The Venezuelan government has announced plans for a widespread restructure of the nation’s law enforcement agencies following a series of scandals. Most shocking was the late June murder of three students from the University of Santa Maria. Two of the students, Erick Montenegro and Edgar Quintero, were killed by the Military Intelligence Directorate (DIM) and the third, Leonardo Gonzalez, was assassinated by an officer from the crime investigation squad (CICPC).
The students were shot in an operation that appeared to be retaliation for the death of a DIM officer less than a week before. Although they were not connected to the previous death, the three were pursued and gunned down – after allegedly failing to stop their cars. Guns were planted on the students, to create the impression that they had confronted the police.
According to a July 5 VHeadline article, the government has ordered the abolition of the DIM and its replacement with a new institution directly under the command of President Hugo Chavez’s office.
The incident is just the latest indication of the corruption and criminality that has plagued the Caracas metropolitan police force, which is now facing a major investigation. The investigation, instigated by justice minister Jesse Chacon following the murders, has targeted the DIM and CICIP and has already resulted in seven high-ranking functionaries being detained. Twenty-six others have been arrested and a further 11 officers are under investigation. Chacon explained to Ultima Noticias on July 2, that, despite not being at the scene of the crime, the seven high-ranking functionaries were fired because they were the superiors of those who were involved in the attempted cover-up.
Diario Vea reported on July 3 that the Defender of the Peoples (the equivalent of an ombudsman) Dr German Mundarain had called on Chacon to initiate a process of reorganisation of the police at a national, regional and municipal level.
The government has also announced plans to reorganise the Directorate of Intelligence and Preventative Services (DISIP), according to a June 17 Venezuela Analysis article. The DISIP is considered to be rife with corruption and the restructure comes after the escape from custody of a suspected drug trafficker who bribed DISIP agents.
Since coming to power in 1998, the Chavez administration has faced numerous difficulties from the police force, which like most of Latin America’s police forces is rife with corruption and links to organised crime. The Caracas metropolitan police force, which was under the control of an opposition mayor until late last year, has been repeatedly used to repress supporters of Chavez. During the 2002 coup against Chavez, the police viciously attacked the uprising that eventually restored Chavez to power. Dozens of Chavez supporters were killed. After a pro-Chavez mayor was elected in October 2004, the police force was restructured, but recent events show still it has a long way to go.
This is a serious problem for the Venezuelan government, which is leading a popular movement, known as the Bolivarian revolution, to overcome injustices perpetrated by a system that has enriched a tiny minority but impoverished the majority.
The problem is especially serious in the countryside, where peasants face growing violent attacks by paramilitaries tied to landowners who are trying to quell the growing movement of rural poor to reclaim land. Since 2001, 138 peasants have been murdered, but hardly any of the perpetrators have been caught and tried. There have been two assassination attempts of peasant leaders in recent weeks. Braulio Alvarez, leader of the Ezequiel Zamora National Agrarian Cooperative Coordinating Committee (Canez) and a National Assembly deputy, almost lost his life after being shot twice on June 24, while VHeadline reported on July 3 that shortly after, Canz activist Jose Gregorio Rivas was shot three times.
Expressing his indignation over the murder of the students, a furious Chavez used his weekly Hello President program to declare: ‘Those that are responsible must go to prison. They must be given the maximum penalty for murderers.’ ‘And so this revolution still has debts to pay’, Chavez added.
Chavez insisted: ‘We need to clean up this police force, if we need to eliminate it all, then eliminate it … I would prefer to be left without any police before continuing with a police without humanism, without consciousness … because then the people will be the police.’
A national gathering in June of peasants, indigenous people and fishers who support the Bolivarian revolution issued a declaration calling for ‘the creation of reserve guards for the defence of life and the well-being of the peasants’, in order to counter the daily violence peasants face from paramilitaries, who are sometimes supported by the National Guard.