The Venezuelan government mantains that a recently launched, massive security plan is intended to break the power that criminal gangs wield over urban neighborhoods. Yet the operation may ultimately result in the police using excessive force against a civilian population.
On July 17, community residents of Caracas barrio Cota 905 went to the Attorney General's office to protest the deaths of fifteen people that died in "confrontations" during the "Operation Liberation and Protection of the People." A few days before Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez, the Minister of Interior Relations, Justice, and Peace, had announced that 134 "delinquents" had been arrested in one day as part of this same plan, 32 of whom he claimed were paramilitaries.
The Venezuelan government unveiled this new security operation last week, which has sent hundreds of officers from the National Police, the CICPC (Venezuela's Scientific Police), the Sebin, and the National Guard into poor sectors. The plan has been launched in Caracas -- with a focus on the Valles de Tuy, Ciudad Tiuna, and the Cota Mil -- and the states of Aragua and Miranda. On July 22, President Maduro called for the operation to be extended to the "last corner of the last state in the country."
The announcement of a plan that attempts to "disarticulate criminal bands that have subdued certain zones of the country" comes directly on the heels of recent media attention on "zonas de paz" in Caracas and other urban cities. These "peace zones" are city sectors the government has supposedly agreed to leave in the hands of organized crime -- banning the police from entering these areas -- on the condition that gangs will desist from using violence against other gangs.
The government has denied such negotiated impunity. Jose Vicente Rangel Avalos, the previous Vice Minister of the Political Interior and Legal Security and architect of the zones of peace, has stated that the plan only attempted to provide economic alternatives to gang members.
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However, numerous violent confrontations have indeed taken place between the police and gang members precisely where these zones of peace are reported to exist. The plan's focus on the Cota Mil, for example, is a response to confrontations that took place there throughout the month of June. The media portrayed these gangs as well-articulated and highly organized.
According to one article, "Three months ago criminals 'established an agreement and declared war on the police.' This has not been in vain, sixty officers of distinct bodies of security have died in Caracas this year." Officers interviewed for the article reported that the intense confrontations were taking place in zones that are controlled by well armed "mega bandas" (mega gangs). These reports, alongside almost daily news stories about police murders (usually to steal their weapons), have raised pressure on the government to show that it has not ceded control.
While the media has portrayed the plan as a necessary response to years of terror at the hands of armed groups, even leftist commentators have written that the only way to confront the current threat to the country is through a civilian-military-police union that can act as a shield over the popular sectors.
However, like the DIBISE and the Plan Patria Segura before it, this operation relies upon a militarized approach to crime and violence, converting an issue of citizen security into one of national security, thus justifying violence against anyone declared an "enemy" to the nation.
While human rights groups have called for the state to "assume control" of violent territories, they have denounced the way in which the government has attempted to rein in violence. Human rights group PROVEA labeled the operation in the Cota 905 a "massacre," saying these types of procedures allows for the excessive and indiscriminate use of lethal force by public officers. Inti Rodriguez, a PROVEA spokesperson, warned that strategies like this have a long history of allowing for security forces to arbitrarily detain and collectively rob and burglarize citizens.
And there is reason to question the basis upon which operations like this are founded. Unlike Colombia, Venezuela has never suffered from well-articulated gangs, except along the border. And the "cartels" that do exist have been linked to the Venezuelan military, not paramilitary or other non-state groups. Instead, gangs, especially in urban areas, have remained small, fluid, and localized. Indeed, this is one of the reasons they are difficult to combat.
Keymar Avila, criminologist at the Universidad Central, has questioned this portrayal as well. In an op-ed, Avila wrote:
Look at the numbers. On the one side the State acts with more than 250 officers, on the other side fifteen people end up dead. How many officers were hurt, injured, or killed? In a confrontation between symmetric forces there are impacts on both sides. What this suggests is that rather than confrontations between equivalent forces, this is the asymmetric exercise of intentional force by the police.
According to Avila, when the state systematically increases violence it can turn concerns over organized crime and mega gangs into a reality, generating rather than reducing violence. Indeed, if some gangs have joined with others, this is most likely a response to police incursions, not an attempt to take over territory.