Policing the Protests in Post-Chávez Venezuela: How Human Rights Legitimize Coercion

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Photo by Meredity Kohut, New York Times.

Since protests erupted in Caracas on February 12, the media has been flooded with photographs of Venezuelan police cracking down on protestors. By March 2014, seventeen officers from various state-security bodies had been arrested for human rights violations; eighty-one others were under investigation for the same. Though these images fit the repressive history of policing in the country, they contrast starkly with another equally powerful narrative that has begun to circulate in Caracas, a narrative that portrays National Police officers as weak and impotent, as objects of violence rather than holding a monopoly over it.

The second narrative became clear to me a few days before the highly anticipated presidential elections of 2012 when I ducked into a small store in Catia, the lower-working-class area that makes up much of western Caracas, where I live and work. While waiting in line, I overheard the cashier telling the woman in front of me that all of the National Police officers she knew were voting against Hugo Chávez because they no longer supported his government. Why? Because “they are tired of having their rights violated.” Her customer agreed, saying that the new laws left officers too vulnerable. She went on to remark in an indignant voice that just the day before she had even seen a woman hitting a police officer. What did the officer do? “He stood there and took it.” According to the woman, if he had responded he could have been accused of “violating a citizen’s human rights.”

This perception of police impotency emerged alongside sweeping police reforms implemented by the Chávez government in 2008, which promoted a non-repressive and preventative model of citizen security. The reform created the National Bolivarian Police that was first deployed in Caracas in 2009 to facilitate the elimination of the Metropolitan Police, the body that had policed the city since 1969. The main impetus for the Metropolitan Police’s dissolution was the pervasive corruption and officers’ use of excessive force. Police officers are now trained at the Experimental Security University that was founded by human rights activists, where heavy emphasis is placed on human rights and limiting officers’ use of force.

For the past two years, I have conducted ethnographic research in Caracas with police officers and reformers. My research reveals that, alongside the creation of these new bodies, the reform’s implementation has also generated a narrative of police impotency. In contrast to previous narratives about the Metropolitan Police, these stories are dominated not by accounts of brutality but restraint. The new narrative goes something like this: “Police officers, worried about being reported for human rights abuses, are no longer permitted to respond to any action taken by citizens with force. Both citizens and criminals, realizing that officers have their ‘hands tied,’ take advantage of this.” Police frequently complain about being spit on, hit, and verbally abused without being able to protect themselves. If they were to respond, they say that they would risk losing their jobs and even going to jail. The significance of officers’ training, that using too much force violates human rights, transforms into the inability to use any force at all.

How does this narrative shape perceptions of the current protests? Police officers perceive themselves as under attack from all sides: by protestors, the government, and police reformers. According to police officers, protestors have been given free reign to abuse them; if an officer fights back it is the officer that is thrown in jail. As one officer told me, “Luisa Ortega (Venezuela’s Attorney General) would be thrilled to put eighty officers in jail just to show the world that in Venezuela human rights are respected.”

Of course, it is not the case that National Police officers go to jail whenever they use force against citizens (proportional or not). But a narrative suggesting that the police are incapable of guaranteeing security has implications for the current political conjuncture and the future of reform.

First, the image of a defenseless police justifies the presence of a security force that can use repression at the protests: the National Guard. Officers in the National Guard are given little to no training on human rights and are known for the excessive use of force. Numerous police officers have told me that the National Guard works the marches because their use of force is not restricted, unlike the National Police. Thus the narrative of impotency allows for the military’s continued participation in matters of citizen security. The National Guard becomes the complimentary mano dura (iron fist) to what has been referred to as the police’s mano suave (soft touch).

Second, this narrative of police impotency has led some to put their faith in community defense groups to provide security and police the protests. Take, for example, a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Laura, a community police officer, and Jorge, a chavista grassroots organizer.1 Jorge and Laura agreed that the police action in Caracas had been quite restrained given the violence being employed by protestors, who were “erecting barricades and burning buildings.” Jorge argued that the National Police were not allowed to respond to protests with repression and thus would not be able to put an end to them. Because the police had their “hands tied,” he argued, his community would have to provide the armed response to protests.

Jorge’s commentary sums up the unanticipated backlash against human-rights-oriented police reform. Rather than demonstrating that force does not equal security, it has convinced many Venezuelans that groups exempt from the reform’s restrictions are the ones best equipped to police the streets. Ironically, the human-rights discourse that surrounds the National Police often operates to support militarized and extralegal responses to security crises. National Police officers, who take an oath to serve, protect, and defend el pueblo, are viewed as the security body least capable of doing just this.

Rebecca Hanson is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia and managing editor of Qualitative Sociology.

Notes

1. These names are pseudonyms.