Is Venezuela Using Police Reform to Harass Political Rivals?

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Venezuela dismantled the police force of its second-largest city based on allegations of ties to organized crime, although members of the country’s opposition have said the measure is politically motivated. 

On February 25, Venezuelan authorities issued an order calling for an intervention in the Maracaibo police force, which is located in Zulia state, stating that there was evidence of “massive and continual participation of some of its officials in criminal networks,” reported El Nacional.

Under the terms of the intervention, all members of the Maracaibo police must hand in their weapons and undergo a review process, led by a four-person board appointed by the Ministry of the Interior, Peace and Justice. 

In response, Maracaibo Mayor Eveling Trejo de Rosales said she “strongly rejects” the measure, calling it “arbitrary,” and adding that she believed it had more to do with politics than the need for reform. A Congressional representative for Zulia state — who, like Trejo, is a member of Venezuela’s political opposition — echoed her comments. The head of the Maracaibo police force — who can no longer remain active in that position, due to the intervention — also said he was “surprised by the announcement and the motives that justify it.” 

The former head of human resources for the now-disbanded Caracas Metropolitan Police was appointed acting director of the Maracaibo police. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Although Venezuela’s police reform commission was ostensibly created to root out corruption, there is a pattern of the commission announcing “interventions” in areas governed by Venezuela’s political opposition. The commission — which was created in October 2014 — has previously ordered three interventions in Miranda state, which is governed by opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, and two in Monagas and Zulia states, in cities governed by mayors from the opposition party. 

Not only is Maracaibo Mayor Trejo de Rosales part of the opposition party, her husband is a former presidential candidate who fled to Peru after being charged with corruption, which he said was in fact political persecution.  

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

The intervention in Maracaibo comes at a time of great political tension in Venezuela, when the government has cracked down hard on members of the opposition. On February 19, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma was arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro, while former congresswoman Maria Corina Machado met the same fate in November 2014 for allegedly planning to assassinate the president.

It would not be surprising if the government’s police reform commission has indeed become politicized in this highly charged environment. Nevertheless, the possibility that the Maracaibo police force is involved in criminal activity is not outlandish — police in Zulia state have previously been tied to Colombia’s Rastrojos criminal group and Mexico’s Zetas cartel. 

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