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Threats to Internal Security

In the early 1990s, Venezuela demonstrated comparative domestic tranquility by Latin American standards. It did not exhibit the severe disturbances of leftist guerrilla insurgency and widespread drug trafficking so evident in neighboring Colombia. Generally speaking, threats to internal security could be cited as follows: the activities of radical leftist student groups and political parties, the expansion of drug trafficking and domestic drug abuse, and popular discontent resulting from economic constriction restructuring.

Venezuela has had a number of small radical leftist student groups and political parties (see Political Parties , ch. 4). Although the parties achieved little support among the electorate, student groups attracted a more activist membership that sometimes exercised disproportionate influence among the university population. Student demonstrations always had the potential to erupt into violence, whether their inspiration was domestic-- student privileges or other parochial concerns--or foreign, as in protests against United States foreign policy. Although university students eventually became the political and technocratic leaders of the country, the general public has shown no inclination since the reestablishment of civilian democratic rule in 1958 to look to student leadership as a political vanguard. In more general terms, the Venezuelan consensus in favor of social programs has long had the effect of diluting the appeal of violent leftist ideology. By the early 1990s, the collapse of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe had also had an effect in this regard.

The expansion of illicit drug production and transportation appeared to have the potential to disrupt Venezuelan internal security significantly in the 1990s. As the decade began, most illegal drug activity in Venezuela resulted from a spillover effect from Colombia, the world's leading distributor of cocaine. Venezuela's long Caribbean coastline and large expanses of sparsely populated territory made it attractive as a transshipment point for cocaine products in transit from Colombia to the United States. The gravity of the security situation along the western border was brought home to the Venezuelan public during the presidential election campaign of late 1988, when the media publicized an incident that took place on October 29 near the town of El Amparo along a tributary of the Rio Arauca. What was originally reported as an ambush of Colombian guerrillas by Venezuelan troops eventually turned out to have been the inadvertent murder of sixteen Venezuelan fishermen. The revelation that security forces had mistakenly fired on peaceful residents, then apparently attempted to cover up their error, caused a political furor. It also highlighted the increasing confusion along the frontier that resulted from the activities of drug traffickers and Colombian guerrillas. The overreaction of the Venezuelan forces also suggested that they were not properly prepared to deal with the situation.

Although Venezuela's role in the international drug trade was limited in 1990 to the transshipment of drugs and precursor chemicals, there were signs that this role was expanding. In November 1989, authorities made the largest cocaine seizure in the country's history, taking 2,220 kilograms in transit through Valencia. It has been estimated that 130 tons of cocaine and basuco (semirefined paste) entered the country during 1990. There was no evidence that Venezuela was a major drugproducing country in 1990, but some marijuana was grown along the Sierra de Perija, in the northwestern part of Venezuela along the border with Colombia. The National Guard has carried out eradication programs in the area, with financial and material assistance from the United States.

The Perez administration appeared to take seriously the threat of increased drug activity. In July 1990, the president raised the National Drug Commission to the status of a cabinet ministry. In November of the same year, the governments of Venezuela and the United States signed a bilateral agreement to restrict money laundering by Venezuelan banks. Some elements of the FAN assisted law enforcement agencies in counternarcotics efforts; the navy, in particular, stepped up its interdiction activity in conjunction with the coast guard. As in other countries, however, the effort has been hampered by judicial, and possibly political, corruption. In September 1987, a penal judge of the Supreme Court was arrested and dismissed after he ordered the release of seven drug traffickers in return for a bribe of 10 million bolivars (for value of the bolivar--see Glossary). At the time, the justice minister publicly claimed knowledge of 400 other similar cases of corruption.

The riots in Venezuelan cities following President Perez's second inaugural in February 1989 shocked many Venezuelans and made headlines across the world. Many observers described these disturbances as a precursor of further violence in heavily indebted Third World nations. The riots began in response to government austerity measures that included a jump of almost 100 percent in domestic gasoline prices and a 30 percent increase in public transportation fares. In less than a week of rioting and looting, some 300 Venezuelans died and some 1,800 were wounded. The army reinforced police forces in the capital and elsewhere in order to restore order. The riots, which were marked by widespread looting, apparently expressed the frustration of the Venezuelan urban poor with its lack of economic progress. The disturbances had been preceded by a week of student demonstrations, some of which had resulted in violence.

Disturbances of a similar character but more limited scope erupted in February and July 1990. The February riots followed student protests in Caracas, scheduled to mark the one-year anniversary of the 1989 riots. Police contained the looting and sporadic violence. President Perez called in National Guard and air force units to reinforce the police in the eastern port cities of Barcelona and Puerto La Cruz, where rioting was more intense. Scattered violence in July followed another increase in bus fares. The most serious disturbances took place in Maracaibo and Maracay. In both instances, university students were reported to have been the primary instigators of the violence.

As of 1990, Venezuela had only one insurgent/terrorist group, the Red Flag (Bandera Roja--BR), and it was largely inactive. The BR, a splinter group of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria--MIR), continued the armed struggle against the democratic system after the MIR put down its arms in 1969. In the early 1980s, the BR staged a number of terrorist actions--kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings. Counterstrikes by the police and army eventually eliminated BR's urban capabilities and drove the remnants of the group into the Colombian frontier region, where some members reportedly still operated, perhaps in association with Colombian guerrilla groups.

Data as of December 1990

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