In late 2019, Nicolás Maduro swore in thousands of civilians as new members of the so-called National Bolivarian Militia. Dressed in beige uniforms, men and women joined the special corps that complements the National Bolivarian Armed Force (FANB, in Spanish.)
“We have reached 3.3 million organized militia members who are trained, armed, and ready to defend Venezuela’s union,” Maduro said during a ceremony held on December 8.
One month earlier, Maduro had ordered the delivery of more than 330,000 rifles to “our militia members” to facilitate troop deployment and to support a peacekeeping security plan during the year-end holiday season. Some rifles were also sent to militia members in Guayana state, an area rich in gold and diamonds, to defend basic industries.
The weapons delivery alarmed the National Assembly, which, during a session in late November, considered the measure as being “illegal.” In April 2017, Maduro had promised to give “a rifle to each militia member.”
Nicmer Evans, a Venezuelan political analyst and leader of the Democracy and Inclusion movement, rejects Maduro’s figures. However, he acknowledges that the militia phenomenon has expanded throughout Venezuelan territory.
“It’s very difficult to know how many there are,” Evans told Diálogo. “Based on my calculations, there are 300 to 350 paramilitary organizations at the national level; each of which can bring together dozens of militia members. But the regime exaggerates by saying it has 3 million armed militia members.”
The origins of the militia
Venezuelan Navy Vice Admiral Mario Iván Carratú Molina, chief of the Military House under the government of former President Carlos Andrés Pérez, said that the history of paramilitary groups in Venezuela starts with the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200, a leftist organization created by Hugo Chávez in the 1980s. The group attempted two failed coups against Pérez in 1992, before Chávez took office after winning the elections in December 1998.
“From the Fort Tiuna military installation […] they began to distribute weapons to civilians in some of Caracas’ housing developments to be able to confront a social reaction from changes in the judicial and political system that the dictatorship has been making since 1999,” Vice Adm. Carratú told Diálogo.
According to the 2016 report of Venezuelan nongovernmental organization (NGO) Citizen Control, the National Bolivarian Militia, an unconstitutional armed group, the Chávez government emphasized people’s participation in national defense from the beginning, and the National Bolivarian Militia was officially created in 2008, after a reform in FANB’s organic law.
The incorporation of the Bolivarian Militia as a FANB component is not found in the constitution, since Venezuelans rejected the proposal in a 2007 referendum. In April 2019, Maduro said he wanted to give constitutional status to the Bolivarian Militia in 2020.
The weapons provided to militia members, according to several Venezuelan media reports, come from FANB’s surplus. In 2010, Chávez announced that he would provide the Bolivarian Militia with RPG-7 rocket launchers and AK-103 Kalashnikov assault rifles, however, the NGO said this did not happen and that militia members use the Army’s FN FAL rifle as their personal weapon, in addition to the Russian-made Mosin-Nagant rifle (the NGO specifies that FANB did not have the Mosin-Nagant in its inventory).
Training exercises, says Citizen Control, are mainly conducted at Fort Tiuna, where militia members spend a couple of days learning to use their weapons and rehearsing some attack maneuvers. Militia members also take part in training exercises, such as Operation Sovereignty and Peace (Operación Soberanía y Paz) 2019, which consisted of border protection.
In the 2010s, authorities created courses for militia members in many of the country’s schools for security forces. During this time, militia members began to control security at public facilities throughout the country, such as hospitals and schools. Today, they are involved in the food distribution program known as CLAP.
“For the government, the enemies are the Venezuelan people themselves within Venezuela,” said Vice Adm. Carratú. “Faced with the humanitarian crisis caused by the government, it seeks to buy loyalties. In addition to being given weapons to defend the government, they [militia members] have been assigned wages, turning them into mercenaries.”