Cracks have appeared in Venezuela’s increasingly criminal regime. Dissidence has set in within the military, which is propping up the flailing government, and a key opposition leader is calling for more soldiers to defect, while the attorney general continues to challenge the president.
In a video posted on his Twitter account, jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, head of the Voluntud Popular (Popular Will) party, has called on the military to cease complying with orders they are receiving from the leadership of President Nicolás Maduro.*
“To the soldiers who are in the streets today, I want to send a very calm, clear message that is framed in our Constitution: You have the right and the duty to rebel,” López, who was arrested and eventually imprisoned by the Maduro administration in 2015, said in a video recorded from the Ramo Verde military prison where he is jailed.
His remarks were likely prompted by the increasing evidence of dissent within the ranks of the armed forces, who have been on the front line of the government’s sometimes deadly repression of opposition street protests that have now been running for nearly three months.
At least 14 army officers were arrested in April during the first week of the ongoing wave of popular unrest. The charges against them included “rebellion” and “treason,” according to official documents obtained by Reuters.
In addition, at least three lieutenants from the military — José Alejandro Michael Sánchez, Ángel David Mogollón Medina and Alfredo José Rodríguez — have deserted to Colombia and denounced Maduro and his regime.
On top of this, over the last year Venezuela’s attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz, a former loyalist to the regime, has increasingly gone rogue.
On June 8, Ortega called for all Venezuelans to oppose Maduro’s effort to rewrite the constitution.
“What is at stake here is the country, and the integrity of all Venezuelans,” the attorney general said, according to the Associated Press.
The first time Ortega voiced her disagreement with Maduro’s security policy was in July 2016, when she criticized the Operation Liberation of the People (Operaciones de Liberación del Pueblo – OLP), the controversial anti-crime drive implemented by the regime that has caused extrajudicial killings to surge.
But her boldest move came on March 31, when Ortega declared that a Supreme Court ruling effectively seizing power from the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition, signaled a violation of the constitution. That criticism caused the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling, and the following day Maduro announced the stalemate had been resolved. However, the controversy could not be undone, and it reignited opposition protests that continue today.
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Since then, Ortega has repeatedly denounced the “political” violence that has killed nearly 70 protestors so far. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she stated that “we cannot expect citizens to act peacefully and in accordance with the law if the state takes decisions that are against it.”
On May 27, Ortega shared the results of an investigation into the death of Juan Pernalete, one of the young protesters killed during the marches. Pernalete was hit and killed by a tear gas canister shot by the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), according to evidence seen by Ortega. This contradicted the government’s official version of events, and Interior Minister Néstor Reverol and Defense Minister Padrino López tried to refute and discredit the attorney general’s statements.
But the political controversy prompted by her latest public declarations have caused another important, but perhaps more veiled, criticism to go almost unnoticed. In 2016, for the first time, the Attorney General’s Office annual report featured a chapter dedicated to organized crime. The document outlines the levels and nature of crimes such as extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, money laundering, financial fraud, contraband and theft, as well as the effectiveness of anticorruption measures, showing statistical evidence for each illegal activity, the steps taken by the institution to combat them and relevant examples.
It takes a more objective tone on organized crime, one more in line with the international community. It recognizes the scale of the problem in the country, and objects to the government’s efforts to tout almost any crime perpetrated in Venezuela as actions committed by paramilitary groups. Venezuela is now one of the most violent countries in the world, and organized crime, which was minimal when former President Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, went into accelerated growth under his “21st Century Socialism.”
InSight Crime Analysis
So far, Ortega’s denunciations have cost her the presidency of the Moral Republican Council (Consejo Moral Republicano), a public ethics body. But she is risking alot more by putting herself in the crosshairs of a regime that has proved itself willing and able to use violence to protect its interests.
If Maduro is eventually able to replace Ortega with a more pro-revolution official, her criticisms and good intentions could be short-lived. However, it will not be easy to do this legally — he would have to dissolve the National Assembly (which he has tried to do and failed) in order to remove top officials from other branches of power.
But Venezuela’s officials would do well to heed Ortega’s strong words and turn them into more concrete actions against new forms of organized crime that have emerged during the socialist regime, many of which are backed by political elites.
For instance, the country’s prisons are in the hands of powerful gang leaders known as “pranes,” who operate with the tacit cooperation of the government. The “colectivos” — civilian armed groups aligned with the regime — have acted as some of the fiercest repressors of the street protests, and are also active in microtrafficking, kidnapping, black market food and extortions. Ortega has done little to limit these criminal forces, the latter of which are key armed enforcers for the current regime, especially in the poor neighborhoods of the capital, Caracas.
Given the government’s relationship with various types of criminal networks, including some that operate in official circles, addressing these issues is no simple matter. Indeed, the focus promoted in the attorney general’s annual report threatens the criminal markets in which the state has interests. It stresses the need to take organized crime more seriously and the importance of rebuilding anti-crime efforts with international partners, especially with respect to drug trafficking, corruption and contraband. (Chávez officially expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005.)
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Drug trafficking, for instance, has reached the highest levels of Maduro’s government. Current Vice President Tareck El Aissami became the highest-ranking member of government to be sanctioned or indicted by the United States for drug trafficking earlier this year. Contraband oil and food is a large source of income for corrupt elements in the regime, including the military, and kleptocracy has helped bring the country close to collapse.
The small signs of rebellion within Venezuela’s armed forces are competing with strong incentives to stay loyal to the government. Profits from criminal activities and maintaining the status quo that allows those criminal markets to exist; thus, many members of the military are unlikely to be heavily influenced by López to lay down their weapons.
The military has benefited hugely from the artificial exchange rates operated by the Maduro government (and introduced by Chávez), and the regime has allowed them to profit from their role in managing the country’s food production and distribution in a climate of acute shortages. An investigation by the Associated Press revealed the extent to which the military is at the heart of the contraband food trafficking business.
Under the current government, the military’s role in the transnational cocaine trade has also grown. Soldiers on the border profit from colluding with or turning a blind eye to Colombia’s rebel armies and other criminal groups running drug trafficking operations across the frontier wth Colombia. Many high-ranking members of the military as well as the government (networks known loosely as the Cartel of the Suns) have been targeted for their role in the drug trade by the United States.
However, there is little doubt that many members of Venezuela’s armed forces will be confronting their consience in the days and weeks to come — if they haven’t already — and weighing the pros and cons of a new chapter in Venezuelan political history. In the event of a political transition, what is certain is that the military will fight to maintain its role as a key power broker in Venezuela’s political scene.
* Correction, June 14: This sentence has been amended to reflect the fact that López is the leader of the Popular Will party. An earlier version of this article stated that he is the head of the Justice First party. While López did co-found Justice First, he has since moved on to Popular Will.