Six months after Chávez, military still plays strong role in Venezuela

Hugo Chávez had close ties with Venezuela's military, and hopes for a more progressive civilian policing model under President Maduro seem to be losing out to militarized strategies. 

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (c.) and his wife Cilia Flores visit the tomb of late President Hugo Chávez during a ceremony to mark his fifth month of death at the 4F military fort in Caracas August 5, 2013.

 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

The Venezuelan military’s role as perpetrator of violence continues to make news. In a press release put out on Aug. 8, [Venezuelan] human rights group Provea pointed out that from May to July Venezeula’s armed forces were involved in at least 8 violations of the “the right to life.” In 2012, 164 people lost their lives at the hands of the military. Provea’s statistics are taken from Venezuela’s investigative police, the CICPC.

In a piece of news analysis called “Terror in Uniform” Venezuelan daily El Universal also noted the continual flow of incidents. The article describes the terror average citizens feel when passing through the military roadblocks manned by heavily armed but lightly trained soldiers, many of whom are barely twenty years old.

The situation has come to the fore since Nicolás Maduro has taken office because he has strongly reasserted the military’s role in citizen security. As we have suggested in our series on citizen security reform, in the past couple of years there has been a struggle within Venezuelan public administration between those who are pushing forward a progressive, civilian policing model, and those who seek to strengthen Venezuela’s traditional militarized policing strategies. During Maduro’s four months in office the latter has clearly gained the upper hand.

While Maduro mentioned and emphasized his support for the process of police reform during the campaign and afterwards, his marquee initiative has been the Plan Patria Segura which puts military in the streets to fight crime (see our coverage hereherehere, and here). Personnel changes have worked in the same direction. In June human rights activist Pablo Fernandez was replaced as the head of the citizen security reform initiative called Mision a Toda Vida Venezuela and replaced by National Guard (GN) officer Ildemar Soto. In early August the human rights activist that has spearheaded the process of police reform since 2006, Soraya El Achkar, resigned as the head of the General Police Council. She remains the rector of the National Experimental Security University.

In what follows we present a chronology of alleged human rights violations committed by soldiers carrying out citizen security functions during July and August.

On July 4 National Guardsmen opened fire against a car that apparently ran a roadblock, killing an unarmed women and her daughter. Two other members of the family were wounded. The officers were apparently on the lookout for a car with similar characteristics and shot at the vehicle more than 50 times. Eyewitnesses declared that the officers did not ask the vehicle to stop but simply opened fire. On Monday July 8, ten officers of the GN related to the incident were arrested

On July 11 the local press reported the death of a man who was allegedly forced by soldiers to “drink gasoline” in Táchira. A second person was taken to a local hospital with second degree burns from fuel exposure. The incident took place during an army raid on an illegal fuel deposit on the Colombian border. According to a witness, 18 people were working in the deposit when the raid started and the army officers made several of them dunk their heads into buckets of gasoline. 

On July 15 in Petare, Caracas, motorcyclist Rivera Calderón died from a gun shot in the back. Neighbors from the barrio took to the street that same day to protest alleging that Rivera had been shot by a national guardsman after passing a checkpoint. Neighbors told reporters that they had been harassed by officers from the checkpoint in several occasions. One National Guardsman was arrested for the case.

On Aug. 9 Olivero Rojas, a law student form the Universidad de Carabobodied from a shot gun wound to the neck. His family reported that Olivero was driving his car when he was asked to stop by officers inside an Army truck. Olivero did stop but officers opened fire against the car anyway. Six officers were arrested.

On Aug. 18 two homeless people were shot while sleeping on the street in downtown Caracas. Witnesses from nearby buildings reported that National Guardsmen patrolling the Avenida Baralt shot them execution style. One witness declared that the officers were apparently frustrated because they had failed to find two delinquents they were looking for earlier.

–  David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. 

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