“There is this perception that people who live in barrios are drug addicts or criminals. Of course, in reality it's not like that,” Carlos Rojo said.
A member of his communal council, Rojo lives in barrio Santa Anita. Clinging to a steep Andean slope in sight of Merida's colonial centre, this community of around a thousand inhabitants looks like a haphazard mass of bitumen, brick and concrete. The barrio is politically divided; on the streets posters of President Nicolas Maduro jostle with hastily sprayed anti-government slogans. The odd image of de-facto opposition leader Henrique Capriles leers from behind a window here and there, while red flags dangle above some doorways.
“Santa Anita is a small community, and the majority of its inhabitants are workers, professionals and students. There are even sports people,” Rojo told us when we interviewed him in his living room. Rojo and his family are polite, friendly and hospitable. With brightly coloured walls, his living room was decorated with art. His well groomed, extroverted cat likes visitors.
“When you live in this sort of community, you are often labelled in a certain way,” he said, explaining that many Venezuelans hold negative stereotypes of people who live in working class barrios like Santa Anita. The police are no exception.
The view of central Merida from Santa Anita (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim/Venezuelanalysis).
“One time when I was leaving the barrio, the police stopped me, believing I had drugs. This didn't bother me a lot, because that's their job,” he said.
However, according to Rojo, before former president Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, working class communities like Santa Anita were neglected by the Venezuelan state.
“Historically, the people have been uncared for...there's been a lack of attention towards them...including to their security,” he said.
“There's always been a distance between the communities and the security organs of the state, because historically in this country the security forces have been repressive. So that means that rather than seeing the police as a friend, the people often see the police as an enemy,” Rojo explained.
“But Chavez wanted to change this paradigm, this relationship.”
Earlier this year, Santa Anita was paid a visit from the head of Merida's state police. Around 80 people from the neighbourhood piled into a classroom at the local school to hear the officer explain that a small building previously used by the police would be handed over to the local communal council.
“They were called police houses,” media relations officer for Merida's police force Andres Jaime told VA. According to Jaime, a nationwide policy change means that police across Venezuela will focus more on patrols, and will abandon many of their old neighbourhood offices.
Jaime explained that the buildings will no longer be used by the police, so they were handed over to communities (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim/Venezuelanalysis).
“Before, the police would just sleep in these buildings, and what was needed were patrols and security in the communities, and they weren't doing that,” Rojo said.
“Now these buildings aren't going to be functioning because the police will just be in the street. And that's why these buildings were handed over to the communities, so they could make use of them,” stated Jaime.
“They were happy to hand over the space. They said they're at our service to do whatever we ask of them,” Rojo said.
“At the moment there aren't concrete proposals for what we want to use the building for. There's just a proposal by one group of people to rehabilitate and renovate the building to make it an Infocentro,” Rojo said. He currently works with other Infocentros elsewhere in Merida.
“The Infocentro is a project created in 2000 by President Chavez. The main objective of the project is to provide computer literacy for the Venezuelan population,” he explained.
The first Infocentro was launched in Caracas in September 2000 as a pilot program for providing free internet to communities. Today, there are more than 700 operating nationwide.
“As the years passed, the project changed though. Now, it's no longer just about computer literacy, it's also about providing a space for communities,” Rojo said.
The former police house in Santa Anita (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim/Venezuelanalysis).
To Rojo, the officer's visit to Santa Anita to hand over the building was a sign that Venezuela's police forces are able to listen to communities.
According to Margarita de Leon, a lawyer working with Merida's police, creating productive links with community groups is part of the push for a new model of law enforcement.
In an office next door to the headquarters of the Merida state police, Leon works with the force's community outreach program, Atencion Cuidadana. The walls of the cramped office were plastered with posters proclaiming the values of community cooperation, calls for citizens to denounce police misconduct and the occasional chibi-proportioned police officer saluting passer-bys. The work desks were covered in pamphlets and hand-outs for visitors, and coffee stained mugs for the workers.
“The function of the police is to serve the public. With the new national police law, there's the community police that comes directly from the community and works with it,” she said.
The Historic Role of the Police, and the New Police Order
Law enforcement in Venezuela has historically been a bloody, heavy handed affair. Today, few – if any – Venezuelans would deny the dark history of the country's security forces.
It's now widely accepted that the country's old model of policing belongs in the past. The brutal response to the 1989 Caracazo is today a symbol of the failure of the old security apparatus. The protests and riots that brought the capital to a standstill led to hundreds of deaths and injuries in the thousands; mostly at the hands of trigger happy security forces. At least 500 people were killed in Caracas, according to the Committee of Families of the Victims (COFAVIC).
The 2006 National Commission for Police Reform was the first major attempt by the Chavez government to reform policing, though it wasn't until 2008 that the first law reform took place. Under the 2008 Organic Law of Police Service and the National Police Body, Venezuela's state police were required to adhere to new nationwide operational standards, ranging from standardised oversight to consistent uniforms. The National Bolivarian Police (PNB) was also established, and police training was required by law to be phased out of the hands of the military.
The following year, further measures to monitor police conduct were implemented under the Statute of Police Functions, which established two new offices to take public complaints of police misconduct, and also set new requirements for police to deliver public accounting at least once a year.
Also in 2009, the government launched the National Experimental University of Security (UNES). Initially focusing on training PNB personnel, the UNES was hailed by the former Chavez administration as a distinct break from the old ways. Instead of raw recruits receiving training from the military, they were now being taught in an institution run by civilians, including human rights activists.
Addressing the graduation of 5000 officers from UNES in October, President Nicolas Maduro praised the university as part of the “new police model”. According to its supporters, the UNES curriculum has a strong focus on promoting respect for human rights and preventative policing. However, Leon said these new ideals have already penetrated the state police apparatus.
“The police are totally preventative,” she said.
“We have the national police law which...contains a lot of human rights,” Leon said.
At this point in the conversation, an officer passing by interjected – “15 years ago the police were repressive. Now, it's different,” he said.
Turning Over a New Leaf?
The new model is supposed to create a cooperative relationship between community groups and the police. Leon seemed adamant that this is happening, though she conceded there have been some roadblocks.
“In the last 10 years... organised communities have had the power, and it depends on the communities to organise projects,” Leon told VA. When asked for other examples of how the police are listening to community groups, Leon grinned and said she could talk all day about the subject.
She also explained that through the Atencion Cuidadana office, community groups and individuals can make suggestions for how to improve law and order. She said that many of these suggestions have been considered, and some implemented by police. One current suggestion under debate is whether or not to impose a curfew on Merida's motorbike taxis, due to the high number of fatalities.
Mototaxi cooperatives are a common sight on street corners. They are a popular alternative to public transport, especially during peak hour when zealous motorizados are able to weave through Merida's twice daily gridlock. Although many mototaxi cooperatives are Chavista, the behaviour of some motorizados has recently drawn criticism from authorities, who are now looking at ways to improve the situation on the roads.
However, according to Leon, the proposed curfew wasn't an idea conceived by the police, but by community groups.
“In Merida the levels of crime are not as high as the deaths here from motorbikes. The communities are asking that after 9pm the bikes can't be out at night,” she said.
However, Leon further stated that any decision wouldn't just be made between the government, law enforcement and community groups. She stated that the motorizado cooperatives would also be included in any talks.
Leon also said that the Merida police are supporting community groups in other ways, such as by providing security advice.
“We advise security committees of community organisations how to get alarms. At the moment there are 40 such projects in Merida,” she said. These projects are with groups ranging from communal councils to mototaxi cooperatives, according to Leon.
Acting Deputy Belkys Rosales stated that along with these initiatives, Merida's police also hold regular workshops for community groups and schools, from preschool to high school, often with a focus on youth education.
“These workshops consist of values– bullying...drugs-, it all depends on the age of the kids. For the parents we try to help them become aware, and attend to their teenagers,” Rosales stated.
“There is a lot of communication with communities,” Leon summarised, though she conceded that after decades of neglect, today many communities are still reluctant to engage in dialogue with law enforcement.
“Often the communities don't want to talk to the police,” she said.
Poster in the Atencion Ciudadana office (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim/Venezuelanalysis).
Reports of Human Rights Violations
While walking out of the Atencion Cuidadana office, it was easy to believe that the old void between communities and police was being bridged by people with a desire to create something better, and committed to promoting the new model of preventative, cooperative policing. Leon and her co-workers appeared genuinely passionate about their work, and utterly convinced of the validity and tangibility of their mission.
However, reports of human rights abuses at the hands of Venezuelan police officers continue. Amnesty International (AI) has accused Anzoategui state police of torturing a protester, Luis Rafael Escobar Ugas earlier this year. AI has also recently alleged that Aragua state police have “threatened to kill another member of the Barrios family, who are receiving protection as 10 of them have been murdered since 1998 in circumstances that suggest police involvement”.
“Sure, it's true that there are occasions where the police do the wrong thing, and the media always focuses on these,” Jaime stated back at the police headquarters.
While he couldn't comment on cases outside Merida state, Jaime insisted that Venezuela's police have made significant progress towards improving standards of human rights.
“There's been a noticeable change. Before the police were very repressive,” Jaime said.
“It's changed a little bit, owing to the laws that they [the government] implemented,” he finished.
“For example, the way the police act. They're more respectful...of human rights, including when they attend to the citizens when they commit crimes. Before, they would take them and punch them, they would treat people badly. Today that's changed. Now that's illegal, and it's punishable,” he said.
When asked about police treatment of protests including those in the wake of the 14 April presidential elections, Jaime argued that Merida police have acted in line with new legislation.
“What they generally did was try to prevent confrontations between the protesters,” Jaime said, referring to police deployments in response to opposition and pro-government rallies in the wake of the election; some of which turned violent.
“The police were in the street in a preventative way, to prevent...violence,” he said. While covering the April protests, VA did observe Merida police working to keep opposing rallies from clashing. Many officers were lightly armed at best, and no arrests or police instigated violence were observed, despite the fact that many protesters were armed with knives, baseball bats and Molotov cocktails.
Police standing between crowds of Chavistas and opposition supporters in April (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim/Venezuelanalysis).
I've seen peaceful protests in my home country of Australia treated worse by police. However, during similar disturbances earlier this year, Caracas police appeared to respond with more force. By late April, opposition leaders were accusing authorities of engaging in mass arrests of protesters. The government largely attributed the arrests to violent behaviour and destruction of property, though human rights group Provea has accused the government of exaggerating the damage caused by opposition protesters.
Jaime not only stood by the actions of Merida police in April, but also pointed to the new avenues of public complaint available for denouncing police misconduct, which he said are commonly used. He argued that the public is not only well aware of these avenues, but also strongly encouraged to report police wrongdoing.
“Today, everyone knows they can denounce the police, and the police are punished. If it's a serious crime, they are fired,” he said.
“It's improved a little bit, but there are still situations that escape our control,” he conceded.
Rojo agrees that standards have improved.“One example is the creation of the national police [BNP],” he said.
The New Order: Yet to Bear Fruit
Under Chavez, the government conceded that the country's myriad of local police forces were actually responsible for as much as one in five crimes, and the roll-out of the PNB was hailed as a cleaner alternative. Trained by UNES, the BNP was intended as a more humane, yet more effective police force by the former Chavez administration. However, since its creation, Venezuela's street crime only seems to be increasing. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, (UNODC) in 2010 Venezuela had a rate of 45.1 homicides per 100,000 people- one of the highest rates in the region. According to the the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), however, in 2012 murder rates climbed to 73 per 100,000. Caracas was an epicentre for violent crime in Venezuela, with an estimated murder rate of 122 per 100,000. To put that in perspective, in 2011 Honduras had the world's highest national murder rate, at 91.6 per 100,000 according to UNODC. With an estimated total of 21,000 murders, according to the OVV 2012 was the worst year for murders in Venezuela since records began. The government disputes these figures, though it hasn't released its own records for a number of years. The fact that Venezuela has a problem with violent crime seems inarguable; however, explaining why is another story.
“It's difficult to explain, but it's based on social problems,” Jaime responded when VA asked why Venezuela's levels of violent crime are so high.
“The youth don't like to work – they like easy things... and, the situation with alcohol, all of that has an influence,” he said.
“Most of it is revenge crime,” Leon said, pointing to gang violence.
Rojo, however, pointed to boredom.
“There aren't a lot of places to hang out in the city for young people,” he said.
Whatever the cause, police reform doesn't appear to be bearing results yet.
However, declaring the BNP a failure is premature. The new force is barely four years old, and still yet to be rolled out nationwide. Moreover, the BNP reportedly remains underfunded and understaffed. Venezuela's conventional police and the military remain standard fare on Venezuela's streets; almost all of which lack the UNES training guaranteed for BNP officers.
“It's true that changing this model of police isn't achieved overnight. But [the BNP] is one step towards achieving a different policing model,” Rojo stated.
Yet, despite the efforts of the likes of Leon, he doesn't believe the relationship between the police and community has changed.
“In my opinion? I think it stays roughly the same,” he said.
Rojo also believes that the police also lack the respect granted often to that other pillar of Venezuelan law enforcement, the military.
Where is the New Bolivarian Military Thought?
Once of the first things any foreign visitor to Venezuela will notice are the soldiers on the streets, often performing work more typically undertaken by police or private security contractors. While the BNP remains an embryonic actor, under both Chavez and Maduro the military has taken on an increasingly significant role in Venezuelan society.
“So when Chavez came to power he tried to get the military to go into the street. Not with guns or in a repressive way, but to do what he called social assistance,” Rojo said.
Rojo views the military as a less corrupt, more effective institution than the police; a view that isn't particularly unusual in Venezuela. While the military is often viewed as an inherently conservative or reactionary institution in Western discourse, today many Venezuelans – especially on the left – often think differently.
“The social reality is different to what the private press show it to be...here it's not true that if there are military personnel in the street, that you can't go out and protest,” he said.
“That's what the media says, but it isn't true at all,” Rojo explained.
In recent months, the government has introduced a series of initiatives intended to reduce street crime and strengthen border security, both of which have relied heavily on the military. The government believes these measures are paying off, and indeed, there are some indications that there are.
“The people tend to respect the army a lot more than the police,” Rojo said.
However, according to one ex-soldier VA spoke to, the army isn't the progressive institution it’s often viewed as, though it has improved over the last decade.
“Since Chavez came to power the objective of the armed forces has been different,” Juan (not his real name) told VA.
Juan stated that Chavez tried to not only improve conditions within the military, but also change the role of the armed forces in Venezuelan society.
“So before they [officers] would just go into bars, pick people up and tell them they're now in the army,” he said.
“That was before Chavez. They would ask how old you are. If you said 18, then they said, 'right, you're coming to the barracks',” Juan explained.
“Chavez understood that the soldier is a human being and has rights. Before Chavez to do military service was like going to prison. They paid you, but they treated people like animals. People were scared to be recruited to the army,” he said.
Through his work with his local communal council Juan said he came into contact with a colonel who seemed to have adopted Chavez's vision of a progressive, socially conscious military culture.
“This colonel had been working with the communal council- he had that social sensibility,” he said.
“I was curious to see what it was like on the inside...I'd always seen the soldiers walking around the community, and I wanted to know,” he said.
“I went to the army to try to find out if there was the kind of social sensibility that Chavez had been promoting within it. Personally I was also looking for a bit of extra income...the soldiers earn just above the minimum wage. Before [Chavez], they used to earn a lot less,” Juan said.
Once he joined, Juan found the military wasn't what he expected.
“So a lot...has changed now. But what hasn’t changed is the vertical structure of the army. A lot of the officers aren't [political], they're only interested in money,” he said.
Juan stated that from the moment he joined, he found what he described as a “typical” army, riddled with machismo and political apathy.
“I asked a few lieutenants and other officers if they knew of a document Chavez wrote called... 'The New Bolivarian Military Thought',” he said.
“This document explains how the military should think; that there should be a complete connection between the army, and the people and communities,” Juan stated.
“They didn't seem to know about it,” he lamented.
“In my opinion, the colonel was the unique officer. He understood the political stuff,” Juan said, though he did point out that he saw a few positive signs.
“Some things have changed. It's easier for women to join the army and ascend the ranks,” he said, citing the appointing of Admiral Carmen Melendez to Admiral-in-Chief and Minister of Defence in July. Melendez is the first woman in history to head Venezuela's armed forces.
“It does mean a lot that Maduro appointed the first woman to head the army,” Juan said.
“So my opinion is that there have been changes, but they haven't been deep enough, and if the changes aren't deepened it'll be very easy for the army to go back to the way it was,” Juan argued.
Although the army wasn't what he expected, Juan maintained that the army isn't the repressive institution it's sometimes made out to be by international and national private media.
“There's no repression,” he said. However, he also emphasised that his experience was with the army, but it's the National Guard that are most commonly deployed on the streets.
“You've got to differentiate between the army and the National Guard,” he said.
“If the National Guard sees a crime, they'll stop it. For example, the National Guard works with Indepabis [the government's consumer protection body] and they go around with [price] inspectors...whereas the army doesn’t do that,” he said. Putting aside evidence that the guard has its own internal problems, according to Juan the Bolivarian Militias offer a more progressive model.
“It's really important to have civilian militias,” Juan said.
Created in 2005, the militias were intended by Chavez as “an army of the people”. Chavez originally set his sights on a volunteer force of 2 million troops, though only around 130,000 Venezuelans are currently enlisted. The number of units that are combat-ready could be even lower. In October, Maduro announced his government hopes to boost militia numbers to 500,000 by 2015, and 1 million by 2019. However, when Juan undertook a boot camp required for entry into the armed forces, he said he saw only one militia recruit.
Moreover, according to Juan the militias are often look down upon by the army.
“They [the army] don't really take the militia seriously...they give all the older weapons to the militia,” Juan stated.
National Guard troops (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim/Venezuelanalysis).
Final Thoughts: Building the New Socialist Officer
Like the BNP, the militias seem to have a long way to go. The same could be said for Venezuela's security forces generally. Crime remains high, and progressive reform remains under construction. If there's one thing everyone interviewed by VA seemed to agree on, it was that a positive relationship between the community and security forces is a crucial part of the solution. It's also clear that Venezuela's security situation isn't the train wreck it's often depicted as abroad. Moreover, merely labelling Venezuela a “repressive” regime isn't useful either. As Leon argued, authorities are trying to engage with communities to address problems in an inclusive manner. However, it's hard to see how such a relationship can be fostered when corruption and abuse continue.
“To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man” Che Guevara wrote.
This new socialist individual would be driven by concern for the common good, rather than personal gain.
It seems impossible to imagine the crevasse between society and security forces being bridged without the emergence of such a new socialist police officer and soldier, ethereal as that may seem. Through education and structural reform, something fundamental needs to change; otherwise Juan's suspicion that even the modest progress already made could be easily undone.
This can only happen through popular struggle, when the people rise up and appropriate the security forces. This is why the relationship between the community and security forces is so crucial. Through the communal councils and other forms of grassroots representation, the Venezuelan people have the tools to create these new forces. However, whether or not the new socialist officer and soldier will manifest, or the violent arm of the capitalist will return with a vengeance, remains to be seen.
With thanks to Tamara Pearson for translation assistance.