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Military Mentality Develops in Venezuela -- Neighborhood self-defense organizations
New York Times ^ | February 2, 2003 | By GINGER THOMPSON

Posted on 02/02/2003 2:27:03 PM PST by DeaconBenjamin

CARACAS, Venezuela — Like a true spy, Franklin Chaparro was careful not to give away too many details about his assignment.

Mr. Chaparro, who once was the government's chief explosives specialist and director of Venezuela's state intelligence agency, has begun using his expertise as the architect of his neighborhood watch association.

Think Orwell, not Rockwell.

Mr. Chaparro lives in Cumbres de Curumo, a neighborhood of high-rise condominiums on the south side of Caracas, the capital. At a recent meeting with other neighborhood leaders, Mr. Chaparro agreed only to explain the association in broad details. Tactical units had been organized to take charge of food supplies, medical care, communications and combat. At least one private elementary school had been equipped with radios for constant contact with the police. Teachers had been trained to help children in hostage situations.

The association, residents said, had registered every member of more than 1,200 families, taking note of children and elderly residents with special health needs. They posted lists in every building with the names and phone numbers of doctors whose homes would be used for emergencies. They had also inventoried every household for weapons.

"People are arming themselves, legally and only for their own self defense," Mr. Chaparro said. "There are open threats by this government that have made people feel like they need to be prepared to protect themselves."

Consider it Venezuela's version of homeland security; a vivid example of the social distress caused by months of political tensions that have divided this country into rival camps. Middle-class neighborhoods across the city, where opposition to President Hugo Chávez runs deepest, have drawn up neighborhood watch plans that seem more suited to stopping an invasion than crime.

Leaders of several groups said they were not aiming to develop first-strike capabilities against the Chávez government, and they said they did not encourage everyone to go out and buy guns. But with this country teetering on the brink of anarchy, middle-class and affluent families said they felt increasingly afraid that the left-leaning Mr. Chávez was preparing to install a communist system that would force them from their homes and businesses. They accuse the government of arming pro-government groups, called the Bolivarian Circles after South America's liberator, Simón Bolívar. The residents said they had every right to defend themselves.

Not everyone has embraced the militarized neighborhood watch plans. Law enforcement analysts and local elected officials said that if the potential for danger were not so deadly serious, the plans would be downright silly.

Ana Maria Sanjuán, an expert from the Central University of Venezuela on human rights and crime, called the plans "extremely dangerous" because they were driven more by rumors — published by newspapers and circulated on the Internet — than reality.

One e-mail message, circulating recently among Cumbres de Curumo residents, warned that Mr. Chávez was preparing "to order the inhabitants of the poorest neighborhoods to come down by surprise and ransack and occupy the houses of the middle class, silencing the media."

The e-mail message added: "The National Guard already has orders not to intervene. Their call is only to go out to recover bodies. That is the reason that months ago, the national government bought 30,000 body bags." A story published by the daily newspaper Tal Cual rebutted the e-mail message, reporting that every Caracas hospital had denied receiving body bags.

While this capital of four million people has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the region, violent crime is rare in affluent sections of the city. The poor are typically the perpetrators and victims, Ms. Sanjuán said.

"Someone is going to end up dying because of this," she said. When asked about the residents' fear of government-sponsored terror, she said: "This is not real. They invented this."

The fear, however, seems real. Gun sales have soared, Ms. Sanjuán said, estimating that there were more than 600,000 registered and unregistered weapons on the streets. The number of private security guards doubled in the last few years, newspapers report, to 200,000. And neighbors who once barely spoke to one another have formed community war councils.

Rafael Arraíz, a poet, spoke of a "middle class turned hysterical" by the rhetoric of Mr. Chávez, a former army officer, and the daily predictions of apocalypse by opposition leaders. "They entrench themselves in their neighborhoods," he said, "waiting for an invasion by hordes of revolutionaries."

Several neighborhoods have blocked access to streets with metal fences or barbed wire, or both. Others have bought tires and bags of cement to erect barricades.

Signs posted in condominiums and community clubhouses advise residents how to barricade homes with mattresses and furniture; how to make bombs with bottles, nails and gasoline to repel mobs of looters; how to use swimming goggles in case of a tear gas attack. Some churches have been equipped to serve as emergency medical centers.

In the La Tahona neighborhood, Alfredo Rosas, a chemist, said residents of his eight-story condominium planned to throw Molotov cocktails from the roof if attacked.

"Maybe we'd kill a cat," he said, half joking. "But more than likely we would set our building on fire."

In Cumbres de Curumo, residents seem to take their security a little more seriously. Leaders of the neighborhood watch association boasted that parts of their "contingency plan," were taken from a United States counterterrorism manual.

"Let's just say that if Chávez sends his circles," said Luis Velásquez, a resident, "we do not plan to use Gandhi techniques."

Mayor Leopoldo López, who governs one of the five municipalities in this metropolitan area, has appeared at neighborhood meetings to persuade people to leave security matters to the police.

"I first began to worry about this when I went to a meeting where 80-year-old retirees were telling me they had just bought their first shotguns to protect themselves, and housewives were talking about making Molotov cocktails," Mayor López said. "That's when it hit me: fear is turning into paranoia."

TOPICS: Foreign Affairs; Government
KEYWORDS: latinamericalist
Life in a country without the rule of law. I am told that similar organizations developed during Noriega's rule in Panama.
1 posted on 02/02/2003 2:27:03 PM PST by DeaconBenjamin
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To: Cincinatus' Wife
One of the best articles I've seen on Venezuela
2 posted on 02/02/2003 2:29:40 PM PST by DeaconBenjamin
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To: DeaconBenjamin
This eventually is going to end in a really big blood bath if someone either internally or externally takes out the chain of command and shows them the right way to run a government.
3 posted on 02/02/2003 2:29:53 PM PST by anobjectivist
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To: *Latin_America_List
4 posted on 02/02/2003 3:10:59 PM PST by Libertarianize the GOP (Ideas have consequences)
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To: harpseal; archy; StriperSniper; hchutch; ppaul; Mudboy Slim; goldilucky; Luis Gonzalez; mafree; ...
5 posted on 02/02/2003 3:35:04 PM PST by Tailgunner Joe
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To: Tailgunner Joe; Sawdring
6 posted on 02/02/2003 4:41:30 PM PST by Askel5
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To: Tailgunner Joe
"People are arming themselves, legally and only for their own self defense," Mr. Chaparro said. "There are open threats by this government that have made people feel like they need to be prepared to protect themselves."

They'd be stupid not to arm themselves!

7 posted on 02/02/2003 5:14:03 PM PST by goldilucky
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To: DeaconBenjamin; Libertarianize the GOP
They have a right to a siege mentality. Chavez ordered the national guard to confiscate much of the local police department's arsenal. Chavez rails against his opposition to incite the Circles to violence.

Hugo Chavez - Venezuela

8 posted on 02/03/2003 12:25:11 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
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