CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela’s security forces are finding that low salaries, fear of violent clashes, and opposition to President Nicolas Maduro are hurting their recruiting and retention efforts, sources in or close to the armed forces and police told Reuters.
Maduro, a leftist who is facing the fiercest protests against him in three years, has promised to boost the armed forces, police, and civilian defense groups to guard against what he says is an attempt to overthrow “21st century Socialism.”
To help meet the needs, Venezuela’s National Guard, a branch of the armed forces and the main group in charge of maintaining public order during demonstrations, has reduced training time, increased service time, and waived certain hiring requirements, the sources said.
Police, meanwhile, are struggling with resignations and lack of equipment, they added.
The difficulties highlight a risk for Maduro amid a surge of street demonstrations in recent weeks and a devastating economic crisis that has wiped out salaries and left many Venezuelans struggling to eat properly - including low-level soldiers and their relatives.
To be sure, there is no outward sign of dissent in the armed forces, which frequently pledge their loyalty to Maduro.
Maduro’s predecessor, the late leader Hugo Chavez, an army lieutenant colonel, turned the military into a bastion of “Chavismo” after a short-lived coup against him in 2002. The military brass stands to lose should the opposition, which accuses top officers of trafficking drugs and engaging in corrupt business deals with the government, come to power. Authorities deny systemic wrongdoing and say they are cracking down on a few bad eggs.
But behind the impassive faces of ordinary National Guards troops blocking protesters who chant “No to dictatorship!” during rowdy marches, similar anger sometime lurks.
“As soon as I finish my 15 years of service next year, I’m out,” said a National Guard serviceman, asking to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to media, complaining of a lack of professionalism and salaries that amount to a few dozen dollars a month on the black market.
Given a lack of public information about the armed forces, which number about 140,000, it is not possible to get a sense of the extent of the discontent or statistics for resignations or hires.
The Information and Defense Ministries did not respond to requests for comment, although in the past authorities have described criticism of the armed forces as smear attempts.
Amid Venezuela’s deepening crisis, green uniformed-National Guard troops have also been sent to control food lines at supermarkets, man checkpoints, and guard against theft in hospitals and isolated oil fields.
Maduro said in January he wanted to train 10,000 more police officers and 10,000 more members of the National Guard by July, citing the need to combat crime in violent Venezuela.
On Monday he also said he wanted to boost the militia - similar to civilian reserves - to 500,000 this year and arm them all with rifles to held fend off what he says is a U.S.-backed opposition attempt to foment a coup.
“A rifle for each militia man, a rifle for each militia woman!” said Maduro, sporting a green military hat as he addressed the armed forces.
“The big aim... is to organize and form one million militia men and woman, trained and armed to defend the peace, sovereignty and independence of our fatherland,” he said, pointing to a deepening militarization in a country of around 30 million inhabitants.
Washington has expressed concern over the situation in Venezuela. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday the United States is worried Maduro is silencing the opposition.
Training times for National Guard service members dropped from around a year and a half to just six months two years ago after the last wave of major protests, according to three National Guard members, military analyst Rocio San Miguel, and a former general who has turned against the government.
The National Guard has also responded to lack of applicants by extending enrollment periods and ignoring certain hiring stipulations, for example that new recruits cannot have tattoos.
“The aim is quantity, not quality,” Cliver Alcala, the former “Chavista” general who is now an outspoken critic of Maduro. “And shorter training is proportional to the number of resignations. Problems are deepening.”
A decade ago, many poor, rural young men saw joining the National Guard or becoming a police officer as a good career path that led to solid salaries and benefits.
Now, some sell clothes, shoes, or import goods from neighboring Colombia to help make ends meet, one high-ranking National Guard officer said.
The country’s various police forces are also struggling with resignations, according to five internal sources, as officers are exposed to Venezuela’s violent streets and often lack adequate protective gear.
Of a police force that numbered around 5,000 officers until a few years ago in the northwestern state of Falcon, for instance, around 2,000 have resigned, most of them last year, a source in the police told Reuters. Some of the officers have to buy their own bullets as these are no longer supplied, the source added. The Falcon state government did not respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Frances Kerry