Venezuela has taken another step in the overhaul of its dysfunctional and often corrupt police force, announcing that the notorious Caracas Metropolitan Police (PM) will be dissolved over the next 90 days.
The process of police reform has been ongoing in this socialist country since 2006, when the government tasked a commission with making recommendations on how to improve the institution, renowned for its brutality and incompetence. The commission called for a more centralized national police force, among other things. This materialized in the form of the National Bolivarian Police (Policia Nacional Bolivariana - PNB), set up in late 2009 to replace the various local and state level forces, a process which is still underway.
The PNB is gradually being expanded, and in two years will be the only police force in Venezuela. The removal of the Caracas force is a major step in this process, as it had one of the worst records of violence in the country. The government said Wednesday that around half of its members would be retired, while the other half would be incorporated into the new national force.
The Venezuelan police are in serious need of an overhaul. Even the government admitted in 2009 that the police were responsible for up to 20% of all crimes, especially violent ones such as murder and kidnapping. One NGO found that killings of civilians by the police more than doubled between 2006 and 2009, to more than 2,600 cases a year, incidents which are not counted in the already soaring official murder rates. Various organizations have tracked the frequent reports of torture and arbitrary detentions.
Rising crime has become the foremost public complaint in Venezuela, and another reason it is so important to clean up the police is that the country is becoming an ever-more important transit nation for drug trafficking. Security advances in Colombia have pushed criminal organizations over the border into its now more chaotic neighbor. Underfunded and corrupt police forces are the lifeblood of these criminal groups, which rely on the security forces being easily bribed to ignore, or better still disposed to assist, their operations.
Venezuela's efforts to centralize and improve the police have been met with international praise. Human Rights Watch, for example, said that the reform commission stood out as a rare example of the government constructively engaging with civil society.
The reforms are not just skin-deep, but involve integrated measures that are crucial to properly tackling corruption. The government has raised the salaries of the police, so that PNB officers now earn three times the average wage of the old local police forces. Venezuela is also trying to improve vetting procedures to stop officers with spotty records from joining the new force, as shown by the fact that a half of the Caracas Metropolitan Police will be retired. They are also aiming to give better training to the national force, including education in human rights and ethics. Representatives of the non-governmental Justice and Peace Support Network (Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz), a long-time critic of police abuses, are teaching at the new National Experimental Police University.
The increased centralization could also work to raise standards, making the force more efficient and coordinated.
The government has claimed victory, releasing numerous pronouncements on the new force's achievements. Pro-Chavez newspaper Correa del Orinoco said in March that the rates of arrests of murderers and drug dealers soared in the first two months of 2011, up almost five-fold and more than ten-fold, respectively, due to the introduction of the PNB. The president has declared optimistically that the force is a "friend" of the people, unlike the old, “repressive” units.
But critics say that the police reform is aimed less at stopping police brutality than at bringing the police under the president’s control. Hugo Chavez has, in the course of his twelve years in power, chipped away at the independence of various state institutions, including the judiciary and the armed forces, and the new national, centralized police force will be more answerable to his government. Some members of the to-be-dissolved Caracas force were convicted of taking part in a 2002 coup attempt, giving the Chavez government another good reason to want it gone.
There have already been reports of abuses by new body. There were stories about the NPB using heavy-handed tactics in November to break up protests, arresting dozens of apparently peaceful protesters. Non-governmental human rights organization Povea told press that this cast into doubt whether the national body will be different from the Caracas force they were intended to replace.
The progress of Venezuelan police reform has comparisons to the process underway in Mexico, also a center for organized criminal groups and with corrupt and highly decentralized police forces. The government has been trying to bring the various local forces under more unified state command. So far Mexico's efforts have met with only limited success, highlighting the fact that effective police reform needs to be part of a much wider strengthening of institutions, particularly the judiciary - a kind of wide-ranging reform which is unlikely to take place in Chavez's Venezuela.