Santa Elena de Uairen, October 28th, 2014. (venezuelanalysis.com)- On Friday, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro announced that Interior Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres would be replaced in his post by chief admiral and former defense minister Carmen Melendez. Many Venezuelans believe the decision was an attempt to mend the rift with revolutionary grassroots collectives, who hold the former minister accountable for the deadly shooting of five armed collective members earlier this month.
On October 8th, in the Quinta Crespo area of Caracas, the special investigative police body (CICPC) entered the high-rise Manfredi building, home to 242 families, allegedly to make arrests relating to an undisclosed criminal case. The CICPC were met by armed members of the collective known as The Revolution’s Shield, and in the eight hour standoff that followed, five members of various pro-government collectives were fatally shot.
Jose Odreman, a well-known collective advocate and former police, was filmed in the midst of the standoff claiming the operation was a “paid assassination,” and that the CICPC were acting as hit men.
Odreman said that whatever happened to him would be the fault of minister Rodriguez Torres. “I lay full responsibility on you for what ever might happen to me. Enough comrades have been sacrificed,” Odreman said to the camera, addressing the minister. He was shot dead just hours later by the CICPC.
At the time, CICPC spokesperson Douglas Rico asserted, “They [the victims] weren’t collectives, they were organized groups that rob, kidnap, and commit homicide in the metropolitan area of Caracas.”
Minister Rodriguez Torres reiterated that claim, denoting “Odreman’s band” as a “criminal” and “delinquent” faction of ex-policemen.
This year, the interior justice minister spearheaded the Voluntary Disarmament Plan, which has seen a definite drop in crime, according to official data. However, critics believe his administration has been marked by an increase in the criminalization of the organized groups representing Veneuzela’s poorest; the collectives themselves.
The term “collective” in Venezuela refers to any organized group. Many of those groups are in urban areas and aim to protect the revolution, its peoples, and its ideals. Some of these groups have been around for decades and were linked to urban guerrillas in the 1980’s.
While many of today’s collectives simply coordinate neighborhood activity and development, the majority of Bolivarian government officials have been reluctant to show support for those collectives that explicitly defend their right to bear arms.
The revolutionary left reacted strongly to what has since been called the Quinta Crespo Massacre. Crowds of Caracas residents accompanied victims’ families in a funeral procession through the city center on 10 October.
On 23 October collectives marched to the central plaza, demanding that the “government take responsibility and intervene in the Interior Justice Ministry and CICPC, for these lamentable actions that violate constitutional right.”
The municipal government blocked the march, saying it represented a security hazard.
Later that day, Rodriguez Torres met with collectives of the 23 de Enero neighborhood, in an evident attempt to extend an olive branch.
“For me,” the minister told those gathered, “collectives are an expression of popular organization. We should disassemble the matrix of opinion that is generated [attempting to demonize collectives].” Still, he said, “we must create the conditions for the reduction of criminal activity, we can’t just sit with our arms crossed.”
The following morning, renowned journalist and public figure Jose Vicente Rangel published an editorial demanding the government intervene in the aftermath of the Quinta Crespo shootings.
“The way in which functionaries of the CICPC assassinated five militant chavistas, members of a Collective, instead of detaining them and notifying a public defender, proceeded to gun them down in front of their families… it’s something unacceptable in democracy. [In regards to] the excuse that they were delinquents… What judicial authority determined them to be so?” Vicente Rangel wrote. “These grave occurrences in the country… obligate the government to adopt exceptional measures, to impede metastasis. To stop the spread of impunity.”
That very evening, president Maduro thanked Rodriguez Torres for his public service and announced his temporary dismissal from government.
“I told him to take 15 days off; he has been working non-stop for 15 years; then I will entrust him with a new strategic mission,” Maduro said.
Tomas Guanipa, general secretary of the right-wing party Justice First, responded quickly on behalf of the opposition sector.
“The question all Venezuelans are asking is; What is the reason for Rodriguez Torres’s removal?” Guanipa said in press conference. “How is it possible that in Venezuela we continue to see armed groups on the margin of the law with the power to manipulate the government? Who is really in command in Venezuela?”
Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles took the opportunity to criticize Rodriguez Torres’s attempts to lower crime rates, saying that, “On national television and radio Nicolas would praise and extol the Minister’s work… categorizing him as genius. Why do they suddenly sack him if he was doing a perfect job, according to them? Do they really believe by replacing him with the defense minister they can solve the problem of insecurity in the country?”
Rodriguez Torres himself responded positively to Maduro’s announcement via Twitter, thanking the Venezuelan people and assuring them he had given his best effort in serving them. “Thank you God for getting me through the most difficult moments,” he wrote, “Thank you president Nicolas Maduro for your trust!”