernandez, the Director of the National Bolivarian Police (PNB, Policia Nacional Bolivariana), made reference to a new model of security based not on “mano dura” or “mano blanda” but “mano justa” practices. Their discourse openly recognized the dichotomized perceptions of the old and new policing models, perceptions that have to be broken down for police reform in the country to succeed. 

El Achkar stated a number of times that it is possible for the new police to respect human rights and guarantee security at the same time. She emphasized that the PNB are being trained not only in human rights but also in the use of force, both of which are necessary for an efficient and effective police force. Responding to the “complaints” from PNB officers who do not feel respected in communities, she replied that the only way to gain this was by respecting citizens first and pursuing a technical and professional education. These affirmations are most likely a response to the perception that the PNB, while more respectful of human rights and less aggressive towards citizens, are not “hard” enough to protect citizens from “el hampa” (the criminal “underworld”).

Luis Fernandez echoed El Achkar’s points, stating that the world has already witnessed the results of “mano dura” practices in the region and now is the time to turn to “mano justa,” which requires further police education, professionalization, and a citizenry that no longer participates in the “corrupting” of police officers. According to El Achkar, after 20+ years of working with the police, she has learned that a “Manichean” understanding of police practices accomplishes nothing, and evaluating the police using dichotomized terms will get the country nowhere. 

By these statement El Achkar was making reference to the fact that many in the country view the Metropolitan Police (Policia Metropolitana, PM, the body previously responsible for policing Caracas and trained by the National Guard) as violent, but they believe its repressive character served the purpose of providing security. For example, though some of my neighbors in Catia—a collection of lower-class barrios in Caracas— express relief that the military is no longer in charge of policing, they also tell stories of seeing PNB officers abused and spit on by citizens.  As one of my neighbors told me, “even women hit them!” The perception that officers are the subjects of abuse by “even women” suggests that they cannot guarantee their own personal security, much less that of others. 

Some members of the PNB also share the view that the PM’s repression was necessary to garner respect. As one PNB officer recently expressed to me, “Don’t doubt it, the Metropolitan Police were the best police in the country…they knew that Venezuelans only listen to the stick.” In comparison, PNB officers are often described as a nice group of kids whose “soft” character does not demand the respect necessary to “make Venezuelans listen.” The belief that citizens are “made” to respect officers by a physical show of force makes it difficult to sell a project of policing that is based on the limitation and reduction of its use.  

Other PNB officers, who perhaps might not go so far as to agree that the PM was an exemplary model, feel constrained by the reform’s new rules, training, and regulations, which they perceive as giving the benefit of the doubt to citizens without paying attention to officer accounts. For some, the consideration of human rights is viewed as something that keeps them from being able to act, a consideration that “malandros” (criminals) do not have to take into account.

It is important that authorities recognize that these perception exist—among both citizens and police—if UNES and the PNB are going to move past categories that El Achkar referred to as Manichean classifications of policing practices (the use of force as always good or always bad, for example). Many citizens I speak with do not see the PNB as capable of protecting them and some officers feel constrained by the reform and, therefore, more vulnerable to personal harm. Figuring out how to sell “mano justa” policing— neither “dura” nor “blanda”—to officers and citizens will most likely prove to be an important part of the security campaign as 2013 unfolds.