By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The government now hopes to have launched its much-vaunted and long-awaited national police force by the end of this year. But, initially this will be in central Venezuela only, and it still remains unclear just when and if the there will be a nationwide force right across the country.
Announcing the decision in President Hugo Chávez’ home state, Barinas, last week, Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Assaimi didn’t give a deadline for completing the plan – but he admitted that part of the problem of lawlessness in this country was the police themselves.
Chávez decreed the National Police Law on to the statute book using special powers granted under an Enabling Act before it expired at the middle of last year. However, since then and until El Assaimi spoke, little more had been heard about the plan.
El Assaimi said that the national force would be set up in accordance with a law setting out standards of policing and on the basis of university-level training. There was a need to bring the police into line with the needs of society.
In this, he may have found a ready echo among a public which tends to see the police as something best to be avoided. Critics of the police – and it would seem there’s no shortage of them – claim that all too often officers act is if they’re a law unto themselves.
“We have to put into effect a process of change so that the police comply with the Venezuelan constitutional precepts,” the minister intoned, warning that without this everything would remain under threat. Police institutions, he added, needed to be “converted into a corps that is truly at the service of the people.”
And then he rather hit the nail on the head, or at least as far as citizens who regard the police with suspicion and distrust see the core of the problem. He baldly stated that 20 percent of crimes were committed by police officers.
El Assaimi said officers had to work on the basis of preventive policing, “acquiring a conscience” and abandoning “the repressive and reactive character.” He was speaking at a forum some days before the Metropolitan Police launched tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon at marchers protesting against the new Education Law last Saturday.
“The officer is a social servant who must act to prevent the causes that can generate violence,” the minister declared. As to training, officers in general didn’t have “academic preparation” and 70 percent of them didn’t even have procedural manuals.
Aragua State Governor Rafael Isea, whose young career has included a five-month stint as finance minister and, now, membership of the General Police Council, claimed that the new structure envisaged by the government would regulate who was admitted into police forces, who was promoted and how they were trained.
Isea, too, recognized that insecurity was a problem for everybody. For him, this meant there was a need “for us to put ourselves in accord to establish and coordinate policies within the framework of the law.”
Whether this included consulting with an
d talking to the Opposition remained unclear. Governor Pablo Pérez of Zulia, the oil-rich state in western Venezuela that’s been under Opposition control for years, said he’d repeatedly called for “dialogue” about crime and hoped El Assaimi would meet with all 21 mayors in his state when he visited.
All this was at a meeting held under the auspices of the General Police Council, and there was much talk about pulling together in the battle against the common enemy. But even amid this outpouring of good intentions, there was little or no sign that bad guys – not least among them, young males with evidently all too easy access to firearms – were even listening, let alone taking any notice.
Five members of a large family in Chivacoa, a poor township in Yaracuy state, were shot to death inside their home two Sundays ago. Four others survived as unidentified gunmen blazed away indiscriminately.
The reason for this instance of apparently manic gunslinging has yet to be established. Amid all the speculation, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz busied herself with appointing an investigating prosecutor, issuing eight arrest warrants, claming that those responsible could be taken in straight away “because the order is for their capture to be immediate.” As far as is known, it wasn’t and they weren’t.
Back in the capital, Caracas Prefect Richard Blanco, a senior official in Opposition Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma’s by now largely defunct city authority, claimed that more than 500 dead bodies had turned up at the Bello Monte morgue as a result of violence in July and that the count this month had reached about 300 so far.
Blanco’s responsibilities included supervising the Metropolitan Police until that force was transferred to Chávez-appointed Caracas “head of government” Jacqueline Faría, a key figure in the president’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). He asked why there were usually less officers on the streets at weekends than during weekdays. The kill rate tends to shoot up at weekends, although that may have more to do with partying rather than fewer cops out on the beat.
As an example, Blanco took a recent weekend in which 648 Metropolitan Police officers had been deployed across the city on the Friday, only for this to fall to 387 the following day. The exception to this, he said, had been last Saturday, when 1,936 officers were sent out because of the march against the new Education Law.
What he wanted to know is what might not have happened had these officers been put to other purposes in other parts of the city. In Lídice, for instance, he pointed out, a television worker had been killed, as had a young mother in La Vega, and things might have turned out differently in Petare, Antímano and Macarao, three notoriously rough districts of the capital.
Ledezma recently put forward a Security Master Plan setting out specific tasks and measures for the police, but neither El Assaimi nor Faría have shown much sign of interest. Blanco, who said the plan was aimed at ensuring “humble people don’t go on getting killed,” asserted that the minister had “laughed at us.”
The long arm of the law stretched back well into the past in the pursuit of errant law enforcers. Ortega Díaz last week formally accused seven former officers from the state security service, Disip, and a retired army colonel in connection with the death of nine community leaders in Yumare, Yaracuy state, in May 1986.
All the suspects accused of the so-called Yumare Massacre were named and the Attorney General petitioned a court that they be held in custody, which was granted. The killings, which have long been thought to have had political connotations, took place six years before Chávez first sprang on to the scene with his failed coup d’etat in 1992.
In a separate case, two army colonels, two lieutenants, a sergeant and three corporals were hauled before a court to be charged with murdering a 14-year-old adolescent outside Páez, a town in Apure state, in March 2005.
The youth, who has not been named, is said to have been sent out in the family truck to deliver milk to his grandfather’s cheese-making dairy when he ran into a barricade been manned by some 40 men in military uniforms.
He turned the truck around, but was spotted by the men, who gave chase and allegedly fired shots at the vehicle. Wounded, he managed to reach his grandfather’s dairy but the men followed in to finish him off. He died minutes after being taken to a local health center.
Back in the present day, the scientific and investigative police, Cicpc, claimed some success in cracking down on kidnapping – the incidence of which is thought to have risen sharply in recent years.
Just how bad kidnapping has become is hard to establish in the continued absence of official figures from El Assaimi’s ministry. However, off the record, officials admit that the number of kidnappings in Caracas this year may have shot up by as much as half again compared with 2008. But even then, the picture’s far from clear, and even less so outside the capital.
One version of events has it that in the year up to early July, 454 people were taken against their will across the country – an average of two and half every day. If this trend continues, it’s said, the total for the full year could end up at more than 900, against an already bleak 612 last year.
Curiously, given that Barinas is where El Assaimi unveiled the national police timetable, that state is said to top the list of reported cases of kidnapping outside the capital – 66 during the first six months of this year, followed by 43 in Zulia and 31 in Anzoátegui states.
A similar trend emerges in cases of extortion, of which the National Guard are said to have received 71 denunciations. Again, Barinas state came top, with 28 cases, followed by Yaracuy on 16.
Cicpc chief Wilmer Flores Tropel announced that Los Invisibles – a gang suspected of some 30 kidnappings – had been “broken up” in a “commando-style operation” in which six suspects were captured and two people were rescued.
The victims, a man and a woman, were snatched respectively in Catia la Mar, Vargas state, on August 12, and in Charallave in Miranda state two days afterwards. However, the boss of the gang, named as Francisco Javier Velasco Vargas, 27, and three others including his older brother, were still at large, Flores Tropel said.
During the rescue, the police found fake Cicpc jackets, an assault rifle, a standard issue military rifle and a machine gun. Serial numbers had been removed from all the weapons.
Los Invisibles appear to be a particularly sinister bunch, not least because they are said to have warned their victims’ relatives not to contact the authorities because they had contacts in the police. The implication of this was that were the relatives to ignore this, it would cost the captives their lives.
Unofficially, one working hypothesis has it that the bosses of Los Invisibles may be officers from Policaracas, the local force in the Libertador municipality in west Caracas. The mayor of Libertador is Jorge Rodríguez, a former vice president and, like Faría, a key figure at the PSUV.
It’s even being openly suggested that there have been cases in which people kidnapped by Los Invisibles were held clandestinely at police stations while ransom was demanded. The gang is also said to use officers to keep an eye open for potential targets including business executives and wealthy young men coming out of night joints and getting into expensive four-wheel drive status symbols.
Flores Tropel said nothing about all this. Instead, it later emerged from his office that interrogation of the Los Invisibles suspects had led to the subsequent rescue by Cicpc of a Portuguese citizen, Juan José Santos Pestana, 53, last Friday.
Santos Pestana had been ambushed and seized on a highway leading out of Petare in east Caracas nine days before. The gang demanded a ransom of BsF10,000 for his safe return, and three of them were arrested during his rescue.
The villains included one individual who went under the nickname of El Loco Taxi. This is said to have been a reference to the distinctly loopy character portrayed by Robert Di Nero in the movie, Taxi Driver.
Flores Trosel claimed that Cicpc’s anti-extortion squad solved 80 percent of its cases. But this posed the question of why, if there was such a high chance of their getting caught, kidnappers remained so persistent.
One answer to this would appear to be sheer ruthlessness. Some kidnappers have a tendency to kill their captives regardless of whether ransom is paid or not. This, it’s said, particularly applies to so-called “express” kidnappings, in which families are given little time, some times only hours, to come up with the cash, or else.
Unsurprisingly, not all kidnappings are reported to the authorities – not least, perhaps, of public knowledge that police officers have been involved in several notorious cases down through the years. And, of course, there are constant reminders such as Los Invisibles that this may not have changed.
Cicpc launched five synchronized raids in Caracas Wednesday last week against another gang, Los Cañoneros, a particularly brutal lot who are held responsible for 20 or more murders, a stream of “express” kidnappings, and drugs trafficking.
Fifteen alleged bad guys were arrested. Cicpc said they included two individuals who’d been on the Wanted list for five killings apiece.
About all this, El Assaimi says surprisingly little. Hence, his admission that a lot of crime is committed by cops was all the more surprising.
However, he does appear to have shifted ground on the structure of the new national force and the role it will play. Originally, the government said the force would be created by taking over and merging the myriad state and municipal forces at present operating in the country.
This proposed monolithic force was to be under the direct control of the Interior and Justice Ministry, and state and local control over police officers would disappear. Not surprisingly, critics saw this as an attempt by Chávez to accumulate yet more power in his own hands as he headed inexorably towards a police state.
But when El Assaimi revealed the timetable for turning the idea of a national force into reality, a rather different approach was on the agenda. He stated that under the “new police legal instrument, the regional and municipal police will not be eliminated.”
On the contrary, he went on, the operational performance of each one of these forces would be strengthened under the new order, and they would receive all the technical assistance they needed.
Then, as if to underline the message that that this new order would not be monochromatic after all, he unveiled seven new uniforms that would be worn by the different forces.