Monday’s “Plantón” – a nationwide sit-in protest – saw the National Guard (GNB) innovate a new type of repression tactic. Rather than tear gassing at close range and shooting pellets at everyone in sight, reports and videos poured in of GNB soldiers straight-up stealing from opposition protesters and journalists covering the demonstrations. Like, just holding them up and grabbing their cell phones, wallets, anything they could get their hands on.
The tactic seemed too widespread to have been accidental. As intense repression was felt in El Paraíso and western Caracas, reports about pilfering guardsmen spread from Altamira, around La Carlota to the Francisco Fajardo highway. Videos followed. Slowly, it dawned on people: these were no isolated incidents. Somebody must have given an order. “Roben a esos mariquitos.”
It’s in the context over intense outrage about this new tactic – both outside and inside Fuerte Tiuna – that Vladimir Padrino López, the hardline chavista Defense Minister, made his now famous speech:
“I don’t want to see one single guardsman committing atrocities on the street. Those who don’t adhere to the State directive of the preeminence of Human Rights, of respect of Human Rights and behave in an unprofessional way, will have to be held responsible.”
Padrino’s statements are in line with the call to protect journalists issued by the National Prosecutor’s office a few weeks back, following a meeting between Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz and Tinedo Guía, chairman of the National Press Union. However, theft had never been used so aggressively against regular civilians.
Those who don’t adhere to the State directive of the preeminence of Human Rights…will have to be held responsible.
Padrino López occupies a unique position in the regime. In the Venn Diagram of military loyalties, the overlap between “generals-the-hardliners-in-PSUV-trust” and “generals-all-military-components-respect” is minimal. Arguably, it contains just one name: his. Padrino himself. He’s the ultimate hard-to-replace military commander.
Padrino is an ambiguous figure for the opposition. On the one hand, he was the leading figure in facing down the protests back in 2014, including the controversial approval for the use of live ammo by the security forces in protests that weren’t ‘peaceful.’ On the other, many believe he played a pivotal role in forcing the government to accept the results of legislative elections in December 2015.
Did that shard of dissent from the general signal something broader? Did yesterday’s speech? Will it have noticeable repercussions on the streets? Or was it a gentle ear tug at guards drawing the line at these new mugging tactics? A kind of “guys, tear gas and arbitrary arrests are ok, but you gotta draw the line at armed robbery, ok?”