Venezuela has seen the highest number of deaths and injuries from grenades in Latin America over the past three years, with corruption in the military making soldiers both a cause and target of this trend.
The year 2015 was a record year for Venezuela in many aspects. In terms of citizen security, the country witnessed the highest homicide rates since its independence. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia - OVV) recorded 27,875 victims, pushing the homicide rate to 90 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants and giving the country the second highest rate in the world after El Salvador for countries not at war.
Within this total there were at least 47 deaths attributed to the detonation of grenades. The United Nations Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament and Development (UNLIREC) reported that hand grenade deaths increased by 194 percent during 2015 compared to the two previous years. Comparative figures are not available for the region, but Venezuela very likely maintains its position as the South American nation with the most grenade deaths, given that it held that distinction in 2014 with only 13 cases reported (pdf).
The increase in grenade deaths has attracted the attention of the general public and international organizations. In looking for an explanation, Venezuelan officials have blamed corrupt military personnel for providing hardware from their arsenals to criminal gangs. This leakage of military weapons is not limited to grenades, but also rifles, ammunitions and mortar shells and as a result, the firepower of criminal gangs is increasing.
Venezuela saw 84 cases involving the use of hand grenades in 2015, an average of 7 cases per month. And the trend seemed to accelerate over the course of the year, with the last six months registering an average of 9.6 cases.
Grenade explosions resulted in 110 people being wounded; the highest count to date in Venezuela. The data does not account for people who may have died later from their grenade wounds.
Press and other reports from the first quarter of 2016 indicate that the pattern is likely to hold this year.
In an April 6 case, a grenade that detonated in a detention center in the northern state of Sucre killed six prisoners.
On May 20, 25-year-old Sandra Zuelma Silva died after a mortar grenade detonated inside her house in the indigenous community of Nueva Esperanza, Apure state, on the Colombian border. National Guards reported finding two undetonated hand grenades at the scene. (See photo below)
Authorities have not reported or have not been able to ascertain where the explosives came from. Police Superintendent Luis Godoy noted that it is very difficult to determine the origin of a grenade after it has exploded. At best, one might determine the brand, or even the batch the weapon belonged to and track down whether it was assigned to a particular military unit.
UNLIREC's William Godnick has said that it is more likely the grenades used by criminals were sold on the black market by members of Venezuela's Armed Forces rather than brought into the country as contraband.
Venezuelan officials, on the other hand, point to Colombia as a likely source. Anthony Daquin, a former security advisor to the president, and retired Maj. Gen. Edgar Bolivar, who served as chief of operations for the National Guard, said some of the grenades are probably smuggled to Venezuelan criminal groups by Colombian guerrillas. The Venezuelan regime is currently accompanying both of Colombia's main guerrilla groups in the peace talks with the Colombian government.
InSight Crime Analysis
Venezuela's security forces did little about the increasing reports of grenade use until criminals began using them to target police officers and soldiers, and even barracks and police stations. A series of five such cases occurred over a two day period in September 2015.
In one particular attack, two grenades were thrown at police at a pedestrian checkpoint in Baruta, a municipality that is part of Caracas metropolitan area. Eight agents were wounded by shrapnel, and one was left in a coma. Some officials have characterized the attacks on security forces as a backlash against the government's ongoing crackdown on criminal gangs, known as Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (Operación Liberación y Protección del Pueblo - OLP), but two of the targets of these attacks had no discernable connection to OLP.
A confidential report by the Terrorism Investigation Division of Venezuela's investigative police, the CICPC, noted that the grenades used in these attacks were similar in make and model to those supplied to the military and the National Guard. The document also confirmed that during military exercises "these explosive artefacts are supplied in an irregular fashion and are subsequently sold on the black market."
Security expert Daquin warned that the increase in national military exercises during the past few months could result in more military explosives in the hands of civilians. The training and preparedness operations entail major military deployments and widespread engagement with the civilian population. "What better moment to distribute these types of weapons than with the so-called exercises," Daquin said.
Sandra Zuelma was killed by a mortar explosion in her rural community the same day the nationwide Independence II 2016 military exercise commenced. The operation was followed by joint exercises known as Patria Chavista. Those exercises are based on a scenario of popular resistance supported by regular forces. In both activities, military equipment is entrusted to community defense councils.
The military conducts periodic campaigns exhorting personnel to carefully guard and account for their arsenals. However, the grenade attacks on police prompted the commander of the National Guard, Gen. Nestor Reverol, to recently acknowledge in an internal document that "there has been loss of armament, optical and optoelectronic devices, accessories and ammunition of different calibers, which indicates the complicity of some forces with unscrupulous people."
There is reason to believe that criminals now have even more firepower than just guns and grenades. In February 2016, a shootout with police ended with the authorities recovering an AT4 anti-tank bazooka from inside a stolen Land Cruiser (see photo above). With military complicity suspected in black market arms deals, police are left wondering how long they have before their own stations come under high-powered attack.