In the middle of the surrounding building complex, new police recruits are playing basketball on the right hand side of a large courtyard. To their left, there is a group of children playing amongst themselves with a football. Just above them, approximately 20 teenagers are walking along the balcony of one of the two-story buildings, about to enter a classroom to receive socio-political training and the chance to take part in a scheme that will provide them with a full-time job.
It is hard to tell that this vibrant place was once a former prison, yet it is perhaps even more surprising to discover that this complex, where members of the community walk around freely and take part in the various workshops, is actually the headquarters of the government’s new National Experimental Security University (UNES); the training ground for the country’s new police recruits.
Founded in 2009, the UNES was conceived of as a totally new way of training police officers and reforming policing methods. The proposal of the UNES in itself is incredible, but also somewhat daunting. The principal ideas behind the university are to recreate the police officer’s role from a community perspective and to transform policing methods so that officers work directly with organized communities. In short, to fundamentally transform the power relationship between the police and society.
The university also focuses very strongly on the issue of crime prevention, financing investigations on issues related to delinquency, as well as on expanding police officers’ role in addressing the social causes of crime. Perhaps one of the most striking things about the university is just how many of the staff have backgrounds in leftist political organization, popular education or liberation theology as opposed to in policing or security.
It is not so surprising then that this week the UNES was the location for an event which would have been unthinkablejust 10 years ago; an international conference entitled, “The Left and Public Security Policy”. The conference was organized by the UNES as an opportunity for the international left to discuss policy relating to citizen security in the current historical conjuncture, at a time when progressive governments are in power throughout the Latin American region.
The theme of the conference was how the Latin American left should approach the topic of crime and policing in a post neo-liberal era, after an increase in violence over the past 30 years has given way to hard right rhetoric when discussing the issue of delinquency; which has traditionally been dealt with through “la mano dura” or strict measures in Latin America. The conference was also an exploration of what possible policing policies could be implemented by leftist governments and an attempt to contribute to the debate on how to create “counter-hegemonic” security initiatives.
“The fundamental objective is to debate what the meaning of a leftist policy in the field of citizen security actually is and how we can do that in practical terms”, said Antonio Gonzales Plessman, Vice-Dean of the university.
The three day conference began on Monday and was attended by activists and academics from Brazil, Argentina, Honduras, Ecuador and Spain and was opened by Venezuelan Minister of Interior and Justice, Tareck El Aissami. Making reference to one of the government’s latest security missions, “Venezuela full of life”, an integrated project aimed at solving the issue of crime through expanding the country’s new National Bolivarian Police force into 7 states and increasing crime prevention measures in conjunction with communities; El Aissami explained that the government had made the overhaul of the country’s policing system a priority in recent years.
“It has been the unshakeable will of President Hugo Chavez, and his government, to radically transform the country’s police bodies as a first step in the search for a complete security policy which is able to guarantee peace for the country and the lives of our population, but without violating human rights”, he said.
On the second day of presentations, Vice-Dean Plessman commented that for him, the most interesting issues to have emerged from the conference were; the reduction of prison sentences in favor of rehabilitative programs or community service, the possibility of offering conflict-resolution alternatives to grassroots groups and organized communities, police reform and the legalization of drugs.
“The war against drugs is an imperialist strategy which many of our governments repeat uncritically. Governments which have an anti-imperialist discourse and then end up repeating the same imperialist strategy. This is something we need to debate”, he said.
One of the presentations by Argentinian politics academic, Marcelo Sain, stated that reforming policing methods should be central to any progressive political project, yet so far Venezuela was the only Latin American country to have taken on this monumental task in an institutionalized way. Other speakers included the Spanish academic, Amadeu Recasense, on leftist security policy, and Ecuadorean investigator, Fernando Carrion, on the political nature of policing.
Speaking to Paulina Villasmil, an activist with a background in liberation theology who is currently working for UNES in Zulia, she discussed the strange convergence of leftist policy and activism, community organization and policing currently being constructed in Venezuela.
“I was speaking to one of my old friends on the Spanish left the other day and when I said that I was working with the police she cried, ‘oh, but what are you doing? The police are bad!’... Maybe I’m still in the honeymoon period, but I don’t think this is a façade. I see a genuine attempt to transform the state in conjunction with community participation”, she said.
This conference is surely not the first to have taken place on security from a leftist perspective, but Villasmil sums up why it is different; because it shows how organized communities and leftist ideas and praxis are slowly transforming the state in Venezuela.