For the third consecutive time, Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro is seeking reelection in the elections that will take place at the end of 2024. If this election is like the previous two, armed groups and criminal networks with ties to the government will likely interfere once again at different stages.
The electoral machine built by President Hugo Chávez to help him win elections was largely inherited by his successor, Nicolás Maduro. However, due to the growing economic crisis in the country, Chavismo’s political capital has diminished, and Maduro has had to pursue new strategies to stay in power.
This analysis is part of a three-part series produced by InSight Crime’s Venezuela Organized Crime Observatory, looking at policy intervention opportunities in areas where organized crime intersects with the ongoing political and social crises in Venezuela. Read the first chapter on organized crime and migration here. Read the second chapter on illegal mining and deforestation here.
In exchange for territorial control and participation in criminal economies, criminal groups have given Maduro the political loyalty and electoral manipulation to ensure the voting outcome he needs. The Carter Center and multiple media outlets have documented how armed groups and guerrillas from Colombia interfered violently in the past two elections that Maduro won.
Similarly, electoral meddling by criminal actors in Venezuela was highlighted in the most recent report by the United Nations Electoral Observation Mission on the regional and municipal elections for executive and legislative positions in November 2021.
According to information from the mission, the 2021 elections were overshadowed by the murder of a citizen in a polling station in San Francisco, in the state of Zulia, during an attack by armed groups loyal to the Venezuelan ruling party. Similar cases of intimidation against voters and activists were reported in the state of Lara.
However, the events denounced by the mission barely scraped the surface of an issue with numerous serious precedents during past electoral periods. The difficulties of gaining access to areas dominated by armed actors, as well as a lack of information from Venezuelan intuitions contributed to the gaps in information from the European Union.
Beyond the explicit violence identified in this report, the local politicians, analysts, and social leaders that InSight Crime consulted agree that organized crime has been one of the main challenges to democratic progress in the country. The tentacles of criminal structures range from illicit campaign financing, voting center manipulation, voter persuasion, and candidate intimidation.
Below, InSight Crime explores opportunities to intervene in key stages of the electoral process and political ecosystem that will determine the presidential election in 2024.
Without a Firm Foundation for Negotiations, No Electoral Future
The now-paused negotiation process in Mexico between the Maduro government and representatives of the Venezuelan political opposition offers a favorable opportunity to strengthen the internal electoral process in Venezuela and mitigate the impacts of organized crime in the 2024 presidential election.
It is imperative that the international community, especially the United States and the European Union (EU), continue to support a dialogue that makes it possible to grant legitimacy and transparency to the electoral process. As international observers, they must have full access to all stages of the electoral process and issue impartial reports on its development. The inclusion of foreign agents is also a stimulus for Maduro’s desire to reintegrate into the international community.
The December 2020 electoral report prepared by International Crisis Group outlines the opportunities offered by political negotiations in Venezuela. The report highlights the importance of implementing reforms in the legal and electoral framework, guaranteeing equitable voter access to voting centers, and promoting transparency in political campaign financing.
The continuation of the negotiations in Mexico is crucial to achieving an independent and impartial National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral - CNE), the main electoral institution in Venezuela, which provides security to the political opposition and the international community. If a formal agreement is not reached by the country’s two main political forces, it will be almost impossible to establish a roadmap for implementing the proposed strategies.
With the recent wave of resignations in the CNE, the development of the upcoming elections has become increasingly uncertain. Although the motives behind these resignations remain unknown, the openings they created offer the Maduro government offer the chance to form a new group aligned with its political goals, an outcome that the negotiations should strive to avoid.
International Observation Should Start With the Campaign
Despite the fact that the CNE established a System of Electoral Guarantees (SGE) in 2004 to protect the rights of voters and candidates, in recent electoral campaigns, there have been many episodes of violence and political coercion that have hindered the SGE’s development.
During the 2021 regional elections, support by criminal groups was witnessed by observers from the EU. These gangs and other armed groups threatened and intimidated potential voters. There were even reports of cases where criminal actors participated in campaign events for government candidates.
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In places like the 23 de Enero neighborhood in Caracas, criminal groups acted as an escort for current mayor, Carmen Mélendez. Some intimidation was aimed directly at candidates, like in San Vicente, in the state of Aragua, where the Tren de Aragua, the most powerful mega-gang in the country, issued threats and hindered campaign events for an aspiring mayoral candidate from the opposition.
In Táchira and Zulia, the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación - ELN) has played a more active role in manipulating local politics. According to local sources, the guerrillas have used intimidation tactics to influence voters during local elections, demanding that they support the ruling party. There is also evidence of direct relationships between mayors from the ruling party and guerrilla members.
Given these targeted violent events, it is imperative to identify the main sources of violence during electoral campaigns. As a result of the Venezuelan security forces’ inefficiency and occasional complicity, hiring private or foreign teams to strengthen candidate security systems is essential.
In addition, the international community must, through accredited diplomatic missions, visit areas where there is a risk of criminal group activity in order to reduce their presence.
Although there is no concrete evidence of criminal groups financing Maduro’s previous campaigns, it is likely that money from illegal economies with links to the state, like illegal mining and drug trafficking, will serve as a financial foundation for the upcoming campaign.
Accordingly, both the EU and the Carter Center recommend strengthening internal control mechanisms and strategies for guaranteeing the independence of the Commission for Political Participation and Financing (COPAFI), which supervises political party financing.
A 2020 report by Transparency International suggests setting limits on campaign spending and financing. But without any public and transparent accountability system for candidates, illicit income will continue fueling campaigns in Venezuela.
Containing the Impact on Election Day
On past election days in Venezuela, armed groups have sown fear and doubt in both rural and urban areas, attacking voters and candidates, manipulating election results, and restricting access to voting centers by imposing absolute territorial control.
In the 2018 presidential elections, Transparencia Venezuela responded to multiple complaints of repression by armed groups with ties to Chavismo. In one complaint, Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática - MUD) reported the presence of armed groups in 21% of polling stations across the country.
In states like Lara, Zulia, and Caracas, armed groups did rounds of surveillance, intimidating and exerting pressure at various polling stations. Their actions created an atmosphere of insecurity and fear among voters, endangering both their personal safety and their right to vote.
These elections were unusual: the abstention rate was a high 68% and various sectors of the political opposition withdrew due to a lack of security. Unlike in 2018, the main opposition leaders have pledged full participation in the 2024 presidential elections.
With this increased participation from the political opposition, the elections will likely attract the attention of armed groups seeking to keep Maduro in power.
InSight Crime consulted international organizations like Peace for Venezuela and electoral analysts who recommended creating a risk map identifying where armed groups have a presence based on incidents during the 2018 elections. This map would help strengthen security schemes for at-risk candidates and their campaign teams, as well as voters and witnesses.
It is also essential to have the assistance and supervision of international missions in at-risk areas, particularly rural areas and popular neighborhoods, where police presence has decreased and criminal groups have increased.
In order to guarantee accessible and fully operational voting centers in the next presidential elections, the EU recommends establishing clear procedures and responsibilities for controlling the entry to voting centers identified on the risk map, both for center coordinators and members of Plan República, the military in charge of providing security during the elections.