What Place does Prevention have in Venezuela’s Citizen Security Policy?

Rebecca Hanson

On September 9-10 Venezuela’s Attorney General’s office organized a conference called Prevention is Citizen Security. It sought to bring government representatives, academics, police, and community organizers together to discuss prevention “as an indispensable tool to guarantee citizen security.” 

The event brought together a diverse group, including the Vice Rector of the National Security University, José García Pinto, the Minister of Interior and Justice, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, Universidad Central professors Andrés Antillano and Keymer Ávila, community council spokespersons, and other community activists.

Marino Alvarado, the director of PROVEA, one of Venezuela’s historic human rights NGOs, also attended. PROVEA has had a tense relationship with the government in recent years due to its criticism of the government over a number of issues such as housing access, citizen security, and indigenous rights.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega’s address to the conference promoted non-punitive and progressive policies to reduce crime. She highlighted the prevention of crime “before it occurs” as one of the most “vital functions” of the new Policía Nacional Bolivariana (PNB), whose officers are trained to rely on dialogue and mediation to keep conflict from escalating. She portrayed the new police model as “complimenting and strengthening the commitment of the National Executive to citizen security based…in preventative work in communities.”

 

She also argued for a treatment approach to drug usage in the country, suggesting that punitive responses to this and other crimes generate conflict and violence rather than resolving it.

Ortega Díaz announced the creation of a national-level prevention organization that would connect “forces into a national prevention offensive, where the experience gained by each institution” would be brought together.

The conference represents a continuation of the Chávez and now Maduro governments’ efforts to develop non-punitive security strategies to reduce crime. A number of participants who have been critical of the government’s efforts reported that officials were open to listening to negative evaluations of crime prevention and police reform and discussing participatory, preventative and holistic approaches.

Yet, comments made by Minister of Interior and Justice Miguel Rodríguez Torres just days before the conference raise questions regarding just what the domain of these progressive policies might be.

In an interview days before the conference Rodríguez Torres attributed most violent crime in Venezuela to gang violence that he does not consider within the purview of citizen security. He said 76 out of every 100 deaths in Venezuela are due to confrontations between gangs or gangs and police. These, he concluded, are not directly attributable to a problem of citizen security in the country, but to “differences between gangs that have developed a culture of violence, arms and such, [believing] that the only solution to their differences is to kill each other. Even if you contain it today, at some point they will look for and kill each other.”

In the same interview he asked, “What is going on in a society where the differences between a couple are resolved [with violence]? These are deaths and homicides that are added to the numbers; but they are not a citizen security problem. They are problems of the home.”

The Minister’s logic is common in Venezuela and effectively makes violence a citizens’ problem rather than a problem of citizen security. His statements make it difficult to know just what type of violence he thinks the Venezuelan government is responsible for preventing.

Social scientists Veronica Zubillaga and Manuel Llorens criticized Rodriguez Torres’ comments suggesting they preclude a discussion of the institutional practices and policies that are principally responsible for crime (for example, rampant police violence and widespread availability of firearms and ammunition).

This discrepancy between the Attorney General and Minister’s statements reflect the tensions between militarized and civilian policing models that have been present from the beginning of the Chávez government’s efforts at police reform.

Indeed, within months of the inauguration of the PNB in 2009, President Chavez also signed off on the creation of the DIBISE, a plan that put thousands of National Guard officers on the streets to carryout citizen security functions they are not trained for. They rely on stop and search techniques and detentions. More recent launches of the Plan Patria Segura and the Patrullaje Inteligente suggest a continuation of  militarized approaches.

The results can be seen in the numbers: Two years after the DIBISE came into effect, the incarcerated population in Venezuela had increased from 30,483 to 50,000. Furthermore, research shows that militarized policing strategies disproportionately criminalize poor young men and concentrating on petty street crime.[i]


[i] Antillano, Andres et al.  Forthcoming.  “The Venezuelan Prison: From Neoliberalism to the Bolivarian Revolution.” Crime, Law, and Social Change.