The Only Threat of Violence in Venezuela’s Opposition Primaries Comes from the Regime

On August 18, Nicolás Maduro appeared on television to denounce the October 22 primaries planned by Venezuela’s opposition parties, which are uniting behind a single candidate ahead of the country’s 2024 presidential elections. Through “lies, hate, and violence” Maduro claimed the opposition would use the primaries to “sow fascism” in Venezuela (author’s translation). The accusations, parroted by other high-ranking regime authorities, represent a disturbing narrative in the midst of an already fraught electoral season, which has seen attacks and intimidation against political candidates and the arbitrary disqualification of leading figures, most notably opposition frontrunner María Corina Machado. The Maduro regime’s narrative of violence portends a possible intervention in the opposition’s independently organized primary process on public security grounds.

The opposition’s decision to organize primaries independent of the National Electoral Council (CNE), recently disbanded and later restaffed by regime loyalists, has limited the ability of Maduro to influence or directly control the process. In response, Maduro and his allies have turned toward a security-oriented framework to contain the opposition’s political momentum. Just days after his televised appearance, Maduro announced the mobilization of parapolice “Peace Squads” and told the Bolivarian Militia to prepare for a “Special Anti-Coup Plan” allegedly in response to a mounting threat by internal enemies (i.e., the opposition).

In recent years, the Maduro regime has honed its ability to curtail and repress political threats. This strategy consists of two main prongs: (1) a crackdown on erstwhile nonstate armed actor allies that have outlived their usefulness, and (2) a proliferation of methods for social control that now includes increasingly sophisticated digital and intelligence-collection tools. The goal is clear: to further cement Maduro’s hold on power, but also to avoid repeating the events of January 2019, when protests and outrage against the 2018 stolen election severely unbalanced the regime and brought on debilitating international pressure. With the interim presidency now dissolved, and countries both within Latin America and further afield normalizing their relations with Venezuela, another mass uprising could prove a major setback for the regime’s strategy.

This time around, Maduro is seeking to build an apparatus for social control that is more refined and subordinate to his direct command, but no less brutal, and that can be used to eviscerate social and political movements before they materialize. The October primaries will serve as a testing ground for such an apparatus. The regime has been laying the groundwork to potentially block the opposition primaries, either procedurally by requiring participation of the CNE, indirectly by fomenting dissent through controlled “opposition” parties, or in a worst-case scenario, forcefully, should the primaries succeed at mobilizing people in numbers reminiscent of the mass demonstrations throughout the 2010s. However, it remains uncertain whether a regime so riven by corruption, abuse, and cronyism can contain the forces it has unleashed, and whether the international community will step in with sufficient sanctions and other forms of pressure to alter Maduro’s strategic calculus. Despite recent U.S. announcements of sanctions relief and a potential return to negotiation, progress still faces a continued and steep uphill climb.

Violence and the Illusion of Sovereignty

After years of handing over sovereignty to organized criminal groups, Venezuelan police and military personnel have recently been deployed on a series of high-profile operations targeting actors once thought to be untouchable. To be sure, such efforts hardly represent a turn by Maduro toward sovereignty reclamation and respect for the rule of law. Instead, they indicate a desire from Miraflores to play a kingmaker role in Venezuela’s criminalized political landscape.

Most recently, this manifested in the September 20 raid on Tocorón prison, the power center of the Tren de Aragua criminal network. The incident underscored not only how the Venezuelan state is taking aim at some of the country’s most heavily entrenched criminal groups, but also represents a selective effort by the Maduro regime to walk back its previous policies of yielding sovereignty to criminal groups. Tocorón was a model example of the “pran” system Venezuela adopted in 2011, wherein control over prisons was devolved to inmates, who took responsibility for maintaining order and reducing uprisings in exchange for a high degree of autonomy within the prison walls. In effect, the pran system transformed Venezuelan prisons from holding areas for criminals to command centers for entrenched illicit networks, with powerful prison-based gangs ruling these facilities as their personal fiefdoms. At Tocorón, for instance, prisoners maintained vast stockpiles of arms and munitions, including anti-tank launchers and artillery rockets. Prisoners also ran a small town for family members, with a pool, a baseball park, and a zoo—an elaborate arrangement impossible to achieve without the permission, and even encouragement, of the Venezuelan government. This level of freedom and luxury afforded to criminals is not unique to Tocorón or the Tren de Aragua, either.

Across Venezuela, nonstate armed groups have supplanted the state in critical sectors, distributing food, water, and fuel, managing public works, and providing health and community aid. In return, they have leveraged a largely free hand to collect rents and administer their territories as they see fit. However, as Venezuela’s nonstate armed groups have accreted power, they increasingly present a liability for the Maduro regime heading into an election it hopes will provide an opportunity to cement Venezuela as a legitimate player on the world stage in the aftermath of the interim government’s dissolution. While many criminal groups owe their present status to the regime’s tacit or explicit support, their goals are therefore not always convergent with those of the regime.

Whereas previously the regime permitted sovereignty erosion by nonstate groups both out of convenience and necessity as a means to maintain power amid a sanctions campaign that constrained its resources, Maduro appears to be carefully cultivating the perception that his regime is reasserting control over Venezuela’s most lawless regions. However, as some analysts have documented, the perception among outside observers of a crackdown on nonstate armed groups differs significantly from the realities on the ground. The Torocón raid, for instance, seized vast quantities of ammunition and exotic firearms, but relatively few rifles or pistols, suggesting most functional weapons were smuggled out before Venezuelan security took the compound. Indeed, the head of the Tren de Aragua himself, Héctor Guerrero Flórez (alias “Niño Guerrero”), successfully evaded the 11,000 military, police, and national guard personnel deployed as part of the operation to reassert control. Much like the other gains touted as part of Maduro’s narrative that “Venezuela se arregló” (“Venezuela is fixed”), such raids generate salacious headlines but are light on tangible advances in the security space.

Nevertheless, recent “mega-operations” involving thousands of security personnel and aimed at “mega-gangs” serve an important purpose for the regime beyond propaganda. They represent opportunities to test the capabilities of Venezuela’s various state security institutions, the same actors that would be called upon to protect the regime in the event of a popular uprising akin to those in 2017, 2019, and 2021. After years of financial crisis, politicization, and penetration by criminal elements, many of these forces have been left significantly hollowed out. The contemporary National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB), for instance, is a highly heterogenous entity riven by corruption, patronage networks, and intra-institutional fissures, which render establishing a centralized chain of command nearly impossible. The consequences of such a degradation of the military institution were on full display in 2021 when the FANB, together with the National Liberation Army (ELN), clashed with ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) elements in the border province of Apure. The regime’s forces were dealt a humiliating defeat in these battles, losing several soldiers, including at least eight who were captured by the ex-FARC forces—an embarrassment for Caracas and the regime’s defense minister Vladimir Padrino López.

But the regime has not altered its efforts to test the cohesion and efficacy of its state security apparatus, having conducted an estimated seven mega-operations since the Apure clashes. These operations have been buoyed by the presence of external Russian and Cuban advisors, and reforms to certain key security and intelligence agencies to improve the ability of the FANB and National Police to work together. However, recent operations have placed civilians in the crossfire, while granting military and police forces blanket jurisdiction to brutalize and even murder in the name of cracking down against nonstate armed groups. According to one UN Human Rights Council report, a single operation resulted in at least 72 deaths, with dubious evidence as to the criminal affiliations of many victims. Meanwhile, criminals like Niño Guerrero evade justice with ease. Such developments serve as troubling portents as the opposition readies for primary elections on October 22.

Violence and Social Control

Just as the regime has sought to consolidate its control over nonstate actors, Maduro is seeking to fine-tune his repressive apparatus ahead of a scrutinized election. The regime hopes to avoid a repeat of past mass protests, when heavy-handed state responses only fanned the flames of popular discontent. Accordingly, while actions like the mobilization of the Peace Squads should not be dismissed as mere posturing, the regime would undoubtedly prefer to defang the opposition primaries through legal and bureaucratic means, not full-blown repression. As the regime pushes for the opposition to accept technical assistance from the CNE, the message is clear: accede to the regime’s meddling in the primary process, or risk a far harsher crackdown under the guise of public security.

Electoral violence is certainly nothing new in Venezuela’s fraught political environment. However, Maduro’s efforts to reign in the appearance of a loss of control in addition to the demands of wrangling his own political coalition have limited the regime’s options. Outright episodes of electoral violence garner unwanted attention, as was observed in the 2021 regional elections, where killings and attacks on poll stations in heavily contested states like Zulia were called out by both the Carter Center and European Union electoral observation missions. Heading into the October 22 primaries, at least 13 attacks on opposition leaders have been registered, including one incident on August 16 in Apure where armed colectivos left nearly 40 injured at a rally hosted by erstwhile primary hopeful Henrique Capriles. Additionally, the ELN has threatened María Corina Machado’s life in Táchira State, and as recently as October 11, Machado’s headquarters in Sucre were vandalized with threats. Increased sensitivity to violence against political candidates, especially in the wake of Fernando Villavicencio’s assassination in Ecuador, did lead to some efforts by the regime to enhance protections. Attorney General Tarek Saab announced an investigation into threats on primary candidate Delsa Solorzano’s life (although not the threats against Machado’s life). However, the regime is likely rhetorically committed to protecting the lives of its political opponents, and at worst remains directly complicit in such threats.

At the same time, the regime has sought to occlude its role in gross human rights abuses by making cosmetic changes to its repressive apparatus and engaging in show trials purporting to hold accountable individuals deemed responsible for abuses. Yet for a regime under active investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, more subtle forms of social control are anything but less brutal. This was most recently highlighted by the report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, which called out the newly established Directorate of Strategic and Tactical Action (DAET) and found it to be the “de facto continuation of the disbanded Specialised Action Forces.” The latter entity, known by its acronym as FAES, has been identified by numerous UN and civil society reports to be one of the primary perpetrators of extrajudicial executions and other abuses on behalf of the regime against the population as well as its political opponents. At least 9 of the 14 senior leadership positions in the DAET are held by former FAES personnel, suggesting the directorate served merely as a rebrand for the now-infamous FAES. By fomenting a narrative connecting the opposition primaries to violence, the regime has laid the groundwork to justify the possible deployment of forces it has cultivated over the past years of mega-operations to limit opposition mobilization.

While such attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Venezuela’s security forces hardly withstand scrutiny, they do not need to be convincing to have the desired effect. As with Maduro’s AI-generated television reporters, or the copycat Starbucks unveiled as a sign of economic revitalization in Caracas, such Potemkin displays exist not to convince serious observers, but to engage in the political theater of reform and accountability. To the trained observer, these efforts can indicate where the regime’s priorities lie, and where it still feels vulnerable.

October 22 and Beyond

Venezuela’s inconsistent and tumultuous security policy since 2019 can be interpreted as a series of experiments in social control. At times this has meant a regression to the mean of brute force and arbitrary detention perpetrated by the military and police. Other tactics have made use of more sophisticated digital tools, including facial recognition, restricted internet access, and mass surveillance, often developed in concert with fellow authoritarian partners. In all cases, the regime’s maneuvers have taken place largely in plain sight, with only the flimsiest of efforts to disguise its true intentions. The challenge, accordingly, is not whether Maduro will do more to undermine the prospect of free and fair elections, but whether the United States and international community can muster sufficient political will to alter Caracas’ plans.

Recent reporting that the United States and Venezuela have reached an initial agreement to lift additional sanctions on the latter’s oil industry and to unfreeze foreign bank accounts in exchange for improved electoral conditions may harbor some promise, but the most critical question has yet to be resolved—ensuring the victor of the October 22 primary is allowed to run against Maduro in the general election (several of the leading opposition candidates remain barred from holding office). For a regime that operates more along the lines of a mafia than a government, disqualification is not the be-all and end-all; with the right combination of carrots and sticks, it is possible that anything is up for negotiation. Indeed, far from having failed, U.S. sanctions remain one of the few motivating factors for the regime to engage in negotiations. To this end, the United States should be willing not only to lift existing sanctions in exchange for concessions but exercise its promise to “snap back” unilateral sanctions in the event that the regime does not hold up its end of the bargain.

The opposition should also pay close attention to the outcome of the primary process in and of itself, both for how successful it is at mobilizing people and injecting new dynamism into the coalition, as well as the tactics used by the regime to undermine it. The CNE’s behavior may be especially instructive in this respect, as no matter how much distance the opposition keeps from it in the primaries, a general election will require engaging with the institution. Further, a careful after-action review of the primaries may offer insights and best practices for the 2025 regional elections, where it will be harder for the regime to systematically disqualify all of the opposition’s candidates throughout nationwide elections.

Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Henry Ziemer is a research associate with the CSIS Americas Program.