During a lecture I gave yesterday on Mexican DTOs and criminal insurgencies, one of the students brought up President Chavez and the civilian militias in Venezuela.
He wondered out loud about how civilians with little training and a handgun could - over time - contribute to insecurity in the South American country. And that got me thinking...
A friend who travels to Caracas regularly has told me that even in the light of day you can't walk through the middle of town in a suit without feeling like you might be mugged at any moment. I felt the same way the last time I was there.
And as SouthernPulse has reported, there were over 14,000 murders in Venezuela during 2008 - compared to a little under 14,500 murders in Mexico between December 2006 and December 2008.
After a quick look, I found an interesting piece on Venezuela's civilian militias, recently published by Colombia's Semana Magazine.
The "Milicia Bolivariana" is a fifth fighting force made up of civilians. A presidential decree formally inaugurated this militia in October of this year, and plans to have at the least a million individuals prepared to repel any invasion of Venezuela.
Chavez tried to slip the creation of this militia in the 2007 referendum, but it was not approved. Only when the National Assembly approved the "lye organica" for Venezuela's military was his militias finally added as part of Venezuela's fighting forces.
The militias will have two components. One referred to as territorial, and the other combat. The territorial component will be made up of what amounts to domestic spies, something similar to the revolutionary defense committees in Cuba, which have had everyone in Cuba speaking in a whisper for decades.
The combat component seems to be little more than a formal expansion of the so-called "circles bolivarianos", which are made up of uber-Chavez supporters (see photo), armed to defend his policies across the country capital city, especially in the slums of Caracas, and some would argue in countries across South America such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru.
These men essentially formed street gangs that have over time become quietly marginalized by the Chavez government, some argue, because Chavez realizes that they were a mistake, one that today cannot be controlled. And here I must recall the high murder rate in Caracas, as I would suspect that homicides have a lot to do with what left of the circles bolivarianos."
Venezuelan security analysts agree that there are between nine and 15 million illegal weapons in circulation in Venezuela today. That is, there is little control over stockpiles or any efforts to remove these arms from circulation.
Add to that reality one where normal civilians are armed, waiting to be called to war by their president, and we have an extremely volatile situation, especially around election time.
As we watch Chavez's popularity slip, I'm becoming more convinced that when he goes, not if, he'll go out with a bang, or perhaps a few million "bangs."
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