In an unprecedented display of non-partisanship, President Hugo Chavez’s government is teaming up with opposition political officials in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia in order to fight organized crime in the region. These developments, along with Venezuela’s improving relations with Colombia, are indicators of Chavez’s deepening concern for the country’s public security situation.
The oil-rich state along the western border with Colombia is a hotbed of opposition to Chavez’s controversial “Bolivarian Revolution,” and was the site of an arson attack earlier this month on government offices. A number of local officials in the opposition New Era Party (Un Nuevo Tiempo - UNT) were arrested in connection to the incident, further widening partisan divides in the state as national UNT leaders claimed they were victims of an attempt to discredit the opposition.
On top of civil unrest, kidnapping, extortion and carjackings are common occurrences in Zulia, as they are in most of the country. According to the independent Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, the country experienced more than 17,600 murders in 2010, and the trend is worsening.
Now, however, local officials are overcoming ideological differences with the federal government in order to combat organized crime. According to a report by French press agency AFP, the regional government has signed on to a national security plan launched by Chavez, which will allocate more than $382 million to strengthen police forces and border officials.
Odalys Caldera, Zulia state security secretary, told AFP that the central issue is cooperation between the 4,800 police officers under the control of state officials and the 20,000 security forces directed by the federal government. According to Caldera, although federal forces control the border, local officials have little to no authority there.
“We can’t go there,” said Caldera, referring to the border region. “Drugs, firearms and undocumented people are still entering the country. They need to deploy more convincing strategies to avoid that.”
Despite this, Caldera noted that communication between state officials and security forces at the border have improved in recent months.
These efforts at internal security reform coincide with an increasing level of Venezuelan cooperation with Colombian anti-crime efforts. Last week the Colombian Defense Minister, Rodrigo Rivera, met with Venezuela’s Minister of Interior and Justice, Tareck El Aissami, to explore ways to enhance security cooperation along more than 1,300 miles of shared border.
The ministers sought to coordinate joint strategies to tackle the common threats of drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. Last week Rivera called upon Colombia’s neighbors to help plan a common strategy to secure the region from the activities of the Emerging Criminal Bands (Bandas Criminales Emergentes - BACRIMs).
While these initial steps are encouraging, it remains to be seen whether Venezuela will be able to significantly improve its track record when it comes to drug trafficking and organized crime. If these efforts are successful, it might force the drug cartels that currently use the country as an export base to find alternate routes through neighboring countries. As such, nearby Ecuador, Peru, Brazil or Panama may see a corresponding increase in drug shipments to destinations in Europe and the United States.