Photo: Iván Ernesto Reyes

Not Enough Guns for a Quarantined Country

When the first two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the country, police and military forces started special deployment protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. Over time, this has relaxed, although it’s a whole different story at the border.

Venezuela started its second month of quarantine and Caracas sees more people on the streets every day. Police officers, who were zealous in their duty when the crisis began, have relaxed the enforcement of hygiene measures and confinement. Until April 24th, 318 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed by the Venezuelan regime, most of them in Caracas and the nearby states of Vargas and Miranda.

Nicolás Maduro issued a collective quarantine order on March 13th when they confirmed the first few cases,  and three weeks later, on April 11th, he decreed the extension of the quarantine until May 13th, asking his cabinet and police and military personnel for support.

The reality of public services like water and cooking gas, and the lack of income to survive a lockdown according to recommendations by the WHO, have caused that Venezuelans, especially in low-income areas, fear the new coronavirus less and less each day, venturing out and finding ways to make money, to buy cooking gas cylinders or to fill water bottles wherever they can. In areas of Caracas like Catia and Petare, people never stayed home.

Venezuelans fear hunger more than the pest. 

When the first two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the country, Special Actions Forces (FAES), National Police, and National Guard officers, along with local police, started forcing citizens to stay inside. These actions got less severe over time, particularly after the first month. A FAES officer told Caracas Chronicles that it’s tough for their institution to order citizens to abide by the new rules, because “people answer to their own conscience.” 

And it seems like every institution thinks so, too. In Caracas, one of the few special operations was carried out to raid a party in Los Palos Grandes, a middle-class zone of the Chacao municipality. Two partygoers were COVID-19 positive and they were detained for breaking the quarantine; the apartment’s owner, Jorge Eduardo Echenagucia Vallenilla, was also charged with illegal drug possession, illegally carrying a weapon and resisting authority. The raid was carried out by National Police and Chacao police officers. 

Police officers, who were zealous in their duty when the crisis began, have relaxed their insistence on hygiene measures and the importance of staying home.

Lately, police and military operations have slowed down and the National Guard was deployed mainly to protect gas stations, since fuel scarcity finally caught up with Caracas. Instead of controlling the masses at Ruíz Pineda, San Martín, Catia, Quinta Crespo, and Petare, officers are stationed at the long queues for gas, and according to several drivers, they charge $10 if you want to skip the line. In general, the quarantine has become a business for security forces, who also extort anyone on the street for “breaking confinement.” 

Soldiers at the Border 

Even though the presence of police and military officers has decreased in the cities of Venezuela, it hasn’t decreased at the border. 

The military has been deployed to control the entry of migrants, who have decided in the last few days to return because they can’t survive the quarantine abroad with their savings. Until Sunday, according to regime figures 5,791 Venezuelans have crossed the Simón Bolívar International Bridge in Táchira.

Officers have taken migrants to shelters set up in border towns like Rubio, Michelena, San Antonio del Táchira, and state capital San Cristóbal, in the Venezuelan Andes. Maduro’s Táchira liaison, Freddy Bernal, said that officers detained 15 people in shelters for criminal acts on April 13th because, according to the chavista leader, “these places have rules and the Army will make sure they’re followed.”

In Santa Elena de Uairén, Bolívar state (southern Venezuela), they also run a relocation operation for migrants arriving from Brazil and other places. On April 14th, Admiral William Serantes, commander of REDI Guayana (a special defense command in Bolívar), alongside governor Justo Noguera said that they established a place to receive Venezuelans, where they’re tested for COVID-19 and then isolated in shelters for 15 days. 

This goes for air arrivals, too. On Saturday, April 11th, 133 Venezuelans (131 adults and two children) who returned from Mexico in a humanitarian flight operated by state airline Conviasa, were forced to stay at an old (and abandoned) touristic complex, Ciudad Vacacional Los Caracas in Vargas state, and they were isolated for 14 days. 

Vargas governor Jorge Luis García Carneiro said that these people would remain at the complex, where they had already kept 61 people, after they landed on April 9th in a flight from Havana, Cuba. Carneiro said they have 400 beds available. As expected, as revealed by people quarantined at Los Caracas, they were confined in deplorable hygiene and health conditions.   

With law enforcement working at its bare minimum in Central cities, where population density is higher, and applying stringent control at the border, it appears that the regime has doubled down on what they have been repeating in the media incessantly: that the virus comes from abroad. Prioritizing migration over social distancing may be a dangerous game for a country with a broken-down health system. Just look at the activity in the cities, or even at the lines in the gas stations, packed with hundreds of bikers, shoulder to shoulder, exposed to contagion, with the National Guard just herding them and with no way of asking them to take distance from each other. It’s chilling.

The truth behind this is simple: the regime’s security forces have been overwhelmed by the quarantine.

Daisy Galaviz

Journalist for El Pitazo and Monitor de Víctimas (Runrunes). Writes for Cosecha Roja, El Espectador, Revista Semana and Historias que laten.