LATIN AMERICA

Venezuela’s Maduro tries to placate radicals with security forces reform

Appointment of chief of new commission ends president’s “police revolution” reshuffle

Nicolás Maduro visits military installations in Caracas.
Nicolás Maduro visits military installations in Caracas. M.G. (AFP)

Last Friday, President Nicolás Maduro named Freddy Bernal, a congressman for the ruling United Socialist Party, the president of a new commission tasked with reforming the country’s security forces. For now, the appointment completes a series of necessary moves to kick off what Maduro has called “the police revolution.”

Lack of security is one of Venezuela’s main concerns. According to unofficial records – the government refrains from sharing its own data in order to avoid it being published – there have been 100,000 homicides in the country in the last decade. It has been said that the Bolivarian Revolution, faithful to its ideology, has shown a tendency to tackle the problem by focusing on prevention through social programs, but these have failed to yield results in the revolutionary regime’s 16 years in charge. Neither has the government achieved anything in the way of combating repression, in large part because its police forces are often infiltrated by criminals and trained in practices that violate human rights.

The president’s announcement is more of a response to balance the interests of different factions than a proposal to end to criminal activity

One of the main targets of the purge is the National Police agency, the Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas (CICPC, formerly known as the Policía Técnica Judicial), which assists the Prosecutor General’s Office in its investigations. Though for a long time seen as a professional organization, between 2000 and 2009, it was listed as the perpetrator in at least 109 reports of human rights violations presented to various NGOs within the umbrella group, Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz. Another organization, Provea, attributed more than half of the alleged extrajudicial executions carried out in 2013 to the organization. CICPC has undergone various transformations under the chavista regime. The president’s brother-in-law, Commissioner Vladimir Flores, served on one of its intervention boards.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the storming of the Manfredi building in downtown Caracas on October 7. The locale is the bastion of the Frente 5 de Marzo, one of the regime’s armed defense groups, which are known as collectives. Brigada de Acciones Especiales (BAE), a commando group within CICPC, led the raid. Five members of the Frente 5 de Marzo died, including its leader, José Odremán, and his deputy, Carmelo González. According to remarks made by journalist José Vicente Rangel on his TV show, the government has ordered the arrest of seven members of BAE. He also called the event “a massacre.” Rangel has served as minister of foreign affairs and was vice-president under the Chávez administration. He is also one of Maduro’s political mentors.

“CICPC and the Bolivarian National Police have to be forces that protect the people,” Maduro said in a speech broadcast on national TV and radio on October 27. “Let’s dive deep and build a police system that our country truly deserves ... Venezuela needs, and I am going to create, a police revolution.”

In 1992, Freddy Bernal participated in the second coup attempt against Social Democratic President Carlos Andrés Pérez

Freddy Bernal’s appointment as director of the Commission for Police Revolution – an organization that includes eight more individuals – suggests the president’s announcement is more of a response to balance the interests of different factions fighting for control than a proposal to stamp out criminal activity.

The reshuffle of the police system began on October 24 with the unexpected ousting of General Miguel Rodríguez Torres, until then a powerful figure in the interior and justice ministries. Defense Minister Almiranta Carmen Menéndez has replaced the general. Maduro also removed CICPC management and dismissed the commanding general of the National Guard, a militarized police force that oversees public order and the country’s borders. General Gabriel Colmenares Oviedo held that post for less than three months.

Rodríguez Torres and his usual ally, Diosdado Cabello, National Assembly speaker and a former captain in the armed forces, head the military wing, the bedrock of the regime. According to the official story, Rodríguez Torres, who was intelligence director under Chávez, was one of three officials who held the last working meeting with the dying president in February 2013. He has been building his own political movement for some time. At the interior and justice ministries, he promoted so-called intelligence patrolling of urban areas and the acquisition of a sophisticated satellite surveillance system from China as part of his security plan, which would have earned him some popularity points if it had come to fruition.

Let’s dive deep and build a police system that our country truly deserves” President Nicolás Maduro

The collectives, the hardcore nucleus of the regime’s base of support within the civilian population, hate the military wing and blamed Rodríguez Torres for the massacre at the Manfredi building and demanded his head as minimal payback. The fact that Bernal, a former mayor of Caracas and sitting deputy in the National Assembly, is in charge of the reforms is an additional victory for these groups.

Freddy Bernal is a founding member of the chavista movement. In 1992, he served in one of the commando groups within the Caracas Metropolitan Police and he participated in the second coup attempt against Social Democratic President Carlos Andrés Pérez on November 27. Starting in 2013, different stories started to paint him as an internal critic of the Maduro administration, hoisted to his position within the party because he is almost a leader – more than a link – to the revolutionary defense groups who patrol the Caracas metropolitan area.

During his swearing-in ceremony in Barquisimeto, in Lara state, midwest Venezuela, on Friday, Bernal promised to fight “the mafias within the police forces.”

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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