Human Rights Training and the Bolivarian National Police: ¿Pólvora en Zamuro?

My mom's spent 20 years trying to teach Venezuelan cops to respect the law and human rights. After a recent close encounter with the PNB, I ask myself: did she waste her time?

Francisco was the only mototaxista willing to give me a ride for Bs.2,000, from Chacao to Av. Victoria, a moderate distance. Most of his colleagues at the stop wouldn’t take less than Bs. 5,000 or even Bs. 6,000.

“I’ll take you because I’m tired and I want to go home.” It was 6:30 p.m.

Less than 200 meters from our destination, we were stopped by a National Bolivarian Police (PNB) checkpoint. An officer no older than 25, shotgun in hand, asks us to raise our arms to check our waists, standard procedure to see if we were armed.

He later demands our cédulas and the motorcycle’s papers, his face sour. “What do you do?” he spouts at me. I tell him that I’m a journalist. The guy ignores me and quickly turns his attention to Francisco and questions him for over half an hour about how the motorcycle: how did he pay for it? where does he live? what mototaxi line does he work for? why does he have a carnet from one of the colectivos in El Cementerio. “Defending the revolution, you know,” is Francisco’s answer.

I try to conceal my interest as he tells me, once the police leaves to check our identities: “If you were in a rush, te jodiste. Now we’ll be here for an hour.”

He called it.

Since the Metropolitan Police (PM) was disbanded in 2009, and the PNB was created, Venezuelan police bodies have been “restructured” at least half a dozen times.

A few days ago, president Maduro launched the Socialist Justice Program. A new government plan focused on improving State security. Among other things, it draws the guidelines for restructuring police bodies and establishing the steps to train the boys who wish to serve in the force.

Since the Metropolitan Police (PM) was disbanded in 2009, and the PNB was created, Venezuelan police bodies have been “restructured” at least half a dozen times. One of these adventures gave birth to the National Experimental University of Security (UNES), which late president Chávez called “humanist education.”

Built on the spot where Caracas’ infamous Retén de Catia once stood, this university must train every new aspiring police officer in the country’s central region, while its headquarters in other cities do the same with regional candidates. It’s there, with subjects like “Hugo Chávez Frías” and “Humanist Logic,” that applicants are taught to operate within the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Like so many things in this country, this sounds great on paper but applying it is a different kind of animal. Ever since the UNES was just a bunch of tents in La Carlota Military Airport back in 2010, my mom has spent her time teaching policemen, or trying to. She’s a lawyer with 20 years of experience in the promotion of constitutional rights. And for this, she’s been called a “chavista”, a “traitor” and one that we’ve always found particularly hilarious: “spy of the empire.” That’s because police officers in our country don’t get an education, they’re sent to the streets with their guns, their badges and full political indoctrination that they later apply in shady operations in slums and road checkpoints, such as the one where Francisco and I were stopped.

“Command! Command! I have two cédulas here. The first one is: first, seventh, fourth, third…,” and so goes one of the officers, speaking to a hand radio. We’ve been detained for 45 minutes in the middle of the street, and the command center hasn’t cleared us yet. The main problem is that the radio’s running out of batteries, and none of them has a replacement. Of course, irony abounds, so the radio might be dying, but the high-end cell phone hanging – delicately – beside his gun is fully charged and buzzes constantly with incoming WhatsApp messages.

“Baby, I already told you that I’ll see you early tomorrow. Be patient,” he whispers into his phone while he waits for some of the other two guys to get new batteries for the radio.

My mom worked for the PM for over 15 years before she started working in UNES.

And the irony doesn’t stop there. The area supervisor, an officer at least 50 years old, pops around right about then. Judging by the way he looks and behaves in uniform, I think he must be one of the cops who “migrated” from the Metropolitan Police to the PNB. When the UNES was born, every officer who trained in regional police academies had two options: validating their studies at the new university or retire. Many picked the former.

Police procedures and history have been a common subject at home for 25 years. My mom worked for the PM for over 15 years before she started working in UNES. My brother’s dad is a retired PM commissioner and I got my first childhood scar -on the knee- while playing inside one of the armored vehicles of the PM’s Public Order division.

This family knows that most cops in Venezuela usually —always— have two “options” (sadly): o corren, o se encaraman. What does this mean? Well, the few who choose to keep themselves honest and keep their mouths shut get second-hand offers to take care of bakeries, butcher’s shops and other similar businesses at closing time. And with one of the lowest wages in Latin America, they see that as an opportunity to make some extra money without having to commit any crimes. The others form gangs, they engage in extortion – what we Venezuelans call matraqueo – and rackets in tandem with criminals to protect certain people from being mugged or kidnapped.

The UNES has modest facilities. Several halls are decorated with pictures of the comandante eterno and its modules are named after “patriotic” figures such as Che Guevara. Those aspiring to become cops must complete a first, one-year course where they learn the basics: weapon handling, personal defense techniques, law, communication and how to write police reports. Nobody teaches them to stand in a corner to talk on the phone, or fight with their colleagues over a depleted battery. Who’s responsible for this? I’ll leave that to you. In the meantime, Maduro demanded ten thousand new police officers for July this year. All of them trained this way.

The supervisor doesn’t bring the new battery, but he does bring a shower of insults for his subordinates. “What the hell is that one doing in the car?” he asks, referring to a third officer we can’t see. The guy with the shotgun replies “He’s there because they didn’t give him a gun. We don’t want him to die just because he’s unprotected.”

 I breathe a sigh of relief for not losing my cédula and I think that whatever these guys learned at the UNES went in one ear and out the other. 

The unarmed cop is forced out of the car and ordered to at least help his colleagues keep an eye on the area.

“Don’t think that you’re going to get paid without risks,” the supervisor tells him before getting into his own car and leaving. Fifteen minutes later, the man who stopped us gives us back our IDs and tells us to leave. I breathe a sigh of relief for not losing my cédula and I think that whatever these guys learned at the UNES went in one ear and out the other.

Off the record, we know that the National Bolivarian Police has 75% officer shortfall, although they say it’s actually 25%. After the first year of service, the boys who make it through UNES training, also have two options: stay or leave. Most choose the latter, either because of the danger of being a cop in this country, or because they realize they make much more money by turning to bachaqueo.

In any case, the education of the man in uniform – and may my mom forgive me – has a long way to go in this, Bolívar’s land.

Jefferson Diaz

Born and raised in the most dangerous city in the world. Journalist and full time observer.