Venezuelan soldiers deserting in droves as election nears

Venezuelan soldiers standing guard as people queue to take part in a voting drill, ahead of May 20 presidential election, in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 6, 2018.

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (BLOOMBERG) - Military officers are joining the exodus of Venezuelans to Colombia and Brazil, fleeing barracks and forcing President Nicolas Maduro's government to call upon retirees and militia to fill the void.

High desertion rates at bases in Caracas and the countryside are complicating security plans for the presidential election in 13 days, which by law require military custody of electoral materials and machinery at voting centres.

"The number is unknown because it used to be published in the Official Gazette. Now, it is not," said Ms Rocio San Miguel, director of Control Ciudadano, a military watchdog group in Caracas.

She said soldiers are fleeing for the same reason citizens are: "Wages are low, the quality of food and clothing isn't good."

Last week, officers who rank as high as general were called in and quartered for several days at their units.

Retired officials and militia members were also contacted by their superiors, according to one retired officer who asked not to be named for fear of angering the regime.

Government officials are training these fill-in personnel for the election, said a second retired officer.

The shortage of troops comes as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans flee a societal collapse, crowding cities and makeshift camps throughout the region in the largest mass emigration in modern Latin American history.

Hyperinflation has made the currency virtually worthless, and malnutrition is endemic. Almost two million Venezuelans are living outside the country.

As the once-prosperous nation fell apart, Mr Maduro consolidated power by creating an all-powerful assembly to bypass the national legislature.

The regime jailed and banned opponents and launched a wave of arrests before the May 20 vote.

The US and regional organisations have refused to recognise the balloting as legitimate, and the main opposition coalition has promised a boycott in the face of what it says will be a rigged contest.

Venezuelan elections are overseen by its military, the strongest force in the country and one increasingly intertwined with Mr Maduro's regime.

The rush to fill out units is required by the so-called Plan Republica, the security deployment of the Defence Ministry that begins on the eve of election day and lasts until the day after.

By law, the armed forces are guarantors of peace and security, guarding ballots and voting machines at all 14,000-odd voting sites. They transport these materials and machinery to each voting centre, often a school, and guard it.

But the level of desertion from the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana has grown exponentially in the last year, especially among troops at lower ranks.

At least 10,000 soldiers have asked to retire, Control Ciudadano's San Miguel said in March.

"Since 2015, there has been an increase in military detainees accused of treason, desertion and other crimes," she said. "Our estimate is that there are 300 people who are imprisoned, mostly troops. A few are senior officers, others are civilians linked to the military."

A spokesman for the armed forces didn't immediately reply to a request for comment on the desertions.

High-ranking members of the military are barred from much contact with the lower ranks.

Lines of young military men asking for retirement are long, said the first retired officer.

The officer tried to chat with one, but officers running the barracks forbade them from talking to each other.

The retiree said top officers fear too much conversation will permit officers and enlisted solders to form alliances for a coup.

"Those who ask to retire are put into arrest for a week at the military counter-intelligence headquarters," said Mr Gonzalo Himiob, director of Foro Penal, a human-rights group. "That's how worried the government is."

He said most leave the country after they are released.

Mr Himiob said that so many have tried to resign in recent days that the regime has no room to jail them, and many are allowed to quit.

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