Research: Commentary

Countering Militarized Public Security in Latin America: Understanding the Trend in Venezuela

Sustainable Security, November 12, 2013 | Article

By Sarah Kinosian

Across Latin America, governments are sending their militaries into the streets to act as de facto police forces in the face of disproportionally high crime and violence rates. This trend has been going on for several years, but has accelerated in 2013. With the move to deploy over 40,000 troops for citizen security in Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro joined a growing list of leaders throughout the region – in HondurasGuatemala,Mexico, and Dominican Republic, to name a few– that have relied on their militaries to carry out police duties. Yet, in the past 20 years, there are no regional examples in which relying on soldiers for the security of citizens for an extended period of time has brought crime rates down.

Aside from being ineffective, there are other problems associated with militarization of law enforcement. This tactic might offer short-term political or security gains, but it does not provide a long-term solution to the causes of crime. While the presence of the armed forces can slow violence initially, it often just displaces crime to another area, which can return once the troops leave. Sending soldiers to the streets also raises human rights concerns, as the armed forces are trained to track and kill an enemy with as much force as necessary.

Police, on the other hand, are theoretically trained to use minimal force, investigate crimes, and respect the rights of citizens. When governments deploy troops, the differences between the functions of the police and the military get lost and the line between citizen and enemy becomes blurred. Yet each of the countries mentioned above has weak, corrupt, public institutions, particularly penal and justice systems, which have yielded high rates of impunity and crime. Shifting tides in the drug trade, the expansion of organized crime and rampant inequality, has exacerbated these problems. While police reform efforts are underway, they are flagging, largely due to a lack of funding and/or political will.

So why, instead of heavily investing in police reform, have governments in Latin America increasingly turned to the military to solve public security problems? With the highest murder rate in South America, and a corrupt government with a strong military tradition, Venezuela provides an ample case study.

The shadow of Chávez

When Hugo Chávez died in March, he left behind an economy in shambles, a dysfunctional judicial system, a broken prison system, security forces rife with corruption, and a politicized government bureaucracy incapable of tackling the resulting spike in organized crime, violence and drug trafficking. In the two decades since Chávez took power, murder rates doubled  – or tripled according to some sources  – and in 2012, Venezuela had the second-highest homicide rate in the world[1]. Caracas, the country’s capital, on its own registers one of the highest murder rates globally, as gang warfare and high levels of street crime plague most urban centers. The country also has become a major hub for drugs transiting from Colombia to the United States and Europe.

In a post- Chávez Venezuela, the dire security situation appears to be getting worse. In May, just two months after taking office, Chávez’s handpicked successor, President Nicolás Maduro, sent 3,000 members of the military and police to man roadblocks, carry out raids and patrol the streets of Caracas. The deployment was part of an initiative known as “Plan Patria Segura,” (or “Safe Homeland Plan”) which has been expanded to include over 40,000 members of the security forces. Soon, about 80,000 security forces will have been deployed and the military will have an active role in every state. Although the initiative was set to end this October, it looks like troops will be on the streets well past 2013.

Police Corruption

One reason Maduro has turned to the troops is thatVenezuela’s police are among the most corrupt in Latin America. As in Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, police in Venezuela have been dismissed by the public as ineffective, corrupt, abusive and complicit with organized crime. In 2012, a Transparency International survey found Venezuelans considered the police to be the most corrupt entity in the country.

This is not a recent problem – even before Chávez’s reign, the country’s police forces were accused of excessive use of force, unlawful killings of civilians, extortion, torture, forced disappearances and involvement in organized crime. By 2009, even the government admitted police were responsible for up to 20 percent of all crimes. In one poll, 70 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “Police and criminals are practically the same.”

As with many forces throughout Latin America, police are underfunded, poorly trained and many times outgunned by criminals. This, compounded by high levels of impunity for officers and officials and a lack of central government control over the country’s 134 police units, has allowed organized crime to penetrate state institutions at every governing level.

Reform measures put into motion by Chávez in 2009 aimed to centralize law enforcement and create a professionalized national police force. The new body, the National Bolivarian Police (PNB), would be less militarized and given human rights training from a civilian-run policing university. Officers would be vetted and their salaries would be doubled while a council that included human rights activists would oversee the reform’s implementation.

According to Venezuela experts David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson, while “Venezuelans do not seem to think police corruption or inefficiency are major causes of crime, they do seem to believe that a professional police force and improved judicial and penal system could reduce crime.”

However, challenges still exist. With just under 14,500 officers, the reformed force lacks manpower, as well as the funding and political will necessary to tackle the spiraling violence. Also, several of the reforms, such as the increased wages, have yet to be implemented.

Despite Venezuelans support for the idea of citizen security reform, public support for the PNB appears to be one of its obstacles. For many citizens, the PNB’s tactics appear ineffective and “soft,” according to Smilde. While many residents prefer the humanist theory behind the force, many people in poor, crime-heavy areas see a more hard-line approach as the only option to target the sky-high levels of insecurity.

A History of Military culture 

Part of this public acceptance lies in the country’s entrenched military culture. The military dominated politics in Venezuela throughout the 19th century until the fall of a military dictatorship in 1958. The institution’s role then subsided, until Hugo Chávez took power in a military coup in 1998. Under Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” strong civil-military ties were forged, with troops being deployed to oversee social projects like food distribution and housing construction. Military members also gained personal voting rights and were placed in top positions in the government.

Although Chávez initiated police reform, he focused even more attention and resources on the armed forces. Around the same time that he created the PNB, he set up two more militarized initiatives: the Bolivarian National Militia, a military-trained group of civilians that would act as liaisons between the army and the people, and the Bicentennial Security Dispositive, a military unit intended to target high-crime areas.

Maduro has continued the military’s social and political role by surrounding himself with former and current military members, increasing the armed forces’ salary budget, creating new “Bolivarian militias” headed by former military members and pledging $4 billion (USD) to “increase the defensive capacity of the country.” He has also announced the creation of a new bank, television channel and cargo company, all for the armed forces.

Given this context, as Smilde has noted, it is no wonder that for the average Venezuelan citizen, the military “represents order and efficiency against a background of chaos and dysfunction, and giving it an important social role appears logical.”

Political motivations

Maduro also has political motivations for sending in the military. Stuck in Chávez’s image, Maduro has been parroting his predecessor’s strategies and playing up the tight links between the military and the “Bolivarian Revolution.” In part, the troop deployment is a way to continue Chávez’s legacy and rally support for the government. Because of lingering popular support for Chávismo, the public has not turned on him and despite high inflation, shortages of basic goods, power blackouts, soaring murder rates, and corruption scandals, most polls indicate Maduro maintains a 45-50 percent approval rating.

By deploying the military, Maduro has shown the public he is responding to the security problem. In general, amid calls for security improvement, it becomes politically difficult to wait for the gradual progress of police reform. “It is a political response to a political problem” according to Venezuelan expert and NYU professor Alejandro Velasco.

What impact?

Although the Maduro administration claims murders have dropped by over 30 percent, the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence projects the country will record 25,000 homicides in 2013 – 4,000 more than in 2012. Even in the areas where military presence has mitigated crime, what happens when the military leaves?

Another concern is the lack of accountability for the military in Venezuela. Unlike the PNB, the armed forces are given no civilian human rights training and there is no mechanism for civilians to report incidents of abuse. There have been at least ten incidents of violations since July, including the shooting of a mother and her daughter by the National Guard. And while Maduro’s approval ratings have barely dipped, those for Plan Patria Segura show a downward trend.

What now?

In Venezuela and elsewhere, there are not a lot of hopeful choices to curb the immediate high crime levels. However, police reform is a key part of improving the security situation. As one U.S. State Department officialrecently said of Honduras, where a military police unit was just created, “the creation of a military police force distracts attention from civilian police reform efforts and strains limited resources.” This same logic applies to Venezuela – Maduro must politically and financially invest in police reform to strengthen and expand the role of the PNB. Police must also receive sufficient training, resources and supervision to ensure transparency. The public can begin to trust the police when they are the ones enforcing the rule of law.

A line must be drawn between civilian and military leadership, and the role of the armed forces clearly defined and distinct from that of the police. To curb corruption, improved mechanisms for investigating police and military criminality must be established while civilian-led vetting and oversight systems put in place for police and military members. Finally, strong justice and penal systems are fundamental, otherwise those committing crimes will have little reason to stop doing so and prisons will continue to be violent bastions of criminal education. Police reform must not be pushed aside due to short-sighted politics; without a concerted effort to get troops off the streets, Venezuela is vulnerable to descending into an unchecked cycle of criminality, both in society and within its security forces.

[1]  The Venezuelan government reports a rate of 56 homicides per 100,000 people in 2012. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (Observatorio Venezuelano de Violencia), a respected non-governmental security organization, estimates the rate was 73 per 100,000.

Copyright 2013 Sustainable Security. Original article available here.

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