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Crime in Venezuela:
Opposition Weapon or Serious Problem?
by Tamara Pearson
Crime, according to the Latinobarometro 2008 report, is the biggest problem in Venezuela for 57% of its respondents. So it is no surprise that this movie resonated with Venezuelans.
Made in 2005, we see a Caracas that is dark, dangerous, tough, hard, a city of street-cooked greasy food, homeless people sleeping in the middle of the pavement, people searching through rubbish bins, protests and police repression, and shirtless youth fighting in the street.
It's not that the image is 'wrong' so much as that it leaves out a big part of Caracas and Venezuelan reality. And although the director Jonathan Jakubowicz, a 27-year-old Venezuelan who was once kidnapped himself, says he and the movie are neither pro- nor anti-Chavez, it's precisely such imagery of Venezuela that the opposition and the global private media use in the ideological war against this 'peaceful revolution' to highlight the 'failure' of the Chavez government and the supposed chaos that it is creating.
The Opposition's War of Words: Chavez Causes Crime
Until now this 'revolution' has been an electoral revolution, that is, with power struggles, and changes (of the law) mostly, funneled through elections rather than battled out in open war. And whilst the opposition initially boycotted these elections it has learnt and is now participating and making some concrete gains through this participation, defeating the referendum in 2007, winning regional positions in the elections of 2008, and gaining votes in the amendment vote in February. Hence, one of the main weapons of the opposition, rather than bombs, chemicals, and guns, is now the media.
Being pro-capitalist, representative of the rich, and conservative, the organised opposition have no proposals about how to push Venezuela forward and are defined by their opposition to things (no to nationalisation, no to supposedly removing university independence, and so on) and by empty slogans of 'freedom'. Hence their ideological campaign against the government does not involve offering any alternatives but simply portraying the government as incapable, of causing chaos and, above all, insecurity.
In their campaign against the constitutional amendment, on February 12 of this year, opposition youth put red paint in a fountain in a popular plaza to make it look like it was full of blood, and above it they hung a large banner which read, "10 Years of Revolution, 10 Years of Blood, 150,000 Deaths." Then the ex-mayor of Chacao, Leopold Lopez, told CNN that 56 people die every day in Venezuela due to "crime and political causes".
Ironically, it is often the opposition themselves who are instigators of violence (attacking missions, protesting violently, burning tires outside the university, and so on). Their concern about insecurity in the barrios is also a new-found one for them. Never before have they cared so much about the lower classes.
Almost every article about the theme of crime in Venezuela, both nationally and internationally, has been written by opposition-leaning private media.
El Universal (a national daily, well written but clearly opposition newspaper) had an article on October 2, 2008 with the headline 'Caracas Has the Highest Rate of Criminal Violence'. The article quoted the magazine Foreign Policy, saying that Caracas has "become much more dangerous than any other city in south America in the last few years, surpassing even the notorious Bogota." The article concludes that since Chavez arrived in government in 1998, the official homicide rate has risen by 67%. The Foreign Policy article cited by it is accompanied by a photo of Chavez aiming a gun.
The Bolivarian News Agency's (ABN) response to this was that the article quoted unreliable 'experts' (a typical technique in opposition articles -- quoting unnamed 'experts' to say what it is they want to say) and lacked official sources for its statistics.
The Washington Post on November 18, 2008, just before the regional elections, published an article titled "In Rampant Violent Crime, Political Danger for Chávez," where it drew a picture of the so-called crime "crisis" and argued that it would "break President Hugo Chavez's nearly complete hold on local and state officers."
The article includes a graph of homicide rates under the last 10 years of Chavez, showing the rate per 100,000 rising from 18 in 1998 to 48 in 2007. Its sources: The CIA World Factbook, U.S. Census Bureau, and the Research Institute of Citizen Security and Coexistence (INCOSEC), an opposition-supported crime policy analysis group based in Caracas.
Luis Cedeno, director of INCOSEC, argues that, "Most Venezuelans live in fear of being in a public space, of being victims in public transportation, and they live in fear of being victims in their houses."
The article goes on to claim that the government is ignoring crime, cites protests against the crime, whilst ignoring the generally much bigger marches in support of the government and its initiatives. Finally, using the conveniently anonymous 'critic', it makes the unsubstantiated claim that "Critics of Chávez, among them prominent opposition politicians, say his government has contributed to the problem with rhetoric that accentuates class warfare. It has also armed citizen militias and radical political groups."
A final example: the Christian Science Monitor (3 December 2008) made the same argument about murder rates rising under Chavez, saying the rate in Caracas had risen from 63 to 130 murders per 100,000 over 10 years, explicitly saying "since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998".
All of the articles make this connection between when Chavez was elected and when the murder rate started to rise, but none of them makes any attempt to explain how Chavez's policies have actually contributed to such an increase. (Although after reading countless "crime is out of control under Chavez" type articles in papers like the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, and so on, I finally came across one which tried to explain the connection: Chavez's 'militaristic and nationalistic discourse' causes crime as does the fact that police are "turning a blind eye to . . . petty crime" as part of Chavez's policy to win over the poor).
Local papers here also use a kind of repetition technique to create the sense of a country weighed down by crime, where almost every day there is a murder story on the back cover, accompanied by a full colour picture of the bleeding body. Of course they rarely write stories about crime going down or being prevented (by the implementation of social programs and so on), or about many of the positive things currently happening here for that matter.
There is now a growing gap between real crime and the perception of it. According to the 2008 Latinobarometro report, the proportion of Venezuelans saying they have been victims of crime has been stable at 43-53% of the population over the last 10 years. However the perception of crime as the most serious problem of all has multiplied by 6 times over the same period.
The mainstream media creates an image of Venezuela -- especially Caracas -- that is frightening, so much so that tourists often tell me that the country is not at all what they were expecting it to be. Rarely are the positive, amazing, and beautiful aspects of the country and its political process portrayed, and this omission, leading to a distorted perspective, is a kind of lie in of itself.
A few weeks ago I was in Caracas, walking around Bellas Artes. My partner and I hung out in the circular type plaza near the Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural history until about 9 at night. Hundreds, including youth, kids, families and old people, watched on as a few clowns performed tricks, and then they participated in spontaneous plays organised by the clowns, everyone getting into it and having a ball. Later, youth hung out, juggled together and rode around on monocycles. Some kids played soccer, others rode skateboards, and yet others sat and watched, eating coconut sweets. Some people went to see the 3.5B ($2) movie. Nearby, people sold a range of beautiful and creative artesania from the stalls, as well as secondhand books and old records, with a mosaic mural and another mural about solidarity with Palestine in the background.
Despite the darkness, people felt safe and happy. Yet even I, in the safe city centre of the little Andean city of Merida, sometimes feel scared (I say 'even I' because I'm the kind of person who stands in front of tanks and takes photos or who often crosses the road without looking, etc.), and my friends feel scared too, and it's entirely because of what we have heard or read, it is not based on experience.
What Is the Real Crime Situation?
Chavez admitted in early February this year that crime was one problem the government hadn't yet managed to fix. He cited data from the Centre for Peace of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) which showed that crime over all had gone down but that crimes such as murder, hired murder and express kidnapping had increased, which he claimed is in part "due to the Colombian conflict." Nevertheless, he knows what a priority the issue is, highlighting it as one of the main battles for the government in his speech on February 15 from the Miraflores presidential palace after the amendment was won.
I interviewed Max Rondón, a policemen for the state of Merida and one of the main founders of the Socialist Police Front. Rondón also said that the overall amount of crime has decreased and that, while most people feel that there is more crime, "if you ask them if they have been a victim of crime, they say never . . . it's a commotion that the media sells."
"There's no mathematical way to calculate the crime index. You can measure the number of people who have been victims of robbery, or who have been victims of violent deaths, but when we talk about that, road deaths are included. So all these things you can measure separately, but, a crime index as such, there's no way to quantify it," he said.
It is also very difficult to be certain about the rates of the separate types of crime. Crime by its very nature is something the perpetrators try to cover up and the victims are often too scared to report. Often the police are involved, and obviously don't report themselves, and in situations like domestic violence, where family values are very strong, women (or men) usually don't want to report their own spouse (or any other family member or intimate).
It is also worth pointing out the media have a very narrow and neo-liberal idea of what crime is: always a case of individual hurting individual, often involving damage to or theft of private property. Hence, graffiti and small-scale robbery are considered crime, but war, sexist advertising, bad working conditions, verbal racism, turning people away from hospital because they don't have enough money, environmental damage by big business and so on are not.
In this sense, in terms of better living conditions, treatment, and a general dignification of the poorer population, Venezuela is doing well, and to ignore this and only focus on a few of its problems is to grossly mischaracterise the entire process here.
However, neither should the high murder rates be overlooked. The following statistics can at least give us a rough idea of the crime situation in Venezuela, even though they come from an INCOSEC 2007 report. INCOSEC works with Fedecameras, Venezuela's main business association, which helped to organise the April 2002 coup attempt. However, it uses almost exclusively government sources for its statistics (such as those issued by the Ministry for Health, the Venezuelan National Institute for Statistics, and the Body of Scientific and Criminal Investigations [CICPC]). The problem with opposition statistics is usually not the numbers themselves (except, when, as discussed above, conditions make it difficult to collect the data) so much as how they manipulate them.
Basically, the murder rate is higher in Venezuela than in other Latin American countries, and its incidence has been growing at a serious rate over the last 10 years. Kidnapping has been growing at a similar pace. Within Venezuela, murder rates are the highest in Caracas, its surrounding areas, and the Amazon states, and lowest in the Andes and states with lower population density. However, the rate of increase in the incidence of murder is the highest in the Andean areas and the lowest in Caracas and surrounding states.
The interesting fact is the difference between murder rates and robbery rates. In 1994 there were 257 robberies per 100,000 inhabitants, 1996: 265, 1998: 202, 2000: 269, 2002: 342, similar the next year, then down in 2004: 251, 2005: 231. (According to the Provea 2008 report the robbery rates are about half of those reported by INCOSEC, but go down at a similar pace, 145 in 2000, 153 in 2003, 106 in 2007). Merida and Trujillo states have the lowest crime rates (99 and 111 respectively in 2005) and also the lowest poverty percentages. So while murder rates seem to have nothing to do with the decreasing poverty, inequality, and social exclusion, robbery rates do reflect them, only going up in 2002/3 when there were the manager lock-outs causing poverty to temporarily increase.
Crime in Context: Latin America's Legacy of Dictatorships and US Intervention
A friend (after returning from a trip to China and comparing it to Venezuela) said to me, "I feel ashamed to be Venezuelan . . . there are so many malandros [Venezuelan slang for criminals/bad people] here."
I asked her why she thought there was a difference.
"We have everything here . . . the oil, the government gives us what we need . . . the malandros want things easily, they want the easy life . . . and also we have decades of this lifestyle, this mentality, building upon itself. Corruption is normal here, it's part of life, people expect it."
The history of Latin America, that is, the full context in which crime in Venezuela is occurring, is beyond the scope of this article, but it goes a long way towards explaining why there is such a 'culture of crime': a culture not seen in many poorer regions, a culture that penetrates the generations and hence will either take generations to fix, or more radical changes than have been effected so far.
According to the World Health Organisation, homicide by firearm is three times the world average in South America, and violence has been the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 there over the last 2 decades. In 2003, despite having only 8% of the world's population, South America had 75% of the world's kidnappings.
According to a NUSO (New Society)/TNI (Trans National Institute) document, crime has doubled across Latin America as a whole in the last 20 years and the murder rate is 25 times higher than in Canada,
Having been pillaged first by Spain (and Portugal, etc.), then the US, and US-faithful national business, Latin America has suffered civil wars, children left without parents after (often US-aided) coups, military governments, dictatorships and state terrorism. Ongoing police impunity, corruption and repression, the increasing availability of arms and drugs combined with intense inequality (different to poverty as it includes a lot of visible and unattainable wealth), and a weak state are factors in Latin America and Venezuela which have and are cultivating crime.
Arms, drugs, and police corruption multiply each other and lead to organized crime, also on the increase, and are really a glorified form of business (where business exploits labor and slowly hurts workers for profit with police back-up, crime obtains profit in a more brutal and sudden way, but it is still organized, systematic, has its hierarchy -- for instance, drugs are grown, processed, transported, exported and imported and in general are a highly lucrative industry).
So while there are few illusions about the police, the state -- the government and the judicial system -- is also barely respected and therefore has little power. So it makes sense that some people turn to gangs and organized crime as an alternate source of protection and security in the face of minimal welfare provisions.
Finally, 'structural adjustment' policies of privatization in the 1980s only further increased inequality and were, for example, one of the main causes of the 'Caracazo' in Venezuela in 1989, when the government at the time repressed protests, killing thousands.
Crime in Venezuela is not unique to that country and also goes back beyond Chavez. According to Provea, Venezuela has been experiencing a growth in violence and crime for over 2 decades.
One person from a Caracas barrio told a UBV Peace Center investigation: "The violence around here is a full on thing, because we can't deal with it alone and the truth is we are very alone. But look, don't be mistaken, I'm a Chavista, because Chavez has been the only one to understand what its like. This thing has been here for the 37 years that I've been here."
Venezuela's Social Inclusion Has Limited Impact on Crime
For those of us who know that people aren't born criminals, there's a general understanding that social exclusion and misery leaves a sector of society outside the glorious fluffy walls of capitalism, looking in through its cracks, and we can understand and empathize why so many people turn to crime as an only option, as a last hope of either food on the plate, or a way past that wall to the supposed dignity inside.
That the process of change here has raised millions out of poverty and into dignified housing, education, health care services, representation and so on is unquestionable (even the UN admits it), so why hasn't there been a remarkable decrease in crime, even taking into account its firm place in the culture and history of the country mentioned above?
Rondón sees social exclusion as the main cause of crime, and at the same time such excluded people are its main victims. But, he said, "Let's remember that there have been so many years of social exclusion that there are still a lot of people outside the system . . . some of these people are people who are 40 or 50 years old and they have been poisoned by the system of exploitation . . . and a lot of people get mixed up in drugs, they aren't yet aware [of the political nature of society, change, and their protagonistic ability]."
"But I think that when people start to become conscious of class . . . they'll start waking up to the problem that they have as a kind of illness, and they'll start asking for help and that's when crime will really start to go down."
Also, while the poverty-related statistics are impressive (poverty down from 54% in 2003 to 26% at the end of 2008, inflation-adjusted social spending per person tripled from 1998 to 2006, the number of doctors multiplied by 12 from 1999 to 2007, unemployment has decreased), and while the communal councils (with varied levels of functionality) are a good start at involving previously excluded people in political life and decision making, I would argue that the overall impact has been positive, but partial.
People often lack information about the social services that are available, and there is little coordination between these social services (or 'missions'), and hence the effect is not holistic. For example, the few drug centers should, but don't, coordinate with the free and cheap food centers, nor the health or educations centers. Psychiatric care should be combined with sport rehabilitation (through the Cuban-sponsored sport missions), as well as with education and job training, to help the countless homeless people. And while people are much more aware and interested in their country's laws here (crowding around stalls which sell the law booklets in the plaza), access to lawyers is difficult, hence most are excluded from the justice system.
As well, the benefits of widespread university education has yet to have an effect on political leadership. In other words, those in government, in the leadership of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), leading the government programs, and so on are still mostly the previously 'included' -- professionals such as lawyers and university graduates, and men. Although the process has seen more women, poor, and young people holding such positions, they are still very much under-represented. Hence, social inclusion is far from complete and is not yet radical enough to have touched the hearts of many of those who have grown up in a life of crime.
Drugs Continue to Stimulate Crime
Drugs -- as escape and as amusement -- are an obvious antidote to social exclusion and are particularly easy to acquire in Venezuela, whose borders are porous and are conveniently located between production and transportation countries (Colombia and the U.S.).
Before the 1990s, the major drug organizations operated out of Colombia, but in the early 90s they began to encroach into Venezuela as drug traffickers were under increasing pressure at home. Drug dealers benefited from the infrastructure that came with Venezuela's export-directed economy, and probably from its corrupt politicians, and estimated annual cocaine exports to the United States through Venezuela rose from 88 tons in 1990 to perhaps 220 tons in 1991. Organized crime and local use (prompting individual crime) would have also increased.
GM of Merida, who has been both a victim of police-perpetrated crime (theft and violence) and drug addiction, told me: "The majority of people who kill here in the street and in the barrios do it almost always for the issue of drugs. This is known to everyone. But there's a problem with drugs, that the majority of people who have anything to do with maintaining order know where the dealing places are, and they don't do anything, just the opposite, they charge protection. Everyone knows where the drugs are, the houses, who is selling them, but no one does anything because it's a very big vicious circle and a lot of people would have to die to eliminate it. . . ."
"The manipulation of drugs happens because of people from high levels [of society], people with power, but they take advantage of the proletariat, of the poor people, those who don't have work, to get the drugs distributed in that town."
According to a UN report, Venezuela was the country with one of the highest drug confiscation rates in 2008. But the government's response to the issue of drugs needs to go beyond this. Treatment must be widely available, as addiction can continue or resurface decades after the initial cause.
Such initiatives as the rehabilitation centre 'Children of the Sun' house in Maracaibo, Zulia state, which cares for, rehabilitates, and provides schooling for children addicted to drugs, are a good start, but they are a drop in the ocean. Inaugurated in 2003, 'Children of the Sun' has so far treated 177 children and teenagers.
The nature of the center, however, is progressive and radical. It is not a punishment to the children, but rather it has dormitories, a dinning room, sports area, a computer room, a reading room and an arts area. It seeks to work with communal councils on prevention programs as well. Social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, nutritionists and family therapists work there, implementing individual programs tailored to each child, and there is medical treatment that such children simply could not pay for privately.
In Latin America, 22% of the children in such programs stay in the programs, while in Children of the Sun the staying rate is 66%.
Opposition Causing Crime
As we have seen, it is in the opposition's interest that there be more crime and hence discontent with the government. U.S. foreign policy analyst Eva Golinger has argued that the opposition, assisted by U.S. funding, has been "penetrating" various pro-Chavez communities in Caracas for years with "'democracy' programs and projects with an anti-socialist vision" and that the [Colombian] paramilitaries have infiltrated Zulia and Tachira states (near the Colombian border). The Venezuelan government is clear on the paramilitaries' connection with hired killers and cocaine exportation.
Likewise, Carmen Theresa Garcia, a lecturer at the University of Los Andes (a university controlled by an oppositional director and infamous for violent opposition and police battles) told me the university was using its money to finance the opposition to go into to nearby barrios. She argued such strategies helped see the opposition increase their vote from a general 4.3 million to 5.1 million in the February 15 amendment vote.
And while the opposition is making itself part of these communities, offering alternatives to Chavez's social missions that provide "satisfying short term answers to problems" (as Golinger argues), it is likely (though hard to prove) that they also take advantage of crime networks dating back before Chavez and supply them with or sell them guns or drugs, to perpetrate the crime and instability.
After a violent attack where hooded people shot at young PSUV members during a car parade, the PSUV candidate for Aragua, Rafael Isea, denounced the increase in hired killings, the modus operandi of death squads of the Araguan police in the 1980s and 1990s, and said, "We are aware of the existence of a payroll of 250 students paid by the [at that time, opposition] regional government to generate violence, because this is the only scenario that they have left to try to avoid . . . defeat [in the election]."
The investigative police force CICPC states many kidnappings are the responsibility of the Colombian paramilitary forces (and specifically the group "Aguilas Negras" -- Black Eagles), operating through "common criminals", and according journalist José Rangel, with impunity, meaning they have collaborators at various levels of the police.
Rondón, too, argued: "The interesting thing is that the opposition continues to try to create ways in which the community feels bothered, annoyed . . . trying to destabilize the revolutionary process with this social sentiment of high crime rates."
However, it is important that the pro-revolutionary forces do not replace real analysis of the crime problems and holistic solutions to it with blaming the opposition for them.
The Legacy of a Rotten Police Force
"I was waiting in line for [food distributed by] the Mercal, I'd been there since 6am, and then along came two police officers and they went straight to the front," MD, a student in Merida, told me.
"You could say they were working, but a lot of us are working or studying too, such power and privilege from the old regime is still here."
It's well known that the police in Venezuela rarely catch criminals and are often the main perpetrators of crime, a fact going back decades.
"Since 1999 or thereabouts, to be a police officers, it is required that you're studying, that you complete a bachelor's degree, so the police who have been admitted since then are a bit different. . . . But generally for the police it is normal to mistreat people. There's no positive stimulus. [Inside the police force] it's normal that if I don't do what I have to do they take away my free day, they don't see it as something negative but as something normal, and that's serious, because . . . this means that they resist change," said Rondón.
"Look, the police are involved in drug trafficking, they abuse their authority, they receive favors, and these are police who normally have four or five children, whose wife doesn't work, who are trying to pay off a house . . . so at least now in this process of transformation of police institutions, they are trying to make the police career more dignified."
"Sometimes I say that, for Europeans in general, it is difficult to understand this because in Europe it is an honor to be part of the police and normally to join the force there are certain special conditions."
"Here the police are police because of need, because of hunger, because they didn't obtain another way of earning a living, because they grew up in a depressing place . . . so they enter the police to be able to maintain themselves. Once they enter the [police] system they become damaged, corrupted. . . ," Rondón said.
GM believes there is so much crime because "the laws are very disappointing, and many of the police are malandros [criminals/delinquents] . . . I see a lot of young people who were my friends and who enter the police organizations, they were dignified people and then after two years there, they start to lose. Because there is a kind of sickness there, they become accustomed to the habits of the older people."
He added, "There's democracy here but there is also fear, a lot of fear, you can be attacked in the street and no one will do anything . . . here the police have threatened me and attacked me, there are a lot of abuses but people are scared and don't want to report them."
In a UCV Peace Center report conducted among the population of Sucre, Miranda state, 70% responded that "the police and criminals are practically the same", 58% said there wasn't any police presence in their community, 84% said the streets are controlled by armed gangs and 79% considered the police to be corrupt.
Rondón continued: "The police in Venezuela during the previous governments always . . . had the illusion of power that they don't belong to the exploited class. That's why teaching class consciousness is so important in the current police force. . . . If you don't study, you're going to be police, if you haven't tried to further your life, you're going to end up as police, and it was like this in Venezuela until recently... So then I put a uniform on and I have power. . . . I go into the street . . . and I need something, and with the uniform there is abuse of authority."
Creating a Different Kind of Police: the National Police Law and the Restructuring
So a new socialist police force must be completely different, with socialist ideology, dignity, a cooperative rather than repressive relationship with the community, and be totally re-constituted to eliminate the old culture. The new National Police law and the planned restructuring go a good way towards this but need to be even more radical to turn the crime rates around.
Tarek El Aissami, Minister for Justice and Internal Affairs, said that this year would be the year of the offensive for citizen security, recognizing the importance this issue has taken on, and that the main task for this year is consolidating the police force into the new structure, starting with the formation of 50 nuclei of communal police.
He said the aim of the new law and restructuring was to achieve a "new, more effective policy in terms of disarmament, the vindication of the police system, a program of technical assistance to the police bodies that will allow us to elevate the levels of the operations and standardize some procedures."
However, the government has actually been working on this new policy for a while. In 2006 the National Commission for Police Reform (Conarepol) began its work. Its purpose was to analyze and collect citizen and police concerns and demands.
Then, in November 2008, the Commission for the Police System (Comsipol) was constituted, in order to implement these demands, and to coordinate the transformation of the national police system and police salary adjustment.
Comsipol is made up of five committees: for the development of the judicial structure, for definition of standards, for the initial program for technical assistance, for police curricular and career development, and for institutional organization. In January this year it commenced training the Caracas metropolitan police in the procedure manual of the Communal Police Service. Just before, the metropolitan police became the first force to be transferred over to the ministry of interior relations and will be the first to be eliminated and replaced by communal police.
On April 9, 2008 the Law of Police Service and National Police Body was approved, as the legal back-up to support the aims of Comsipol.
And in October, 2008, Plan Security began, which saw the start of coordinated action with the community, principally providing higher police visibility and 'security points' in the most vulnerable areas. The Director of the Metropolitan Police, Wilmer Flores, said for example, in the barrio La Dolorita in Petare, Caracs, 3,800 police officials had been deployed, as well as 350 motorbikes and 150 patrols.
The model for the restructuring of the police should be ready by 9 April this year, and from then on there will be another year for the various state and municipal police forces to adapt their organization and mechanisms of operation to the new national structure.
The idea is to create a police force that is preventative, not repressive, works with the community, is trained in human rights and ideology and is more dignified:
A Non-repressive, Preventive and Disarmed Police Force
In the UCV Peace Centre report, one person said, "The lack of safety gets worse and worse, we're asking them to send more police here, but so that they take care of us, not so that they come to kill us."
Rondón said, "The old police weren't trained for prevention and to talk with the community, to give talks in the schools, to promote programs of prevention, to teach families how to protect themselves from accidents, to make observations on a family, to create a family plan for emergencies . . . in case of earthquakes etc. . . . and these are the types of things that the police should be doing today, and this is being put in practice."
"But there is some resistance to change, we should remember that the police have always been a repressive organization . . . where all they did was go into the streets with their batons in their hands, hit people who were committing some small crime, and put them in prison."
He says the idea of the new police is, for example, "if in a suburb there are cases of domestic violence . . . they should become familiar with the situation, talk to the family, visit them . . . because often a man or a woman who is being badly treated isn't aware of it. . . . Domestic violence has been passed down through the generations and they see it as something normal. . . . So the job of the police is to work to prevent this, to visit the family regularly, ask them how they are."
"Across the Americas, crime happens and then the police go through the procedures and repress the criminal instead of working before the crimes are committed. We have to make a police that acts in a more preventative way."
However, without replacing the entire police force, or at least the police chiefs, it will be difficult to make them adapt to the new regulations. Police are not allowed to have live ammunition at protests and strikes for example, which is a positive change, but police still managed to kill two workers who were occupying a car factory on January 29, 2009, disobeying the state law passed by the pro-Chavez governor against shooting at protests. And in November 2008 a student standing near a university protest was shot dead in Bolivar city. Thirty police officers and seven national guard soldiers were investigated.
A Police Force Educated in Human Rights
Ask most Australian police, and they don't even know the local law, let alone our rights as stipulated in the constitution or according to international law. A big part of the re-training of Venezuelan police is educating them in such things, as well as proper behavior when arresting people.
In October 2008 the ombudsman and the Network of Support for Justice and Peace in Venezuela signed an agreement to train 5,000 police specifically in human rights for two years, and 300 police will also be trained to be 'multipliers' of knowledge of human rights, in turn training others and maintaining consciousness of the issue.
. . . And in Socialist Ideology
Included in the new police law is the creation of the National Experimental University of Security, which was officially established on February 13 of this year and aims to develop and professionalize the police. It will also train police in ethics, popular participation and rights of citizens.
"We [the organized police] are working with the [pro-Chavez] governor [of Merida] to help involve the police [in politics and decision making], especially those most excluded, because who better knows the police than us? And we are also working with him to create class consciousness, working on the ideological formation of the police, talking about what is socialism, really, for a police office. We're going to transform it, we're going to create police that are wanted," Rondon said.
"We're starting on this process of ideologization, and it's difficult, because, at least here in Mérida, there are 2,700 police in the whole state, so to work with all these, with the geographical issues/distances that exist, working in the places where they work and live -- well it's difficult. But we're already starting to do it."
"But this revolution is different from Cuba, where if the opposition caused disruptions they were simply punished or kicked out of the country. In Venezuela we have a democratic revolution, with elections. . . . The opposition are often our brothers and sisters, our friends . . . so to transform the state we have to start with convincing, by pointing out to people what authentic socialism is," he concluded.
Community Participation in Crime Prevention and the Police Force
The new communal police forces will help communal councils form committees of communal prevention. They will be the main professional preventative body which detects the causes and conditions conducive to crime and will also help form communal councils where they are still lacking. The communal councils will be the main 'communicators' between them and the neighborhood. There will also be a Community Intelligence Directive, which will analyze information passed from the communal councils to the communal police.
"No law in the whole continent stipulates that the police are held accountable to the communities for their performance and [here] the communities should have this active and participatory role," said El Aissami.
El Aissami argues that prevention starts with the family, passes through the community, until it reaches the state. But he clarified, "We don't want the communities to exercise the functions inherent to the police but we want them to understand that they have active roles that involve organization, the planting of consciousness, debate, prevention, and social control."
An interesting thing about getting the police to work with the community councils is that it takes the responsibility off the national government to some extent; it is up to the communities to solve their own problems rather than depend on a far away national body.
The Police Force as a Dignified Job
So, as Rondón said, it's important to create police who "you invite over for coffee, you invite them to lunch because you want to spend time with them." Dignification of the police force, in terms of perception, image, and working conditions (and I would argue democratization, although this does not seem to be part of the plan), would be necessary before there is any such trust, and it would also hopefully decrease corruption within the force.
"Police who have dignified housing, their children in good schools, and whose wives have good opportunities in life as well as to be able to maintain the home [sic -- women make up a significant proportion of the police force] will be able to go about their job, go into the street, without worrying about their family."
The government's idea of dignification of the police also involves high technology equipment. In November last year, it spent 22 million bolivars (US$ 10 million) on weapons and security equipment for the Caracas Metropolitan Police: 4,000 pistols, 850 shot guns, 571 anti riot suits, ammunition, bullet proof vests, helmets etc.
But More Is Needed
Police worldwide are famous for murdering with impunity, for beating protestors, and suffering no consequences, and for harassing certain sectors of society (poor, of color, young etc). A socialist police force (or to rid ourselves of the stigma, we could call it 'community protection' or some such thing) would be accountable, not just to the community, but also to each other. Any responsibility or position of leadership would be elected and recallable. Such measures would make corruption, bureaucracy, irresponsibility and abuse much more difficult but are as yet lacking in the changes to the police force.
What if all police were elected by their community? Obviously there would be practicality issues that would make such a measure difficult, though not impossible, such as training and experience, but surely that would prevent the police-criminals from working and would create a much more real link and trust between the police and their community. That is, while it is a positive step that the police listen to the community, they should really be controlled by it.
If any change in police culture is to be achieved, a good proportion of police chiefs and police themselves will have to go. The restructuring can't just be a re-ordering of the same thing but must create a completely different institution.
Harsher Criminals Coming Out of the Prisons
A breeding ground for criminals are the Venezuelan prisons. In a meeting I went to in Mérida last year, the discussion came up. One person said it is common knowledge that the families of prisoners have to bribe workers and inmates to keep them alive, and another person said most kidnappers come from the prisons, while yet another person argued that "the prisons are a big business, for all involved," and that they are like "criminal school".
It is yet another problem that the government is attacking, but slowly. Last year the government announced a plan to implement a new prison model, based on a more humanitarian system, after prisoners went on hunger strikes. (See Kiraz Janicke, "Venezuela Moves to Humanize Prison System Amidst Hunger Strikes," Venezuelanalysis, 11 March 2008 for more information.)
El Aissami has also said the government wants to start a program involving 20,000 volunteers working as "tutors" for individual prisoners, going with them during their sentence and evaluating the progress of the treatment they receive. Reflecting on the new prison model, he said in the prisons of Coro and Carabobo there hadn't been any deaths this year, and that they are an example of how to change prisons. These prisons have classrooms, libraries, and internet rooms, and they aim to provide another way of life for the prisoners so they can have a future that benefits society.
The Venezuelan government's effort towards attacking crime is two-pronged: one, prevention of crime through higher living standards, more ground-level democracy, treatment programs and community involvement; and two, eliminating the immediate sources of crime -- the drugs, police impunity, illegal guns, and infiltrating paramilitary.
The government understands that crime is a systematic problem that will not be eliminated quickly and requires longer-term policies, which contrasts with the attitudes of most other governments in the world.
Even while we take a critical look at all the opposition sloganeering and propaganda efforts around the crime issue, the fact is that people are demanding substantial change, and to get rid of the vices of the past, even more radical measures would most likely be well received and would deal with the problems more efficiently and directly.
Ultimately, however, the government and the revolutionary movement here deserve celebration for doing amazing things in the fight against the social crimes of inequality, poverty, indignity, injustice, sexism, and imperialism.
Tamara Pearson is a member of the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network. A slightly different version of this article was published by Venezuelanalysis on 30 March 2009 under a Creative Commons license.