Photo: Reuters, retrieved.
Strengthening the Armed Forces was one of the three strategic lines on national defense drawn up by Hugo Chávez. Nicolás Maduro has tried to follow this line in his own way and without the same resources. The Defense Minister claims that the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana (Army, Air Force, Navy, National Guard, and Militia) is made up of between 95,000 and 150,000 active members, in addition to 235,000 front liners and “hundreds of thousands” in the reserves. The last report by Global Firepower, which measures the size of armed forces, estimates 123,000 active members and 8,000 reservists, with 390 tanks, 600 armored vehicles, two submarines, and 36 missile launchers. Global Firepower placed Venezuela as the 41st out of 138 countries with the largest firepower.
Rocío San Miguel, director of NGO Control Ciudadano, says that having Maduro still in power doesn’t depend on whether Venezuela’s firepower is superior or inferior to that of other countries: “In the higher ranks, what draws them in are the financial incentives. The mid and lower ranks are watchmen.”
The National Guard, Guardia Nacional Bolivariana (GNB), with around 23,000 active members, receives anti-riot equipment because they are detailed to control protests and they are usually on direct contact with the citizenship.
Having Maduro still in power doesn’t depend on whether Venezuela’s firepower is superior or inferior to that of other countries.
The Military Counterintelligence Directorate, Dirección de Contrainteligencia Militar (DGCIM), is branded today as the torture center where rebellious soldiers are taken, even though it was created after a scandalous violation of human rights: On the night of November 27th, 2005, six young men were attacked were brutally attacked by agents of the Military Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia Militar or DIM) in Kennedy, a neighborhood in the western side of Caracas. One of them was killed. After an investigation on more than 27 DIM agents for abuse of power, Hugo Chávez disbanded this law enforcement group that worked under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense, and changed the name to DGCIM.
The Special Actions Forces, Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (FAES), are considered the extermination group of the National Police. This tactical group that operates since 2017 all over the country has approximately 2,000 men and women, according to an inside source. Human rights defenders and even Michelle Bachelet, the Commissioner for Human Rights for the United Nations, accuse them of carrying out extrajudicial executions.
Although their actions began months earlier, the FAES were officially introduced during a presidential address on July 14th, 2017. Their mission, according to Nicolás Maduro, is to fight crime and take action “against terrorism.” That day they showed 35 vehicles, 180 motorbikes, and anti-riot units (Vene-4, Jacks, “whales” and fences) that had been assigned for their operations.
In their police reports there’s a script: the men in uniform shoot when they need to or to repel an illegal action. They also follow a profile of people to kill.
The FAES uses terms like “neutralize” or “discharge” when they refer to those killed in their raids. In their police reports, there’s usually a script: officers shoot when they need to or to repel an illegal action. Also, their victims are profiled as young men between the ages of 16 and 25, at point-blank range, 90% of them shot in the chest area, sides, or back. After committing these killings, sometimes in front of the victim’s family, they fire into the air to simulate a shootout. The entire area is then sealed so that family members and other neighbors can’t get through. The records from Monitor de Víctimas indicate that most of these victims have been arrested for theft, kidnapping or some other crime for which they already went to jail.
When extrajudicial executions are reported, however, family members usually point out that the victims didn’t have such records. Criminologist and lawyer Luis Izquiel says that the FAES is “an extermination group, mainly of common criminals (although many innocents have fallen too), but it represses political dissidence in the same measure, as it was portrayed in the Bachelet report.”
Venezuela’s intelligence service is accused by human rights organizations as being the “political persecution instrument” used by Nicolás Maduro’s administration to imprison his adversaries and diminish them politically, as it has with leaders like Leopoldo López, Edgar Zambrano, and Juan Requesens.
SEBIN was created on June 1st, 2010, by Hugo Chávez to replace the Dirección de Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención (DISIP) and its number of agents is confidential; NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad estimates that, between active police and administrative personnel, this force has 2,000 people.
Armed Irregulars or ‘Colectivos’
Colectivos have been identified by human rights advocates as parallel security structures that counterbalance the Armed Forces.
Chavismo’s armed civilians organized in gangs known as “colectivos” can be traced back to the urban guerrillas from the ’60s, some of which evolved into self-defense groups in poorer neighborhoods of the west side of Caracas, and in criminal organizations.
Colectivos have been identified by human rights advocates as parallel security structures that counterbalance the Armed Forces and have the capacity to quickly gather shock troops against opposition demonstrators. Hugo Chávez gave them space, financial support and allowed them to flourish in the poorer slums of Caracas, mostly in the 23 de Enero, near the Miraflores Palace. Soon after, groups like La Piedrita, Alexis Vive, Grupo Carapaica, and Tupamaros were relevant within the national political landscape.
The Minister for Penitentiary Affairs, Iris Varela, describes them as “the pillar of the country’s defense.” Several of their members are also SEBIN, Libertador Municipality police (PoliCaracas), DGCIM or FAES agents.
Their attacks on civilians pushed the National Assembly to pass the National Action for Disarmament Agreement on April 23rd, 2019, which compels the Armed Forces and other state institutions to promote activities for the handover of illegal firearms and ammunition.
Ever since Hugo Chávez came to power, the public political links between him and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (born as inland guerrillas in the ‘60s) became more evident—and clearly it was more than just ideological affinity. The Office of Foreign Assets Control from the Treasury Department in the United States sanctioned several high-ranking officials in Venezuela for their alleged connections to the FARC and international cocaine trafficking. With Maduro at the helm of Miraflores, and the political and economic crisis on top, Venezuela became a shelter for FARC rebels that refused to demobilize in the Colombian peace process. According to the NGO Redes, these dissidents have regrouped and grown in number, to the point where, in May 2019, the organization had identified six dissident groups in seven out of 24 Venezuelan states: Zulia, Mérida, Táchira, Apure, Guárico, Bolívar and Amazonas.
On November 8th, 2019, the Minister of Defense and Commander of the Military Forces in Colombia, Gral. Luis Fernando Navarro, informed that the ELN has moved 44% of its men to Venezuelan soil. These groups, he says, take advantage of the migration crisis to recruit Venezuelan citizens that don’t have a job or get paid very low wages. “In the border states of Venezuela and Colombia, we found over a thousand ELN men that stay over there full-time because Maduro’s regime won’t fight them.”
Colombian Military Forces estimate that the ELN has moved around 1,400 men to Táchira, Barinas and Apure, Venezuela. According to Colombian intelligence, there are training camps, ten support network points, and 36 camps, located at the border with Colombia. Nicolás Maduro’s administration allows these armed groups to control drug trafficking routes, illegal mining revenue, and extortion schemes.