Who is Policing the Protests? A Perspective from Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Police

Rebecca Hanson

“It is better to think of the police as providing support to the National Guard in the protests [as opposed to the other way around].  The National Guard has more experience and more training…and they aren’t restricted [in their use of force] like us…We can’t even defend ourselves.”

–National Police officer-in-training

 [A previous version of this article was first published on http://anthropoliteia.net.  See original article here]

Since protests exploded in Venezuela in February the National Bolivarian Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana, PNB) here have been intensely critiqued for using excessive force against protestors. And the excessive use of coercion employed in some sectors has been largely attributed to the government’s sanctioning and encouragement of that coercion.

However, the notion that the Chavista governments have encouraged the police to use force (or extreme amounts of it) would actually make little sense to National Police officers. This is because there is a widespread perception—among both police officers and the lower-class citizens where I work—that the force National Bolivarian Police officers can use is heavily, if not overly, regulated by the state.

Indeed, officers identify the sweeping police reform that was implemented by the Chávez government in 2008 as the catalyst of the “extreme regulations” on their use of force. [1] This reform both denounced heavy-handed police tactics and implemented mechanisms to limit officers’ use of coercion. But according to officers, in its zeal to limit police coercion, the reform has overly restricted their actions, making them weak and impotent in the face of violence.

This does not mean that officers pretend that state-sanctioned force, or excessive amounts of it, is not being use against protesters. But if officers believe they are no longer of capable of controlling what they see as increasingly violent protests, who do they think should police them? From many officers’ perspectives this responsibility has been (and should be) left up to The National Guard.

The National Police are both trained and equipped to police protests; and in their training officers learn tactics that help reduce the amount of force needed to control potentially violent mobilizations. In contrast, National Guard officers are given little to no training in the progressive use of force[2]. In fact, they are known for their excessive and lethal use of force—in 2012 alone 164 people were killed by military officers. Neither is the National Guard regulated by any of the oversight mechanisms created by the police reform. It might come as no surprise, then, that more National Guard officers have been arrested for human rights violations than those from the PNB.

Despite the fact that the PNB are both trained and legally mandated to provide security during protests, the National Guard has had a much more decisive presence in the “guarimbas.” [3] A “practical” explanation for this is that there just aren’t that many PNB officers in the country yet. And this lack of PNB officers is sometimes used to explain why the National Guard has to work the protests. But police officers provide a different explanation for the military’s participation: the onerous restrictions on police coercion.

For example, while sitting in a class at the National Policing University recently I asked some officers-in-training why they thought the National Guard needed to work the protests if the police were specifically trained to provide public order. One student answered that because the protestors were “armed and violent” they had to be confronted by a force that could use coercion; and since “the police’s use of force is highly regulated,” this task falls to the National Guard.

Most officers and officers-in-training that I know do not support completely unregulated repression of protestors. Indeed, many have voiced concerns over the abuses that have taken place. Despite these critiques, however, most also believe that the presence of the National Guard is both legitimate and necessary specifically because the police are a non-repressive force.

One of the goals of police reform was to create general standards and training that would limit the amount of force used by security forces when dealing with citizens. But more often than not officers understand the reform as setting different standards for different security bodies. Ironically, then, the non-repressive discourse that now surrounds the PNB often operates to legitimize the military’s participation in citizen security; officers report that the presence of the National Guard in the streets is needed now more than ever because the government has restricted the amount of force the PNB can use. [4]

This double standard was perhaps most succinctly captured by a neighbor of mine, who described her perception of the security strategy at the protests like this: PNB officers are put at the front line to confront protestors first. Because the PNB cannot respond with force they must take the initial abuse so that the National Guard has a reason to jump in and repress the protestors.

Despite their imperfect and inconsistent implementation, there are more restrictions on the PNB’s use of force than on the National Guard.  Furthermore, apart from the police officers that work in public order, many PNB officers are sent to the protests unarmed. National Guard officers, on the other hand, often go to protests armed with high-caliber weapons.  And in the current context (where many of the protests have been far from peaceful) the disarmament of the police legitimates the deployment of armed military officers.

From officers’ perspectives, the police are the only ones whose coercion the state has regulated. And this regulation, part and parcel of creating a democratic police, often operates to justify military presence in the arena of citizen security. Thus—contrary to reformers’ intentions—the reform and its emphasis on regulating police force legitimizes a militarized response to security crises. 

But citizen security in the country has existed in an almost permanent state of crisis for quite some time now, long before the protests began.  And as long as this logic circulates a security force trained for war will remain in the streets, even after the protests are over. 

In my next post I will take a look at the second group that officers identify as policing the protests: the collectives.

[1] This reform, which gave birth to the PNB, promoted a non-repressive and preventative model of citizen security. All police officers in Venezuela are now trained at the National Police University, where they are given a full semester of classes in human rights and the progressive use of force. Various offices were also created by the reform to monitor the PNB and receive denunciations of officers for abuse. 

[2] A model of progressive and differential use of force restricts the amount of force that an officer can use, dictating that the amount of force an officer can use depends on the situation and the force being used by a citizen.  It also emphasizes the use of dialogue over physical force.

[3] Guarimbas is the term that is most often used by those who support the Chavista government for the protests.  The term refers to urban violence that is organized by anti-government supporters.

[4] I do not mean to suggest here that the National Police does not excessively use force or that its officers do not violate human rights.  Nevertheless, it is the case that other security bodies, such as the investigative police and the National Guard, are recognized as extremely violent while the National Police are often described as weak because of the reform that has sought to restrain the use of force.