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Venezuela: Is Chavez Operating 'Parallel' Security Forces?

From Stratfor

Nov 04, 2004 | Summary | The government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is resorting to increased aggression in an effort to eradicate all remaining civilian and military opposition. Low-level political violence likely will start to increase in 2005 as some dissidents, including military personnel now in hiding, seek ways to strike back.


Silvino Bustillos, a retired Venezuelan air force colonel and former senior judge in the armed forces (FAN) judicial system, has not been seen since he was kidnapped at gunpoint Oct. 31 by up to a dozen men who identified themselves as military intelligence (DIM) agents. The men, driving motorcycles, had chased Bustillos through the streets of a Caracas suburb and finally forced their way into the home of a Bustillos relative, where he had sought refuge.

An eyewitness at the residence recognized one of the gunmen as a former FAN military academy classmate. However, DIM officials deny the military detained Bustillos. Several sources in the Venezuelan army and national guard said Bustillos could be dead.

Bustillos' kidnapping, apparently by military intelligence agents, could be significant for several reasons. Bustillos was the first active-duty officer to speak out against President Hugo Chavez in 2000. He also is a senior member of an opposition group called the Democratic Block (BD), comprised mostly of former military personnel opposed to Chavez. Sources close to the BD said Bustillos might have been kidnapped because the Chavez government's intelligence operatives think he knows the location of several fugitive army generals who are trying to organize an armed clandestine resistance against Chavez.

The Bustillos kidnapping, however, is just the latest in a series of disappearances in recent months. In all, at least 200 civilians and military personnel have vanished. A dissident source inside DIM said the Chavez government is believed to have established "parallel" security forces inside the DIM, the Interior and Justice Ministry's political police (DISIP), the national guard and some civilian law enforcement agencies, including the Libertador Municipal Police in Caracas (PoliCaracas).

"These parallel groups have lists of military and civilian targets that the government views as threats to Chavez's future stability. No one has paid any attention yet to what is happening because the people that have disappeared so far have been local, low-level opponents of the Chavez government. Bustillos had a much higher public profile than the others, and he caused a public commotion by screaming for help as he fled from his pursuers. There were dozens of eyewitnesses to his disappearance," the DIM source said Nov. 4.

Other military and security sources said Cuban military and intelligence personnel are supporting the Chavez government's political counterintelligence operations. At least 600 Cuban security and intelligence specialists are working inside the DIM, DISIP and FAN units, including the Presidential Honor Guard and the Military House battalions based around the Miraflores presidential palace. The commander of this group is Cuban Army Division Gen. Juan Goncalves, whose offices are located in the White Palace, a military facility across the street from the presidential palace.

The group Goncalves commands reportedly is responsible for creating the parallel groups inside government and military intelligence entities. These parallel units, which include Venezuelans highly loyal to Chavez as well as Cubans, reportedly are responsible for the disappearance of government opponents such as Bustillos.

The Chavez government's attempt to crush any possibility of radical opposition is not unfounded. In October, someone placed a C-4 bomb that could be detonated by wireless cell phone at the tomb of Defense Minister Julio Garcia Carneiro's late mother in the Eastern Caracas cemetery. Garcia Carneiro regularly visits her gravesite. The bomb did not detonate, possibly because it malfunctioned or the perpetrators were concerned innocent civilians could be killed in the explosion. Garcia Carneiro beefed up his personal security detail following that incident.

The failed attempt against Garcia Carneiro suggests that some dissident groups might be seeking to strike back at the Chavez government. It remains to be seen if such attacks will be effective. Since Chavez assumed the presidency in January 1999 and launched his increasingly authoritarian Bolivarian revolution, the most outstanding characteristics of his civilian and military political opponents have been ineptitude and incompetence. Chavez remains one or two steps ahead of his foes, and every attempt to force him from power -- democratically or undemocratically -- has failed.

However, if opponents like Bustillos continue to vanish, the risk of retaliation against Chavez likely would increase too. Low-level political violence between pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez groups could grow as well -- and investor perceptions of Venezuela's stability could be affected.

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