Venezuela has initiated an offensive against the country's business sector in the face of widespread shortages, but its so-called "economic war" could further destabilize a perilous security situation by focusing precious state resources on pressuring companies instead of criminal groups.
One year removed from the massive anti-government protests that rocked Venezuela last February, President Nicolas Maduro appears to be doubling down on some of the failed policies that helped fuel the unrest in the first place.
On January 30, authorities arrested the president and vice president of operations for Venezuela's largest pharmacy chain, Farmatodo, on charges of boycotting and destabilizing the economy. Soon afterwards, President Maduro accused Farmatodo of provoking an economic war by keeping checkout lines long.
Shortages of basic products have created long lines throughout Venezuela, and President Maduro ordered troops to guard supermarkets for this very reason in January.
Farmatodo isn't the only entity facing government sanctions. On February 6, Maduro ordered a government takeover of grocery chain Dia a Dia, which will now be absorbed into a government-run collective of supermarkets. The company's general manager, Manuel Morales, is reportedly being held by authorities, who have charged him with sabotage and destabilizing the economy by hoarding goods.
In another case, the president of Venezuela's Hospitals and Clinics Association, Carlos Rosales, was arrested just two days after discussing the shortage of medical supplies on a local television station. Authorities released Rosales shortly afterwards, but not before he was told by the country's police intelligence unit (SEBIN) to stop making comments that could alarm Venezuela's general public.
There have also been recent stirrings of political unrest on the part of the country's political opposition. On February 19 protestors filled a public square in capital city Caracas demanding the release of all political prisoners, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has spent the past year in a military prison. Forty-one participants of last year's protests remain in prison, according to government officials; however, at least one local non-governmental organization (NGO) has said that number is significantly higher, reported BBC Mundo.
Nevertheless, the arrest of Antonio Ledezma, mayor of Caracas and prominent opposition leader, on February 19 sent a strong message ruling party the PSUV remains intolerant of any type of political dissent. Government officials have reportedly accused Ledezma of plotting to overthrow President Maduro.
The Distraction of Venezuela's 'Economic War'
It is worth asking how much the political and economic turmoil swirling around Venezuela is going to sap energy from problems where the government very desperately needs to apply its attention; namely, long-unaddressed high-level official corruption and insecurity.
Notably, on February 8, a government official from an opposition party accused Venezuelan Rear Admiral Rui Miguel de Sousa of running a contraband network that smuggled at least three million liters of gasoline into Colombia, reported El Nuevo Herald. De Sousa was one of the highest-ranking authorities combating contraband in Venezuela at the time, a thriving industry that defines life for many along the Venezuela-Colombia border.
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Accusations against authorities overseeing the very criminal activities they are supposed to be combating strikes a familiar chord in Venezuela. The country's biggest drug trafficking network is believed to be the Cartel of the Suns, which is made up of corrupt military officials involved in cocaine smuggling. In January 2015, a former bodyguard accused Diosdado Cabello, the president of Venezuela's National Assembly, of leading a group of drug-trafficking government officials.
Is Organized Crime the Big Winner Thanks to Venezuela's Crisis?
Venezuela is already one of Latin America's most violent countries. Its street gangs haven't evolved to the same extent as those in other parts of the region, particularly Central America's Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). But the toxic mix of a struggling economy, politicized security policies, and deeply entrenched official corruption certainly isn't helping improve the country's public security.
Hugo Perez Hernaiz, professor of sociology at the Central University of Venezuela, told InSight Crime that by and large the Venezuelan population has not blamed the government for the country's high rate of crime and violence. As a result, currently "the government's priorities are the economic crisis and the upcoming legislative elections this year, not security," Perez said.
Nevertheless, the government's prioritization of its "economic war" will undoubtedly distract from police reform initiatives, as well as efforts to contain the country's violent street gangs.
While Venezuela's security forces are perennially short-staffed and under-equipped, the current level of insecurity in Venezuela "has exceeded the capabilities of [the country's] police forces,” Pedro Rangel Rojas, Director of the security think tank INCOSEC in Caracas, told InSight Crime.
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Aside from neglecting the public security issue, the Maduro government's unwillingness to go after corruption -- which the government has previously attempted to portray as a major priority -- will undoubtedly continue to strengthen organized crime networks in the country. Corruption has a long history of facilitating organized crime in Latin America, as criminal actors seek to gain protection by influencing all levels and branches of government. Failure to investigate corruption certainly isn't exclusive to the Maduro administration in Venezuela, but the ongoing unwillingness to root it out -- particularly in the army and National Guard -- is of deep concern.
As the Chavista regime crumbles under the weight of a flailing economy, political upheaval, and widespread corruption, criminal groups may well seize this opportunity to become ever more powerful -- and wreak even greater havoc on the Venezuelan population.