By Liz Gazcón.
During the administration of Carmen Melendez in the Office of Lara Government, there was an increase in police repression and lethality. The recently appointed Minister of Interior and Justice of the Nicolas Maduro regime has been in the local government since 2017.
In El Pitazo, we summarize in five keys her performance as governor in matters of law enforcement and human rights.
Police killing almost doubled
During the first year of Melendez as governor in Lara, killings due to the resistance to authority reached 82.2% in the state. Figures according to the ministry that now she leads.
Melendez has strong ties with the Venezuelan military: she was formerly an admiral with the Venezuelan Navy, his brother is still a high-ranking National Guard officer, and he commands a unit in Lara state.
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Venezuela has no death penalty: it was the first country in the world to eliminate the punishment in the mid-19th Century, although Maduro has threatened with reinstating it. Resisting authority is legally punished with a short jail sentence.
In October 2017 -when Melendez swore as governor, less than 10% of all violent deaths in the state of Lara were due to resistance to authority. But, in October 2018, the indicator shot up to 58.3%, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV).
Between January and December 2018, the organization counted 190 extrajudicial executions in the state, the majority at the hands of the Special Action Forces (Faes). Faes was created by Maduro personally in mid-2017, and they only began operating in Lara in mid-2018. In 12 months of operations, the elite group of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) killed 238 persons in eight of the nine municipalities of La Paz, according to a report of the Venezuelan Program of Education-Human Rights Action (Provea), which qualifies this division as a death squad.
The corps has been accused by the United Nations, which recommended its disbanded by crimes against humanity, and critics in Caracas have likened Faes to Nazi Einsatzgruppen or Central American Death Squads. Faes insignia features a death head, a Totenkopf similar to that featured in Hollywood movies The Punisher and American Sniper.
At least five of the victims got killed during anti-Maduro demonstrations in the municipalities of Moran and Torres after Juan Guaido assumed as interim president in January 2019. The documentation of these cases was key for Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to recommend the dissolution of the Faes.
Police officers among the main perpetrators
In its Annual Report on Violence in 2019, the OVV noted that Lara is the fourth most deadly region in the country in terms of police action. In this period, the rate of violent deaths was 34 per 100,000 inhabitants: 16 due to resistance to authority, 11 homicides, and seven deaths in the investigation. According to figures from the newspaper La Prensa de Lara, in 2019, there were 412 violent deaths. From that number, 251 of them were in the hands of security officials.
“Since 2018, this is a constant reality. There is a reduction in homicides and an increase in deaths due to resistance to authority,” said sociologist Carlos Melendez, coordinator of the Lara chapter of OVV, which registered 202 violent deaths during the first half of 2020 in the state.
“Of the registered murders, 40% is related to alleged resistance to authority, which is equivalent to 4 out of every ten murders are carried out by the police,” added the sociologist in the presentation of a balance on political violence, repression, and excessive use of force in Lara.
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Persecution, arrests, and intimidation
During the period of Carmen Melendez as governor, the Human Rights Network of Lara State denounced the persecution of at least three of its activists, teachers, doctors, nurses, and chronic patients; besides the progressive increase of harassment and repression against citizens who participate in protests to demand public services.
The organization recorded 27 arbitrary arrests in May, the third month of confinement for the coronavirus pandemic, due to prolonged power cuts, domestic gas shortages, and lack of piped water.
Likewise, documented cases of violation of the Constitutional rights to the public demonstration, to physical integrity, and life in the demonstration and protest marches attacked by security officials, leaders of the PSUV ruling party, and alleged Colectivos.
One of them occurred in March 2019, during the visit of the delegation from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations (OHCHR), and in February 2020, during the march of Juan Guaido in western Barquisimeto, which was besieged by supporters of the ruling party and public officials.
“The massive deployment of military and police forces that, with a whole arsenal of weapons, armored vehicles and dozens of troops, have carried out systematic actions of harassment, persecution, and detention, fundamentally of young people in the popular (poor) areas,” NGOs warned in a report published in May.
Admiral Melendez went so far as to order the deployment of 10,000 security officials – according to her statements – in response to calls for protests from the opposition. She argued that “they must preserve peace in the state.”
The sociologist Nelson Freitez, the coordinator of the free chair of human rights at the Lisandro Alvarado Central University (UCLA), considers that the political power in Lara maintains a customary practice of great privations, mistreatment of the population, and disproportionate use of force.
The Lara State Parliamentary Block consisting of National Assembly opposition lawmakers denounced Carmen Melendez, in mid-2019, for obstruction of justice and state terrorism after the release of six of the seven armed collectives that attacked civilians and Lara police officers at a rally in Barquisimeto on May 1.
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According to Guillermo Palacios, lawyer and deputy of the National Assembly, the governor covered up for those militants of the government accused of shooting an officer of the Motorized Brigade. At the hearing, they got acquitted of the charges, including the illegal carrying of weapons.
Six months after her election as governor, Melendez approved a bill that required Lara Police officers to obtain a Fatherland ID, a card to receive the food allowance. The ID, powered with technology furnished by polemical Chinese firm ZTE, is a means of social control, as the opposition has long argued: it comes equipped with GPS and say which candidate a person voted for in elections, critics argue.
Currently, active personnel earn less than $5 per month, but the commands sell them bags of food with nine items for $10 or $12, according to staff reports. There is also discontent within the agency about the lack of uniforms and other supplies, despite Melendez’s promises during his election campaign.
Since 2019, retired and dismissed personnel of that body has been carrying out protest actions due to delays in salary payments and the suspension of salaries.
Hours after the Melendez designation as Interior and Justice Ministry, that ministry announced that it was awarding the Lara state Police the first place in the tenth edition of the Good Police Practices Competition for the procedures carried out during the quarantine.