TODAY VENZUELA – A bloodstained weekend marked the latest chapter in a year of increased violence against Venezuela’s security forces, a trend that is expected to continue as the country’s political and economic crisis deepens.
According to Venezuela’s Foundation for Due Process (Fundación para el Debido Proceso – Fundepro), 163 police officers, military officials and bodyguards were killed during the first five months of 2016, a 14 percent increase from the same time period last year, reported El Nacional. Fundepro’s study found that only 11 of the 163 killings have been resolved in court.
In 80 percent of the cases, the attacker also stripped the security officer of his weapon. An unidentified source within Venezuela’s investigative police force, the CICPC, told El Nacional that the officer’s weapon was only recovered by authorities 3 percent of the time.
This past weekend was a particularly violent one for the country’s security forces. On Saturday, June 4, a group of assailants shot and killed a member of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) while he was conducting a routine patrol in the northern state of Miranda. Two other officers were wounded, while one of the assailants was killed in the ensuing shootout.
On Sunday, a group of police officers in Miranda were attacked after they arrived at a food distribution center that was being plundered by bandits. Although no officers were injured, the thieves reportedly made off with 25 tons of food.
That same day, a group of individuals ganged up to beat with sticks a member of the CICPC homicide division, after the agent was reportedly seen committing a robbery at a gas station in Caracas. One of the agent’s family members, who was allegedly involved in the robbery, was shot and killed.
Earlier in the week, on June 2, a retired GNB officer in the state of Aragua was killed by six men wielding shotguns as he went to meet with local authorities.
As the Fundepro study shows, the majority of assaults against police or military are rooted in attempts to rob the agents of their firearm. This suggests criminal gangs are behind a great deal of the attacks directed at security forces, since they need weapons to mete out violence and protect themselves from their rivals.
But anecdotal evidence from this weekend, as well as from previous weeks and months, indicates the violence against security forces is becoming more generalized. If this is indeed the case, this trend is likely linked to Venezuela’s worsening crises on the political, economic and security fronts.
Amid runaway inflation, chronic food shortages and falling approval ratings, President Nicolás Maduro finds himself increasingly relying on the country’s security forces to maintain some semblance of law and order. Last year the government launched a massive security offensive dubbed Operation Liberation of the People (OLP) to combat crime in the country, which regularly ranks as one of Latin America’s most violent. The president has also stationed troops at supermarkets and food distribution points in an attempt to prevent looting.
This is not only stretching police resources, but it also puts the security forces in more direct conflict with ordinary citizens who are growing restless as the lines lengthen and more food products disappear from the shelves.
It’s not just food that is running out. In late April, Maduro shortened the work week to two days for public sector employees in order to save on electricity. A shortage in medical supplies has also caused a public health emergency, with reports of infants dying in hospitals on a daily basis. The recent death of an 8-year-old boy diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, who had become the symbol of Venezuela’s health care crisis, drew outrage across the country.
Widespread corruption within the security forces, especially those stationed along the Colombian border, is another source of public frustration. During recent field research in the border area InSight Crime was told by a Colombian intelligence agent that members of Venezuela’s National Guard are threatening to kill smugglers of gasoline and other contraband products if they do not agree to a pay a protection fee to the authorities. Covert networks of military officials, collectively known as the Cartel of the Suns, are also believed to be heavily involved in the country’s lucrative cocaine trade.
As public resentment builds against a corrupt force, acts of violence directed at the security forces — such as the one last weekend against the CICPC agent — could become more common.
Venezuela’s precarious political situation is another ominous indication that things could get worse for the security forces before they get better. The political opposition has collected 1.8 million signatures — it only needed 200,000 — petitioning the government to set up a referendum on whether to depose Maduro from power. Electoral authorities, however, have yet to approve the petition or set a date for the recall vote.
As political scientist Ian Bremmer points out at Time Magazine, this delay could be a ploy to push the referendum into next year, when the vice president — a party loyalist — would automatically assume the presidency if Maduro gets ousted. So while Maduro is fighting for his political life, it appears his party is already scheming to stay in power until the official end of the president’s term in 2019.
The end may or may not be near for Maduro, but Venezuela’s ongoing turmoil — and the attendant violence against the country’s security forces — is unlikely to subside any time soon.