Chavez’s Legacy: An Explosion of Violence and Drug Trafficking

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose death from cancer was announced this week, leaves behind a slew of half-started security initiatives, but overall his government proved woefully incapable of tackling violence and organized crime.

Since Chavez’s election in 1998, the government went through at least 19 separate plans intended to confront crime and violence in Venezuela. Some of these initiatives were well-intentioned: Chavez oversaw the creation of a new police force (National Bolivarian Police – PNB), doubled the salaries received by officers, and established a university meant to train a new generation of well-qualified, educated police.

While it has only been deployed in a few select areas so far, there are signs that the new PNB has had some successes in curbing crime, while avoiding the use of deadly force typically associated with Venezuela’s police. This shift towards a less militarized, more humanist police training forms an important part of Chavez’s legacy on security issues, and is worth applauding. 

But it took Chavez nine years to get to that point. Prior to a law passed in 2008, Venezuela had no legislation that standardized police procedures across the country. During the lapse, Venezuela became one of the most dangerous countries in the world. 

The government is finally starting to confront this fact, albeit with some dubious figures. Just last week, Vice President Nicolas Maduro (now acting president) confirmed that over 16,000 people were killed in 2012, a figure which is about 25 percent lower than the numbers released by the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia), a respected non-governmental organization. Under Chavez, Venezuela has also implemented several gun control schemes, prohibiting the sale of firearms and destroying tens of thousands of illegal weapons.

However, the undeniable reality is that the 14 years of Chavez rule saw a sweeping rise in violence and drug trafficking, and the consolidation of organized criminal networks made up of corrupt elements of security force institutions, such as the National Guard.

“The legacy of Chavez’s government is a permanent, constant, systematic, sustained increase of violence year after year,” Father Alejandro Moreno, an expert on gang violence in Venezuela, told InSight Crime. “It was a complete disaster.”

Perhaps one of the most worrying developments was the increased boldness of the National Guard and military factions involved in trafficking cocaine shipments overseas, a criminal network referred to as the “Cartel of the Suns” (Cartel de los Soles). While ties between security and government officials to organized crime was a serious problem long before Chavez’s ascent to power, over the past decade the Chavez government repeatedly failed to follow up on reports of military involvement in the drug trade.

Allegations by criminal actors such as Walid Makled and disgraced former Supreme Court judge Eladio Aponte only further fed concerns that the very highest levels of the government had been compromised by organized crime and the Cartel of the Suns.

Although there have been improvements of late, especially with captures of high level Colombian neo-paramilitary leaders and drug traffickers, tensions with Colombia reached new heights under Chavez, as it became evident that Venezuela had become a major refuge for Colombian guerrilla groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) (see InSight Crime’s profiles of the FARC‘s and ELN‘s activities in Venezuela). Some Chavez loyalists argued that cross-border neo-paramilitary organizations — labeled “criminal bands,” or BACRIM, by the Colombian government — were responsible for much of the violence and drug trafficking along the border states. However, critics have said that the Chavez regime focused security efforts against the BACRIM, while broadly tolerating the guerrilla forces. 

Both the FARC and other Colombian drug trafficking organizations — as well as corrupt Venezuelan military and National Guard factions — helped make Venezuela a major transit country for cocaine shipments going to Central America and Europe. A 2011 report by the country’s anti-drug office noted that drug planes travel an extensive network of air routes between Venezuelan border states Apure and Zulia to destinations like the Dominican Republic and Haiti. While authorities touted a record quantity of illicit narcotics seized last year, the numbers only served to underscore the total amount of cocaine believed to travel through the country.

Other areas of security and justice reform saw few positive improvements. In a press statement released shortly after Chavez’s death was confirmed on the afternoon of March 6, Human Rights Watch lambasted Chavez’s assault on judicial independence, which seriously undermined the judiciary’s ability to process cases impartially and efficiently. Some judicial reforms proposed by the government only made the court system even more vulnerable to abuses. 

Neither did the 14-year-Chavez presidency achieve a serious rehaul of Venezuela’s prison system, which remains one of the most violent and overcrowded in the world.

Venezuela faces some significant uncertainties ahead. Perhaps one of the most damning legacies of the Chavez regime was the creation of a political culture in which loyalty was valued more than competence, and in which the very forces responsible for ensuring citizen security were caught up in wider political battles, compromising their ability to do their job effectively. With elections due to be called 30 days after Chavez’s death, prospects for improved security in the near future look grim.

“With no serious policy initiatives or alternatives, it’s difficult to see the security situation improving in the short or medium term,” Venezuela expert and New York University professor Alejandro Velasco told InSight Crime. “In terms of viable, long term solutions, there is little on the horizon.” 

Acting President Maduro is currently viewed as Chavez’s most likely successor, although there is concern over his ability to deliver on issues like crime. David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America told InSight Crime that it was not clear whether Maduro had a real understanding of or commitment to citizen security reform. “He has been foreign minister for six years and does not have extensive experience with domestic issues. It was a hard sell with Chavez, but some key insiders were able to convince him of the importance of police reform and gun control. It is not clear if they will have to start from scratch with Maduro.”

Meanwhile, the country remains stricken by a bitter political divide, which will likely become more acute as election day approaches. The most probable scenario is that the homicide count and criminal activity will continue to inch upwards. Crime loves political chaos.

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