A few months ago I was in Caracas having coffee with Alexis when our conversation was interrupted by a startling text message. After reading it he shared disturbing news: A police officer friend had been shot outside his house the night before.
Alexis is a former police officer who quit in order to join a state institution charged with implementing the national police reform that began in 2009. He made the move after becoming disgusted by the corruption and uncontrolled violence he witnessed.
I expressed my sympathy and asked what could be done. He replied despondently, “No one looks for delinquents when they kill an officer anymore, unless it represents a political problem…”
He went on to explain that this was the 14th officer of his graduating cohort from the police university that had been killed. With a tone of resignation, he said it was unlikely that anyone would be arrested, much less prosecuted.
“What you feel in these situations is impotency…It makes me want to return to the past when there was a special force that went out and looked for these guys until they were put underground [killed].”
Alexis’ feelings come from his belief—common among Venezuelan police—that the government and its criminal justice system are either uninterested or incapable of protecting officers’ lives.
These feelings are exacerbated by the fact that the number of officers killed continually goes up, 106 in Caracas just this year. Many officers attribute the increase to gun control measures that were passed by the Chávez government. According to them, these measures make guns and ammunition harder to come by and make officers targets for their weapons.
Officers’ insecurities are further intensified by the power struggle they report between themselves and armed colectivos.
The violent confrontation between the CICPC (Venezuela’s investigative police) and the Shield of the Revolution colectivo in the downtown neighborhood of Quinta Crespo has brought this struggle into the public spotlight.
There are multiple versions of what motivated the police operation. One leading crime reporter has suggested they acted precisely because the colectivo members were leading suspects in the murder of a police officer. What is clearly known is that when it was over five colectivo members members were dead.
The CICPC is one of the most lethal and violent of Venezuela’s police forces and has been the branch most resistant to reform and oversight. In fact, the number of extrajudicial killings carried out by the CICPC have actually gone up since reform was implemented in 2009, topping out at an all-time high of 99 from 2012-13.
The government responded to the Quinta Crespo violence with a dramatic shakeup of Venezuela’s police institutions. Six CICPC officers were arrested, the CICPC’s administration was reorganized, and Miguel Rodríguez Torres, the Minister of Justice, was removed. President Maduro even called for a revolutionizing of the police.
I talked to Alexis a few days after the incident. He told me that most likely these CICPC officers ‘saw the opportunity to take out a group of criminals who enjoy the protection of the government and took it.’
His statement reveals a logic common among officers: In order to fight crime and hold cop killers accountable the police must act extra-legally since state institutions protect criminals rather than punishing them.
And therein lies the dilemma.
Extrajudicial killings are hardly uncommon, but rarely do they generate such a dramatic response by the government. While not inappropriate, the response to the deaths will reinforce officers’ perceptions that the government supports armed colectivos more than them. And this interpretation will intensify officers’ feelings of vulnerability and impotence, feeding into their justifications for extrajudicial violence.
Absent a consistent, fair and effective court system, officers will continue to use excessive force to both “combatir el hampa” (fight the criminal underworld) and “take care of their own.” Like many in the poor barrios they tend to come from, officers believe that exercising violence communicates to others that they can protect themselves and their group.