The recent announcement of the Plan Patria Segura by the Maduro government (see reports here and here), which puts the armed forces in the street alongside the National Police force, signals a continued reliance on the military to combat crime in the country (see previous post here).
On the one hand, many Venezuelans see the military, especially the National Guard, as more capable of dealing with “el hampa” (criminal activity) than the police. Furthermore, including the army in citizen security initiatives might signal to some that the government recognizes the gravity of the crime situation and is responding in full force.
On the other hand, continuing to rely upon militarized initiatives to control crime seems to contradict the steps forward that police reform has made in recent years. The National Bolivarian Police force (the Policía Nacional Bolivariana, or PNB), created by a 2008 organic law, was the result of efforts by human rights activists, scholars, and those within already existing police bodies to create a preventative, professional, and non-militarized citizen security force.
Much of the PNB’s training is dedicated to courses on human rights and the differential use of force. Interestingly, some PNB officers have told me that the military are not adequately equipped to protect citizens because they do not have the training in these areas that PNB officers do. However, largely because of this training and the new discourse around policing, the PNB is also characterized by many citizens and officers as relying on too “soft” of an approach to be able to deal with “delinquents.”
The military in Venezuela, as in other Latin American countries, is associated with a repressive and mano dura approach to citizen security—precisely the kind of security culture that police reformers have tried to move away from. Since at least 2008 reformers have tried replace this security model with one oriented around prevention, dialogue, and the progressive use of force. However, the implementation of this new model has been accompanied by a continued uptake in crime and homicides and an increase in officers’ deaths.
An increase in violence—which has overwhelmingly affected lower class Venezuelans and police officers themselves—has resulted in an opinion among officers that the new model is “beautiful” in theory but puts both citizens and officers in danger. According to some officers, this model cannot produce results in Venezuela’s urban context, where young kids are armed to the teeth, operate according to their own laws, and “laugh at the humanist approach” to which PNB officers are taught to adhere. Officers are quick to report that they or fellow cops have been spit on, yelled at, or even physically assaulted by citizens who they say have “lost respect” for the police since the reform’s implementation.
The Plan Patria Segura’s deployment of the military in popular sectors of the city would only seem to support this opinion. Given the continued spike in homicide rates, the deployment of the military in high crime areas corroborates the belief that a non-repressive approach to security cannot deal with the reality in “los callejones” (the labyrinth of alleys and stairways in the barrios that make police work particularly dangerous).
However, the same officers who believe that “a bit of repression is necessary” to deal with crime also report that the main problem they currently face in their work is Venezuela’s high rates of impunity. As multiple officers have told me, they frequently see “malandros” (criminals) back out on the street only a few days after they have apprehended them. Deploying the military into the barrios to make mass arrests or deter crime for a few weeks with an increased security presence does nothing to address the impunity that some officers see as the main reason that citizens have already lost faith in the new police.
Of course, officers’ criticisms of the judicial system can be seen as part of a tough-on-crime approach to due process, which demands quick sentencing and minimal respect for defendants’ rights. However, it is also important to note that officers recognize the problem of crime as a holistic one that has to be addressed within various state institutions—not just by putting more officers in the streets or applying mano dura policing.
Another reason that military deployment is worrisome is that the National Guard and other branches of the military are not subject to the internal and external supervisory bodies that have been created and organized by the policing university, the General Police Council, and the new policing laws. This means that there are virtually no mechanisms by which citizens can control the military’s treatment of citizens or denounce their abuse of civilians. While these oversight bodies are new and far from perfect, they represent an important step towards the oversight of security forces in the country—at least for the police. Indeed, officers I talk to have mentioned their preoccupation with being reported to these bodies and seem to believe that their operation has kept corruption in the PNB relatively low (i.e. in comparison to other police forces).
The lack of citizen oversight of military policing came up at a meeting I attended last year where a representative of the General Police Council was presenting information about citizen-run police oversight committees in Caricuao. This southwestern sector of Caracas is currently policed by both the PoliCaracas (the Libertador Municipality’s police force) and the National Guard. While there was a lot of interest on the part of citizens to create a committee for the PoliCaracas, people also wanted to know how these committees could supervise the National Guard. Multiple stories were exchanged in the meeting about the National Guard’s abusive and corrupt practices in the sector. The only answer the representative could give was that the police council and the committees were only legally empowered to oversee the police. As a result, National Guard officials have fewer incentives to avoid engaging in abusive practices.
This becomes complicated when military officers pass detainees onto the police. Police officers have to worry about being held accountable for abuse that takes place at the hands of a military officer when they pass a detainee onto the police. As one officer retorted after a fellow officer mentioned the plan, “What happens is that the armed forces will grab someone, break their ribs, and pass them onto me for the procedimiento” (the paperwork and case proceedings that take place when someone is arrested or detained). He went on to explain that as soon as someone notices that the detainee’s ribs are broken “it will be ‘Rodriguez violated his human rights’ and I will be blamed.”
Maduro’s new security plan is not unique when compared with those of Chávez and other leaders in the region. With the continued rise in crime and homicide, leaders often turn to the military when solutions that require long-term implementation fail to produce rapid results. In order to show that they are tough on crime and take the issue of citizen security seriously the army is rolled out, which winds up undercutting progressive reforms that leaders previously supported. And, once on the streets, it can be hard to pull back the armed forces and their negative impact on reform.