Venezuela: Behind the corporate media's 'crime wave' lies

On March 11 a Reuters article headlined “Venezuela Murder-rate Quadrupled Under Chavez: NGO” was carried by major corporate media outfits including Yahoo!7 News, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Reuters article uncritically reported the claim by Roberto Briceno, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), that: “The problem is not so much the criminals, but rather the [Chavez] government’s inaction and lack of policies”.

The Reuters article repeated the claim by Briceno’s OVV that the homicide rate in Venezuela was 54 per 100,000 in 2009, a total of 16,047 murder victims. The OVV’s “data”, the article claimed, “is widely followed in the absence of official statistics”. However, on March 5 the Bolivarian News Agency had reported official statistics from the Venezuelan governments’ Body of Scientific and Criminal Investigations (CICPC). These showed a total of 12,257 homicides in 2009, which equates to a rate of 42 per 100,000. According to an article by Tamara Pearson on the Venezuelanalysis website in June, statistics derived from the Ministry for Health, the National Institute for Statistics (INE) and the CICPC show homicide rates rose sharply from 19 per 100,000 people in 1998 to 45 in 2006.

The supposed lack of anti-crime “action” or “policy” by the Chavez government was also claimed by ABC Foreign Correspondent reporter Eric Campbell in his August 11 report titled “Total Control”. Campbell claimed that the “only crime prevention program” in Venezuela was one run by a big landowner. According to Campbell: “The program was so successful, it’s turned into Venezuela’s only crime prevention program.”

The presentation by the corporate media of Chavez’s working people’s government as having no crime prevention programs to tackle high crime rates is a blatant lie. These corporate media lies parrot the themes of a campaign waged by the US government — under both the Bush and Obama administrations — to discredit the Chavez government as a tyranny whose radical socialist policies are leading to social chaos. On February 2, for example, US director of national intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair presented the US government’s Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community 2009 report to Congress. Under the heading “Latin America Stable, but Challenged by Crime and Populism”, the report claimed that President Hugo Chavez’s government was the “Leading Anti-US Regional Force” in Latin America, where, “democracy and market policies remain at risk because of the continued threats from crime, corruption, and poor governance”.

According to the report, “Chavez’s popularity has dropped significantly in recent polls as a result of … continued high crime … raising questions about his longer term political future”. The report explained that by “poor governance”, it meant refusing to serve capitalist interests, including US corporate interests: “Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has established himself as one of the US’s foremost international detractors, denouncing liberal democracy and market capitalism and opposing US policies and interests in the region”, such as, “the expansion of free trade, counter drug and counterterrorism cooperation, military training and security initiatives, and even US assistance programs”.

Another theme promoted by the US government is that Chavez has “continued his covert support to the terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)”. Chavez rejected this allegation in a televised speech on March 3, explaining that: “We are victims of an intense orchestrated international attack against Venezuela … This is a government that does not and will not support terrorist groups — we are of peace, of friendship.”

The US capitalist rulers have been implacably opposed to the Chavez government since 2001 when it moved to take control of Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA and impose high taxes on US oil companies in order to redirect revenues and resources to meeting the needs of the poorest Venezuelans. A US-backed military coup against Chavez on April 11, 2002, succeeded in overthrowing his government, but within 48-hours Chavez’s working class supporters inside and outside the army united in a revolution against the military chiefs and returned Chavez and his government to power.

Within a few months the leaders of the coup in the armed forces were purged, presenting the US rulers with a major problem — the majority of Venezuela’s working people and the armed forces were now loyal to a government they had placed in power by their own revolutionary mass action and which was committed to defending the interests of working people against those of the capitalist class. This means that since April 13, 2002, the US-backed capitalist political opposition in Venezuela now needs the support of a US “regime-change” military intervention to retake state power and put an end to the Chavez-led socialist revolution. But such an intervention will be very difficult to mount if it is not accepted by US working people, so the US rulers must wage a propaganda campaign to demonise Chavez.

Lie #1: Chavez supports ‘terrorists’

On March 1, the US State Department Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs released its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, claiming that the Colombian FARC armed insurgent group, which Washington lists as a “terrorist organisation”, maintains a “prominent role in the drug trade”. The FARC, it claims, “are linked to the most aggressive and successful drug trafficking organizations moving narcotics through Venezuela”, and this has “increased the level of corruption, crime, and violence in Venezuela”. Thus, the US State Department claims that the Chavez government is “covertly” supporting the FARC, contributing to crime and violence in Venezuela.

However, on March 11, US General Doug Fraser, head of the US Southern Command, commenting on whether there is any evidence that the Chavez government is supporting the FARC, told the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee: “We have not seen any connections specifically that I can verify that there has been a direct government-to-terrorist connection”. The following day, Fraser reversed himself, writing on his blog: “Assistant Secretary [in the US State Department, Arturo] Valenzuela and I spoke this morning on the topic of linkages between the government of Venezuela and the FARC … There is indeed clear and documented historical and ongoing evidence of the linkages between the government of Venezuela and the FARC”. He provided no evidence to support this statement.

Fraser then claimed at the March 18 meeting of the armed services committee that evidence had been found on a laptop computer of a FARC leader allegedly seized by Colombian soldiers in an attack into Ecuador on March 1, 2008. However, this claim is contradicted by the US State Departments’ own Country Reports on Terrorism 2008 published by its Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, a year after the alleged seizure of the FARC computer. The report, released on April 30, 2009, stated: “Venezuela supplied some logistical, financial, and lethal aid to the FARC, although this may be a result of individual corruption rather than official policy; available information is not conclusive” (emphasis added). In other words, the “evidence” is as “conclusive” as the US spy agencies’ reports prior to March 2003 that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of WMD and was “covertly supporting” Al Qaeda!

US officials claim that Chavez assists the FARC’s alleged drugs trafficking, but the Chavez government has run a major operation against the drug trade at all levels. Figures of the total amount of cocaine produced and the total seized reveals Venezuela seizes a greater proportion of the cocaine that passes through its territory than most other countries, including the US itself. According to the US National Drug Threat Assessment 2009, up to 11% of cocaine originating in Colombia is trafficked through Venezuela. The UN International Narcotics Control Board Report 2009, released on February 24, estimated that 430 tonnes of cocaine had been produced in Colombia in 2009; 11% of that is equal to 48 tonnes. In 2009 Venezuela seized 27.7 tonnes of cocaine —57.7% of estimated traffic. According to the US National Drug Threat Assessment 2009, of the estimate 545-707 tonnes of cocaine that departed South America toward the US in 2007, 207 tonnes was “seized or disrupted in the U.S. Transit Zone”, i.e., 29-38%.

The Chavez government has rejected cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to tackle the illegal drug trade since August 2005. Chavez explained he was cancelling cooperation because the “DEA was using the fight against drug trafficking as a mask, to support drug trafficking and to carry out intelligence in Venezuela against the government … We have detected intelligence infiltration that threatened national security and defence. Under those circumstances we decided to make a clean break with those accords.” Since 2005 the Chavez government has arrested 36 people wanted internationally for drug trafficking crimes, 34 of whom have been deported.

In 2009, according to Venezuela’s Counter Narcotics Office (ONA), 37 drug-running aircraft from Colombia were seized, 26 drug processing labs dismantled, 109 vehicles seized, and in 2008 over 220 clandestine airstrips were destroyed. Last year the Chavez government also installed 10 Chinese-built radar systems that cover all national airspace and some maritime zones, to detect illegal drug flights. In January the director of the ONA Demand Reduction program, Rafael Sanchez, reported that over 100,000 communitarian advisors had been trained to warn people about the effects of drugs, and by 2013 hoped to have trained 5 million. The National Anti-Drug Plan 2009-13 aims to open Community Drug Prevention Educator Schools in all 336 municipalities across Venezuela — centres have already been opened in 36 municipalities.

Lie #2: No crime prevention

In August last year ABC Foreign Correspondent’s Eric Campbell reported that the “only crime prevention program” in Venezuela was one run by Alberto Vollmer, owner of a rum distillery, who he held up as the cultured capitalist who knows how to deal with crime. According to the report, when gang members from an impoverished slum illegally entered Vollmer’s business he offered them three months of unpaid work as an alternative to prosecution. Campbell claimed: “The program was so successful it’s turned into Venezuela’s only crime prevention program. Hugo Chavez praised the program but he’s done nothing to emulate it. For all the recent oil wealth, Caracas is on the edge of breakdown. Poverty is still rife, the infrastructure’s crumbling and crime is out of control. Since Chavez came to power, the murder rate has doubled to more than 100 a week — higher than even Baghdad. But true believers still insist life is getting better.”

Contrary to Campbell’s claim, life has improved dramatically in Venezuela, poverty has fallen significantly and infrastructure like the health clinics and schools have expanded, but crime is a very different and difficult problem that is taking a lot of effort and time to deal with. Far from doing nothing, the Chavez government has been tackling the issue constantly since his working people’s government came into being in April 2002.

The most significant problem is the political loyalty of the police force to the old capitalist elite. The 8000-strong Caracas Metropolitan Police force had participated in the April coup, killing Chavez supporters in the street. Nine police officers found guilty of killing 19 people during the coup are in jail for up to 30 years. But despite the defeat of the coup, the police continued their attacks. In November 2002, police killed a Chavez supporter and wounding 20 others protesting against Alfredo Pena, the pro-coup mayor of Caracas. According to Reuters, four days later Chavez sent in “National Guard troops backed by personnel carriers armed with machine guns deployed to take over police headquarters and other major stations around the city”.

On August 17, Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami reported that: “Twenty percent of the crimes in Venezuela are committed by police officers”. In a September interview about crime in Venezuela with the US-based Nation magazine, Chavez said that, “historically, going back many years, the police department was penetrated by delinquents … we are trying to cleanse the police”. But, Chavez continued, “at the bottom of this is a cultural problem … out-of-control crime is part of a moral crisis … a product of the capitalist model, the culture of capitalism, hyper-individualism”.

The National Police Reform Commission (Conarepol) was founded in 2002 by the national assembly. Conarepol held local conferences across the country to discuss police reform, involving 700,000 people. This led to the Organic Law of Police Service and National Police Force in April 2008 that projected creating a communal police force and a new national police force, gradually disbanding many of the 126 national, state and local police forces. On the day the law was enacted Chavez said it aimed to replace the “capitalist” police with a national “revolutionary police of the people”, to, “finish demolishing the old, repressive police model with education, conscience, social organisation, and prevention”.

Pablo Fernandez from the Venezuelan human rights organisation Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz (Support Network for Peace and Justice), explained in an interview with James Suggett from Venezuelanalysis in April last year that, “The police are now seen to be the fundamental cause of the problem of insecurity … we have police forces that are totally permeated by criminal networks … who have never been professionally trained … are not valued socially … the very living conditions of police in Venezuela are very difficult, and this represents a vulnerability of human rights”.

In July, under the new law on policing, the Police General Council was appointed by the Chavez government to organise the creation of the new police forces, set regulations and training. In August, training of communal police began in the states of Aragua, Barinas, Zulia, and Tachira. The number of communal police will be determined by geographic location, population density, and the local crime rate. Local community councils will have the power to check police work.

Located in refurbished offices of the former Metropolitan Police, the new Bolivarian National Police (PNB) began work on December 20 with 952 officers assigned to the barrios in the Caracas area which house about 400,000 people. Of the 2218 homicides in Caracas in 2009, 1478 took place in barrios of the suburb Libertador, and 295 in the barrios of Sucre. According to Luis Fernandez, the director of the PNB, during its first two months of operation, violent crimes have dropped more than 61%, while homicides declined 68%.

The PNB officers were recruited by the General Police Council mainly from among the 5000 old Metropolitan Police officers who applied for the new jobs. After a physical, medical, psychological and aptitude test, the 952 who passed under went an eight-week course set by the council on conflict resolution, project management, community diagnosis, notions of criminology, penal justice, investigation training and human rights. Officers of the PNB are paid on average US$1300 per month, three times the average wage of the old police.

The PNB aims to have 3.6 officers per 1000 residents, meeting the UN recommendation. Of the 6600 officers to be train in 2010 for the Caracas PNB, 3600 will come from old police bodies and 3000 will come from the Experimental University for Security Studies (UNES), created in February 2009 to train “personnel who make up citizen safety agencies”. The UNES aims to train 18,000 police officers by 2012.

A second front against violent crime called the Bicentenary Operation for Citizen Security (Debise) was launched on March 1 and will last until December 31. It combines the Bolivarian National Guard, CICPC and 24,000 police officers in 10 states which account for 78.76% of homicides and 75% of crimes — Caracas city, Miranda, Aragua, Carabobo, Lara, Zulia, Tachira, Barinas, Bolivar and Anzoategui. The Dibise operation aims to carry out disarmament, stop micro-trafficking of drugs and arms, control alcohol distribution, attend to school violence, carry out criminal investigation, and conduct surveillance, patrolling, and highway control.