Venezuela’s president wants to more than double the number of civilians involved in armed militias, a move with serious political and possibly criminal implications for the deeply polarized country.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced plans to increase the size of civilian militias, first implemented under late President Hugo Chavez, from 400,000 to 1 million, reported El Universal, although government estimates earlier in the year put the current number of members of militias closer to 130,000.
“All of the city neighborhoods need to have a militia, with its guns, its organization to defend the country,” said Maduro, speaking in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas during a voluntary disarmament ceremony.
The civilian militias — also called “people in arms” — were created under Chavez to support the armed forces in national defense.
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Since the attempted coup in 2002, the Venezuelan government, first under Chavez and now Maduro, has attempted to secure its position through the sponsorship of armed groups that can be called on in moments of crisis.
Some of these groups are legal and have official state backing. The “National Bolivarian Militia” set up by Chavez is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of members strong, numbers Maduro has already said he would like to increase with the creation of “Bolivarian Workers Militias.” Since 2011, the militiamen have been directly controlled from the president’s office.
However, other groups operate outside the law. In Caracas, radical leftist self-defense militias control many of the city’s poorest areas. While ostensibly independent of the state, and not always supportive of its actions, these militias have been armed and nurtured by the government as “Networks of Immediate Mobilization” to confront the opposition.
In rural areas, there are also the guerrillas of the Bolivarian Liberation Front (FBL). Estimated to number between 1,000 and 4,000 fighters, the FBL are also independent but generally supportive of the Chavista state.
With the deep political rift and complete breakdown of trust between left and right in Venezuela, these armed groups have the potential to become serious actors in any conflict if bubbling political tensions erupted into violence.
However, there is also the possibility they may at some point criminalize. If the opposition were to come into power, or even if the country suffered from an economic crash, then the state funds allocated to the groups would likely be severed, and with their networks and arms already in place, it would only be a small step to replacing this funding through criminal revenues.