Verónica Zubillaga and Andrés Antillano
We Venezuelans now live in militarized cities. First came the Bicentennial Security Force (Dispositivo Bicentenario de Seguridad (DIBISE)), in effect since 2010 with expressed goal of reducing crime rates. Now a new initiative the Secure Homeland Plan (Plan Patria Segura) has been activated. This text is an indictment of militarized citizen security plans (see previous critique here) and an appeal for alternative policies.
First, a quick glance at the numbers reveals that militarized citizen security plans are good at putting disadvantaged young men in jail, yet ineffective at reducing crime.
Venezuela’s incarcerated population increased from a total of 30,483 in 2009—the year before the DIBISE came into effect–to 50,000 in 2011, two years into the plan. A recent study (Socio-demographic Diagnosis of the Penitentiary Population) revealed that 90.5% of those incarcerated were men; 88% were under 40 years of age (45% were between the ages of 18 and 25); most (68.28%) came from the most disadvantaged classes (56% from stratum IV and 11.6% from stratum V), and a quarter (23%) of them were in prison for trafficking and distribution of drugs.
And with the rapid and important increase of the incarcerated population, of course, problems such as overcrowding and inhumane living conditions in prisons are exacerbated. The January prison conflict in Uribana in which 55 prisoners were killed was only the biggest, most recent example of what is actually a daily tragedy.
Some might think that this is the price that must be paid to reduce crime. To the contrary, the total number of homicides increased from 13,851 in 2010—the year the plan was implemented—to 16,030 in 2012.
Second , reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reveal that Venezuela has become a prominent bridge for drug trafficking (UNODC 2010:75). And independent international researchers and journalists, from such organizations as Insight Crime and Corporación Nuevo Arcoiris–themselves strong critics of the US-led “war on drugs”–argue that groups from within the military control the transit of drugs through Venezuela.
Put differently, the same military charged with carrying-out the Plan Patria Segura, includes people with direct ties to drug trafficking and who are thereby in a poor position to reduce crime.
Finally, the failure of mano dura policies in Central America countries, most notably in El Salvador, also contributes to our pessimistic predictions for the Plan Patria Segura. According to José Miguel Cruz, an El Salvadorian sociologist, these policies only contributed to the reorganization of the local criminal gangs (maras) to better respond to the repressive wave of policing. The imprisonment of gang members improved their organization and preparation, which allowed them to respond to the open war declared by the government. In fact, during the implementation of mano dura policies, the homicide rates increased from 47.3 for every 100.000 citizens in the year 2002, to 64.7 in 2006 (The Plan Mano Dura began in 2003 and was followed by the Plan Mano Super-Dura in 2005).
Militarized plans like the DIBISE and now the Plan Patria Segura portray crime as an issue of war rather than as an issue of citizen security. They facilitate the violation of human rights by encouraging armed responses to crime. They detract from preventative programs, instead leading to a highly regressive expansion of the penal state. All of this only produces more and more serious social problems that feed the violent cycle of Venezuelan society.
We urge a renewed emphasis on alternative policies: professionalization of police officers and improvement of their working conditions; improvement of the justice system; firm control of guns and munitions; and the beginning of a debate on the decriminalization of soft drugs. This should be accompanied by programs of social and economic inclusion for young people of popular sectors; the improvement of urban infrastructure; and the recovery of public spaces.
While the Bolivarian government has invested significant resources in such alternative policies, renewed emphasis on militarized approaches like the Plan Patria Segura is undermining what gains have been made.
Verónica Zubillaga is a professor of sociology at the Universidad Simón Bolívar; her research focuses on urban violence in Latin America. Andres Antillano is a professor of criminology at the Instituto de Ciencias Penales, Universidad Central de Venezuela; his research focuses on crime prevention, police and violence.
*Translated by the Moderators
 The Diagnóstico Sociodemográfico de la Población Penitenciaria identifies five socioeconomic strata, being stratum I the wealthiest. The socioeconomic strata were calculated following the Graffar Method.