Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights

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Citizen Security Reform, Part 4: “Great Mission Full Life Venezuela”

[Moderator’s note: The rapid flow of events in Venezuela makes it difficult to do sustained analysis of anything, much less the complex issues involved in citizen security. In February we started a series on citizen security reform with posts on police reform, the National Security University, and competing models of policing, but set it aside with Hugo Chávez’s passing. Today we are posting Part 4 in the series. We will have three or four more after the presidential election.]

David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson

Even the presidential campaign cannot keep crime and violence out of the news in Venezuela. Last week the Venezuelan government announced that the country—already ranked as the second most dangerous country in the region (trailing Honduras alone)—saw a 14% increase in homicides between 2011 and 2012. The situation has quite reasonably become one of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’s key criticisms of the government. Nicolas Maduro, in turn, has said he “will assume the crime problem as something personal.” He has also announced some new initiatives, including the Peace and Life Movement (which we will look at in a future post). 

In July 2012 in the midst of his own presidential campaign, President Hugo Chávez announced a new effort to coordinate the various dimensions of the government’s efforts at citizen security reform: The Gran Mission A Toda Vida Venezuela (Great Mission Full Life Venezuela, GMATVV), which replaced the previous Mission Seguridad (Security Mission). The basic ideas were put together by people affiliated with the National Security University (La Universidad Nacional Experimental de la Seguridad [UNES], see previous post here); however, much of the program was elaborated and developed after the announcement.

The goal of the GMATVV is to operate as an umbrella organization, articulating the government’s various efforts at citizen security reform into one integral plan (the complete text in Spanish of the Mission A Toda Vida Venezuela can be read here). The GMATVV defines citizen security broadly, focusing on three major issues: criminality and perception of insecurity, traffic accidents (in Latin America traffic accidents are an important cause of death and injury and in cities like Caracas motorcycles, unregulated traffic, and “disrespectful” drives are considered to be a major threat to citizen security), and a lack of mechanisms that promote peaceful coexistence. The Mission’s authors differentiate their program from the security policies of “the right” insofar as it does not restrict its plans to more police, more jails, and tough-on-crime legislation; it does not criminalize poverty or violate human rights; and it emphasizes the participation of organized communities in strengthening security.

The GMATVV is presided over by an Executive Secretary, which has eight regional sub-directors. Until recently, the General Secretary of the GMATVV was Reynaldo Hidalgo, a professor of criminology from the University of Los Andes with a specialization in the prison and penal system. Hidalgo was replaced by Pablo Fernandez, previously head of both the NGO Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz and the government’s disarmament committee. Each of Venezuela’s 24 states will have a “State Command for Strategic Integration.” This coordinating body will oversee the integration of the various elements of citizen security, organized according to three dimensions: a commission for the Organs of Citizen Security, a commission for Penal Justice, and a commission for Integral (i.e. Comprehensive) Prevention. All of these are to be complemented on the ground by popular organizations.

The GMATVV works with a concept of “integral security” that takes into account not only public order but issues like health, economic security, and public space, marking an important shift from previous strategies that have simply been concerned only with preserving public order. The GMATVV has the following six general objectives:

Prevention

This aspect covers a wide array of programs, like the “Mothers for Peace and Disarmament” and job training programs, as well as disarmament initiatives that encourage youths to “trade weapons for projects.” The GMATVV has also recently absorbed the projects run by the government’s Disarmament Commission, whose campaign ended in December of last year. Those within the Mission see social programs promoting a new “culture of peace” as a key mechanism by which disarmament could occur. For example, at a graduation of participants in one of the job training courses offered through the “Mothers for Peace” initiative, women in the audience were described as the most powerful mechanism by which sons, fathers, and boyfriends would be disarmed.

Strengthening bodies of citizen security

This component largely boils down to a focus on policing. Indeed, one of the first measures announced by Chávez under the GMATVV was that the National Bolivarian Police would be deployed in seven new states, a deployment that took place in the last half of 2012. Much of the government’s attention has been focused on the police since Nestor Reverol took over the Ministry of Justice last year and some worry that other aspects of the Mission will be overlooked or forgotten in favor of the police.

The expansion of the National Security University to other states in the country has also been an important part of this component. For human rights activists, UNES is seen as a cornerstone of both the Mission and security reform overall, a firewall against a return to military policing. From their perspective, if UNES can continue to push forward and produce officers with a concept of civilian policing and human rights training, it could weather the countervailing tendencies towards military forms of citizen security (see previous post).

Transformation of penal justice

This aspect includes everything from reforming judicial processes to reforming the Scientific Investigations, Penitentiary, and Criminology Unit (CICPC), and a large bulk of the Mission’s budget is being spent here. Reforming the CICPC and requiring its officers to be retrained by UNES is both immensely complex and important since it is the main investigative body and has long been recognized as a violent unit within the police whose officers are frequently implicated in cases of kidnapping and torture. Also included is the creation of the Houses of Penal Justice (Jueces de Paz) and alternative methods for the resolution of conflicts. The Houses of Penal Justices are to be organized and empowered by each municipality where they are located but can have offices in the municipal government buildings or in the meeting spaces of “organized communities.” These judges, who are elected from within the communities where they will be working, are specifically meant to deal with cases that arise out of conflicts within organizations of “poder popular,” like the community councils and communes. At a presentation in UNES last year, the Houses were described as possible arbiters of local-level conflicts for barrio residents that could not normally afford procedures like legal divorces. To promote the non-violent resolution of conflicts, the National Security University and the General Police Council is also sending teams into the barrios to offer workshops on conflict mediation and the university will soon be offering 2 year degrees, in which conflict resolution will be one area of specialization.

Modernizing the penitentiary system

As anyone who keeps up with Venezuelan news is aware, the penitentiary system in the country is disorganized, anarchic, and violent. The opposition has criticized this component of the Mission, as it originally stated that eight new prisons were to be constructed, but within the past year the government has closed down three instead.

Many prisons are effectively run by “pranes,” gang leaders, who most often access guns and weapons with the help of the National Guardsmen who work the prisons. This fact was openly recognized by the previous General Secretary of the Mission at a conference in UNES last December. And most of the organized crime networks and gangs in Venezuela are organized from prisons. The chances of modernizing the prison system have perhaps improved with Reverol’s appointment as to the Ministry of Justice, since he has better relations with Iris Varela (the Minister of Penitentiary Services) than his predecessor Tarek El Aissami did.

Attention to victims of violence

This component is focused on providing “attention and integral assistance” (health services, psycho-social assistance, and rehabilitation) to victims of crime. It includes goals like the provision of financial support to the family members of a homicide victim or to injured crime victims. It also calls for reparation payments to be made to those who have suffered human rights abuses at the hands of state security forces. It calls for a strengthening of new and old institutions that attend to victims, such as the “Ombudsman’s Office” (Defensoria del Pueblo) and the “Police Supervision Offices.” However, some within the Mission worry that this aspect of the GMATVV will result in an emphasis on victim litigation rather than the more integral attention they aimed for.

Education and socialization to promote coexistence and citizen security

Much of the public discourse within the Mission’s platform has to do with the promotion of youth recreation groups, socio-productive programs, and university and school scholarships. Apart from this focus on education and the promotion of “alternative activities” for youth, there is also an emphasis on the creation of knowledge and information about citizen security. Thus, the Mission will also include a number of national surveys on the perception of security and victimization, crime prevention, and the role of the media in impacting perceptions of crime and violence. While creating more knowledge of regarding citizen security can only help, there will be a great temptation here to portray alarm over crime and violence as a media hype that should be countered with propaganda, rather than as a cruel reality that should be addressed with public policy.

The largest concerns for some working within the Mission are in the areas of penal and penitentiary reform and attention to victims of violence. Citizen security specialists within the government are aware that if successful reform of the penal and penitentiary systems does not take place and if resources are not allocated to attend to victims of violence (often victims of police abuse and violence), then police reform will eventually fail.

The GMATVV is certainly an improvement from previous security plans as it stresses the civil and non-military character of crime prevention and takes a long term approach rather than looking for quick fixes. If carried out effectively it could bring together and strengthen the various dimensions of the government’s efforts at citizen security reform over the past couple of years. Of course in Venezuela, as anywhere else, plans on paper are easy while implementation is hard. Fortunately Executive Secretary Pablo Fernández has a long term commitment to citizen policing and is an accomplished administrator. He is also a long term collaborator with the Rector of the UNES Soraya El Achkar and has good relations with the Minister of Interior and Justice Nelson Reverol. 

Filed under Citizen Security Reform