Armed Forces Overview: At the end of 2002, the government of President Hugo Chávez reorganized the armed forces into a unified force called the National Armed Force (Fuerza Armada Nacional—FAN). The president is commander in chief of the FAN. The president’s authority is exercised through the minister of national defense, who is normally a senior military officer, although the first civilian defense minister to hold the post in recent decades served from February 2001 to April 2002. The National Defense Council advises the president on national security matters, and the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, on defense matters.
Total armed forces strength in 2004 was 83,300. The 34,000-member “Forger of Freedoms” Venezuelan Army controls the rest of the components of the FAN, including the 18,300-member Navy, the 7,000-member Venezuelan Air Force (Aviación Militar Venezolana—AMV), and 24,000-member National Guard of Venezuela (Guardia Nacional de Venezuela—GNV), whose formal name is the Armed Forces of Cooperation (Fuerzas Armadas de Cooperación—FAC). Although an active branch of the military and subordinate to the minister of defense, the National Guard has arrest powers and is largely responsible for internal security, including maritime security, maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas.
During 2003, the FAN reportedly became an increasingly politicized force under the new defense minister, a general, and has been restructured and purged of anyone suspected of political disloyalty to President Chávez. Those purged included senior National Guard officers who were at the forefront of the rebellion against President Chávez in April 2002. Although the previous constitution stated that the military was expected to be “apolitical, obedient, and non-deliberating,” the 1999 constitution states only that the military should be “without militancy.” The new constitution also gives the president the authority to make military promotions without legislative approval and allows the military the right to vote. Moreover, the military presence within the Chávez government is extensive. Numerous active-duty and retired officers have been appointed to replace civilians in high-ranking positions in central and regional government institutions and state-owned companies. In 2003 five of the 14 presidential cabinet members had previously served in the military, and in January 2005 two ministers, including the minister of defense, were active-duty generals.
Foreign Military Relations: As the Chávez government has increased its security ties with Cuba, it has reduced Venezuela’s traditionally close military and security ties with the United States. For example, in March 2004 Venezuela withdrew its military contingent from the U.S. Army's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the former School of the Americas), in Fort Benning, Georgia. In the interest of diversification, the Chávez government has sought to develop military relations with China, Cuba, Russia, and Ukraine. China’s defense minister visited Venezuela for the first time in September 2001. Venezuela signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia in 2001. The arrangement facilitates the acquisition by Venezuela of Russian military aircraft or helicopters and other weapons. Some Cuban advisers reportedly have been posted in the Ministry of Defense’s General Directorate for Military Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia Militar—DIM), andsome Cuban military advisers reportedly are engaged in training the military. In early 2005, Venezuela’s National Assembly ratified a 1999 security agreement with Cuba that is intended to facilitate cooperation between security personnel in Venezuela and Cuba.
External Threat: The greatest external security threat to Venezuela is the spillover of the conflict in Colombia. The Colombian insurgency and counterinsurgency fighting have caused refugee flows and the spread of violence by left-wing insurgent and paramilitary right-wing groups operating in border areas, as well as the spread of organized drug trafficking and extortion. Although Venezuela is a signatory to the Rio Treaty, the Chávez government views it as anachronistic and has proposed replacing it with a regional solution in the form of a South American military alliance.
The Chávez government apparently now sees the United States as its principal adversary. Now closely allied with Fidel Castro Ruz of Cuba, President Chávez reportedly has ordered Venezuela's armed forces to implement a new Cuban-style strategy in which the top priority is preparing to fight a war of resistance against an invasion by the United States. In addition, Chávez has ordered a doubling of the army's reserve, to more than 100,000 troops under his personal command. “Popular defense units” of 50 to 500 civilians are to be established in workplaces and on farms.
Defense Budget: In 2003 military expenditures were slightly more than US$1.1 billion, or 1.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), as compared with US$1.2 billion in 2002, a figure that amounted to US$50 per capita, 1.8 percent of GDP, and US$15,227 per member of the armed forces.
Major Military Units: The army is organized into five infantry divisions, one corps of engineers, and one reserve corps. The infantry divisions include 15 brigades (armored, 1; cavalry, 1; light armored, 1; infantry, 7; airborne, 1; Ranger, 2; mobile, 1; counterguerrilla, 1; and military police, 1); and 3 regiments (aviation, 1; and engineering, 2). The navy is organized into western and eastern naval zones and four commands: naval aviation, coast guard, fleet, and riverine. In addition, the 5,000-member Venezuelan Marine Corps (Infantería de Marina Venezolana—IMV), which engages in riverine operations against drug traffickers, is subordinate to the navy. The air force is organized into four operational commands: air, air defense, logistics, and personnel.
Major Military Equipment: The armed forces are well equipped by regional standards. Their inventory includes 601 armored vehicles, 74 combat aircraft, and 8 naval vessels. The army has 81 AMX-30 tanks, 191 light tanks (75 M-18, 35 AMX-13, and 80 Scorpion 90s), 30 M-8 reconnaissance vehicles, 255 armored personnel carriers (APCs), 92 towed artillery pieces, 10 self-propelled artillery pieces, 20 multiple rocket launchers, 225 mortars, 24 antitank guided weapons, 175 recoilless launchers, 192 aircraft, and 26 helicopters (7 attack, 13 transport, and 6 support). The navy has six frigates, six frigates with area surface-to-air missiles, two submarines, six support and miscellaneous craft, six patrol and coastal combatants, three missile craft, three offshore patrol craft, four amphibious craft, three combat aircraft, and nine armed helicopters. The Marine Corps has 11 landing craft, 25 APCs, 18 towed artillery pieces, and six air defense guns. The coast guard has 2 offshore patrol craft and 16 inshore patrol craft. The air force has 125 combat aircraft and 31 armed helicopters, as well as 15 reconnaissance aircraft, 3 electronic countermeasures aircraft, 23 liaison aircraft, and 57 training aircraft. The National Guard has 20 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 24 APCs, 150 mortars, 14 small aircraft, 26 helicopters, and 52 inshore patrol craft.
Venezuela traditionally purchased much of its military equipment from the United States. U.S. foreign military sales to Venezuela in 2002 totaled US$20 million. However, Venezuela increasingly is turning to other countries for military equipment. In April 2004, Venezuela’s Ministry of Defense embarked on a US$2-billion arms-acquisition program and subsequently signed an agreement, which was expanded later in the year, with Russia for various armaments for the army. In February 2005, Venezuela also was evaluating Russian MiG-29 fighters as replacements for its U.S.-made F-16s and seeking to purchase 24 Super Tucano multipurpose fighter aircraft from Brazil. In January 2005, Spain agreed to sell Venezuela up to four offshore patrol boats or light corvettes and a number of Casa military transport aircraft. In September 2004, Ukraine began providing light to medium military equipment to Venezuela, and negotiations were underway for Ukraine to supply more sensitive and strategically important military equipment.
Military Service: Military service of 24 to 30 months is in theory compulsory for all male citizens from the age of 18, but in practice the draft system is selective. Only about 20,000 conscripts are serving at any given time, out of an estimated pool of 250,730 males who reach military age annually, and an estimated total pool of 4,953,803 males who are between the ages of 15 and 49 and deemed fit for military service. On completion of their term of military training, many conscripts choose to enlist in the National Guard, which is a voluntary force.
Military Forces Abroad: Participation in international peacekeeping missions is part of the Venezuelan Army’s mission statement. In 2002 Venezuela contributed slightly less than US$1 million to United Nations peacekeeping operations, as compared with Argentina and Brazil, which each contributed about US$10 million. Venezuela is a member of the UN Military Observer Force in Pakistan and India and the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission and has contributed to the UN Peacekeeping Force in Haiti.
Security Forces: Police forces are organized at the national, state, and municipal levels. At the national level, the two main investigative forces are the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (Dirección de los Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención—Disip), an internal security force under the Ministry of Interior and Justice that is responsible for dealing with crimes against the state, such as subversion, arms smuggling, narcotics trafficking, and kidnapping; and the Judicial Technical Police (Cuerpo Técnico de Policía Judicial—PTJ), which also is under the Ministry of Interior and Justice and is responsible for investigating federal crimes not already covered by the Disip. Another agency that is responsible for collecting intelligence related to national security is the General Directorate for Military Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia Militar—DIM), which is controlled by the Ministry of Defense. The National Guard also serves as a federal police force. It has arrest powers and is largely responsible for maintaining public order. The internal security role of the armed forces was strengthened in September 2002 when President Chávez decreed 107 security zones in the national territory, including eight in Caracas. Until then, the armed forces traditionally had security zones only in the border areas. National Guard or police members man the countrywide police checkpoints, which are common on the roads outside cities.
State- and municipal-level police forces include the following: Metropolitan Police; Municipal Police; Transport Police, under the Ministry of Interior and Justice; and Traffic Police, under the Transportation Ministry. Each state has a uniformed police force, which is partly regulated by the local Police Code. However, there are proposals to merge these state forces into a single national force. Municipal mayors and state governors are responsible for local and state police forces, which maintain independence from the central government. Urban police entities are under the command of National Guard officers. The Caracas Metropolitan Police is the main civilian police force in the five municipalities or departments that form the capital district and is headed by a career police officer, rather than a military officer. Civilian authorities generally maintain control over security forces, but individual members of the security forces reportedly have committed numerous and serious human rights abuses. Vigilante groups formed by police officers have been linked to an average 10 killings a month since 2001.
The number of police in 2004 totaled 26,000 (state, municipal, and metropolitan police forces: 18,000; Disip: 3,000; PTJ: 3,000; and Traffic Police: 2,000). Venezuela has 505 police officers per 100,000 inhabitants. Although this ratio compares favorably with other countries, public confidence in the police is low, and the density of police officers varies widely. For example, the wealthy Caracas municipality of Chacao has 1,228 policemen per 100,000, whereas the city’s poor municipality of Libertador has only 63 per 100,000.
In addition to the official security forces, Chávez has distributed weapons to the estimated 10,000 members of the Bolivarian Circles, independently organized groups of Chávez supporters at the grassroots level of Venezuelan society. These groups are modeled on Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and operate in groups of between seven and 11 people.
Internal Threat: In contrast to neighboring Colombia, Venezuela does not have any insurgent or terrorist groups seeking to overthrow the government. Venezuela does, however, suffer spillover violence from Colombia. Since 2001, the number of incidents of extortion and kidnapping perpetrated by Colombian armed groups against ranchers in the border states of Venezuela has been increasing, and Colombian right-wing paramilitary forces also have been using the Venezuelan border areas for logistical support since early 2003. Venezuelan security forces have clashed repeatedly with the various armed Colombian groups operating in the border region, but the security situation has continued to deteriorate. The ranchers, who are generally strong opponents of Chávez, have complained about having to supply National Guard troops with food and fuel in order to receive protection.
Crime levels in Venezuela are more comparable to those in Colombia, with the main exception of kidnappings, which are not nearly as common in Venezuela as in Colombia. Violent crime is a major problem in the largest cities, in particular Caracas, which has one of the highest crime rates in South America. Venezuela’s homicide rate has increased sharply since the early 1990. More than 11,000 murders were reported in 2003, as compared with only 2,000 in 1991. In a terrorist-like incident unusual for Venezuela, the controversial public prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, who answered directly to President Chávez, was assassinated by a car bomb in Caracas in November 2004.
As of January 2005, two pro-Chávez leftist militant groups whose objective reportedly is to confront intervention by U.S. and other foreign forces were known to be operating in Venezuela. Chávez himself has acknowledged the existence of the 500-member Bolivarian Forces of Liberation (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación—FBL), which reportedly has been operating in the Venezuelan border area as a local kidnapping and extortion “franchise” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The other pro-Chávez militant group is the Armed People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo en Armas—EPA), which emerged in January 2005.
Narcotics Production and Trafficking: Large quantities of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana transit the country from Colombia, bound for the United States and Europe. Increasing signs of drug-related activities by Colombian insurgents on the border and significant narcotics-related, money-laundering activity, especially along the border with Colombia and on Margarita Island, have been noted. Coca and opium poppy are cultivated along the Colombian border in small amounts, although Venezuela has an active eradication program, primarily targeting opium. In 2003 cocaine seizures increased dramatically, reaching 32 tons, nearly double previous year record seizures of 17.8 tons, according to figures provided by Venezuelan authorities. In 2003, for the fourth straight year, Venezuela led the continent in heroin seizures (about half a ton), ahead of Colombia. Venezuela received about US$4 million in U.S. international narcotics control and counterdrug funding in 2004 and about US$3.6 million in 2005.
Human Rights: Of the 350 articles in the 1999 constitution, 116 are dedicated to duties, human rights, and guarantees, including a chapter on the rights of the indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, according to the U.S. Department of State, the Chávez government's human rights record remains poor, having deteriorated further in 2004. This record is characterized by extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects committed by the police and military, alleged police links to vigilante death squads responsible for hundreds of killings in at least 11 states, and increasing numbers of arbitrary arrests and detentions. The harsh prison conditions are characterized by continuing torture and abuse of detainees and inhumane and degrading treatment resulting from violence and severe overcrowding. Meanwhile, impunity remains one of the country's most serious human rights problems; the government has failed to punish police and security officers guilty of abuses. Corruption, lengthy pretrial detention, and severe inefficiency in the judicial and law enforcement systems also are problems. Investigations into the forced disappearances by the security forces of criminal suspects are extremely slow. Crimes involving human rights abuses often do not proceed to trial as a result of judicial and administrative delays.
In the human rights report released on March 28, 2005, the U.S. Department of State reported that in 2004 the Chávez government increased its control over the judicial system and its interference in the administration of justice. The National Assembly passed a law in May that enabled it to pack the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with Chávez sympathizers and to exert greater control over the justices. Judicial harassment and baseless political prosecutions against opposition and nongovernmental organization leaders continued. Moreover, the new media law passed by the legislature in December erodes freedom of speech and promotes self-censorship by media owners. The Chávez government also has conducted illegal wiretapping of private citizens and intimidated political opponents.