Venezuela, and especially its capital city Caracas, has long been associated with exceptionally high levels of violent crime. Headlines such as Global murder hot spot? “No problem, let’s stroll around Caracas!”, “In Caracas, 4 Children Orphaned Every Day by Violence”, and “Crime is so bad in Venezuela that even soldiers were ordered to avoid driving at night” have long dominated the headlines of international media. The issue has also been one of the principal and most durable narratives used to undermine the Bolivarian government’s record throughout the last eighteen years.
More recently, the national government’s response to increasing levels of violent crime through the controversial OLP (Operation Liberate the People*) anti-crime program made the news, when the country’s former attorney general, Luisa Ortega, showed up outside the Hague’s International Criminal Court (ICC) demanding that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other leading state security officials face charges for committing “crimes against humanity”.
Ortega specifically named the OLP, and accused Venezuelan security forces of carrying out more than 8000 extrajudicial killings and torture between 2015-2017, allegedly under direct orders from the government to carry out a social cleansing operation. For its part, in February 2018, the ICC said it would conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether to proceed to an official inquiry.
But is Ortega’s version of events accurate? Are the crimes committed by Venezuelan security forces much worse than those of their Honduras, Mexican, or Colombian counterparts? Do the current government’s security policies represent a disjuncture in Venezuela’s history of state security policies, or are they more indicative of continuity? Do they indeed amount to a deliberate policy of social cleansing?
In this interview with activist and Central University of Venezuela Criminology Professor Andres Antillano, Venezuelanalysis’ Rachael Boothroyd Rojas delves into the murky world of the Bolivarian government’s security policies, the OLP and the reasons behind Venezuela’s relatively high levels of violence.
Unlike Ortega, Antillano reveals a stark but much more complex picture, which has many parallels across Latin America. In this snapshot of Venezuela’s reality, legacies of colonial violence, the structural and social fallout from decades of neoliberalism, and the Latin American left-in-power’s inability to grapple with the changing nature of capitalism and envision alternative justice models, have led to Venezuela’s problems with violent crime. Antillano believes that solutions to the current situation lie in social investment and recognition, and will mean breaking with perceived common sense on crime.
This interview was carried out originally in December 2016.
Can we begin with a summary of the origins of the phenomenon of violence in Venezuela?
Well violence in Venezuela skyrocketed at the end of the 1980s. For example, 1989 was the year in which the homicide rate grew most in the history of the country. This is related to two conditions. The first is the neoliberal adjustment package that was implemented that year, from February onwards, which involved increased levels of exclusion, inequality, unemployment and impoverishment for the great majority of people, and which provided fertile ground for an increase in violence, which is what occurred in the most part of the Latin American region during those decades, the long dark night of neoliberalism.
The other factor is the increase in state repression. In fact, a specific example of this [in Venezuela] was the state response to the popular uprising that was produced as a consequence of neoliberal adjustment, the Caracazo, to which the state responded in an extremely violent and bloody way, resulting in a still unknown death count**. And this ended up working in the following way: while there might have been a combination of objective conditions, the state through repression and violence, converted violence into a culturally valid model for resolving conflicts. It is the state that initiates the violence through the repression that we witnessed in the final days of February 1989.
Since then on, violence, or at least the homicide rate as an expression of violence, has never stopped growing, and has ended up doubling each decade with gruesome consistency.
In this sense, you could say that it is untrue that Chavismo is the architect of the violence in Venezuela, but you could also say that the Bolivarian revolution has not been able to reverse this wave of violence that has continued to grow in a significant way.
Beyond attempts [by the opposition] to politicize this phenomenon and use it as a political instrument, which involves falsifying statistics, it is a very real fact. Furthermore, it merits a careful analysis and a committed response from progressive and leftist sectors, as well as from the government, because violence affects the poorest sectors of society. It is the poor who are the target of violence. Obviously when someone from the middle or upper classes is murdered, there is a huge commotion, but every day poor young men are killed by other poor young men, or at the hands of the state police force. I believe that the poor are triple victims. Victims of the persistence of structural conditions which lead some of them to violence as a way of life, victims of violent crime, which above all is concentrated amongst the poor, and the victims of poor state security policies, which once again are criminalizing the poor. It is the poor who die at the hands of the police, and also the poor who end up in jail.
Can you comment on the Bolivarian Revolution’s record in terms of addressing crime, as well as social exclusion?
I believe that there is an outstanding debt in the Bolivarian Revolution’s policies in terms of social inclusion, and that is that it hasn’t known how to make an impact on those who are structurally excluded. If we take a look at the sectors that have most benefited from the inclusive policies through these years, and who for example are the support base of the Bolivarian revolution, then we will see that they are fundamentally impoverished workers. People that used to be workers and who were badly affected by neoliberal policies, who ended up losing their jobs, or being condemned to live in poverty. The Bolivarian Revolution has allowed these sectors access to better job protection, better salaries, social security, an increased job market, revaluing the working class, which has contributed in important ways to the quality of life for this group, which was hit very badly by neoliberalism. But the revolution has failed in terms of [creating] policies for those who are structurally excluded, those who have never entered the labour market, or who were never in education, those who are called the socially “disaffiliated” in French sociology. Those who are outside, who were born, grew up and remained outside of society, which was converted for them into a kind of exclusive club which they could never gain entrance into. This category coincides with young men from the popular, working class sectors, but it’s not a hereditary problem, it’s a structural problem, and that’s why social and politically inclusive policies are needed.
I believe that policies aimed at social and political inclusion, and creating spaces of organization, have neglected this important segment of the popular sectors, and it is precisely these sectors who are involved in violence. Violence here is down to the same causes of violence elsewhere. Structural factors, structural exclusion, inequality, it’s nothing different. This is why violence persists, and why it increases. To this persistent and chronic exclusion, we can also add the dynamic of intra-class inequality. For instance, when I see that my neighbor or even a relative, is improving their standard of living and has benefitted from social policies whilst I am increasingly excluded. This intra-class inequality has been a paradoxical consequence of the policies of social inclusion implemented over these years, and which can be experienced in a way that is just as intense as the inter-class inequality that exists between a worker and her boss. For instance, a worker receiving minimum wage, and how he is viewed by his son, who has never worked and will never be able to get work.
Additionally on this topic, we could also say that the increased expectations of consumption that accompanied redistributive policies have also contributed to violence and to crime as a way of gaining products that you wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere. Many of the guys who I work with who are involved in violence say things like “I can’t buy the shoes which are the fashion right now, or I can’t buy a motorbike”. Although their living conditions have improved due to general policies, there are deep obstacles to overcoming that structural exclusion, getting a job, or becoming involved in some kind of productive process, and this creates a kind of intra-class inequality with those who have managed to improve their level of inclusion, as well as unmet expectations that cannot be resolved through available means. For me, these are the factors that explain the violence.
And this is what you have found through your investigations into the phenomenon of violence?
I don’t work on the issue of violence, I end up working on it through my investigations as an academic. But my political activism has really been about trying to see how to organize this sector [of the excluded], how to accompany this sector, which does not benefit from any policies, and also how to politicize their demands, because violence is an unjust response to an unjust situation. Because it is a response that is not directed at the causes of the situation, or the structural factors which generate this situation. This politicization can happen in a number of ways, for instance through culture, which is very important for them, because it’s about recognition. Here inclusion and recognition are very strong demands, very important, not just to be included but to be recognized as subjects, even political subjects. But it can also happen through work, through the organization of productive processes amongst young people who are in a situation of exclusion, processes of training for work. There are several experiences that we have been involved in that promote work and culture. Because faced with the inability or limitations of the policies for this population, what has been happening on the part of the Bolivarian government is that it has been increasing repression, and far from resolving the problem it is making it worse. Because these young men are young men of the people, sons of the revolution. Quite literally because their mothers are in the communal councils and communes, and they are starting to see the state as the enemy. Because they keep receiving the same recipe as always from the state, the government, and that is repression, institutional violence, prisons, and extortion from security bodies. For them, the government is the police. And so the struggle against repression is a task that some of us have been taking on, and not only with young men, because repression doesn’t just fall on them, but on entire communities.
In your view, what would be necessary to overcome this situation and to reform the Venezuelan government’s security policies?
I believe that the first step would be to dismantle the current policy, the repression against popular sectors should stop. And the discourse. Not just the repressive politics, but also the criminalizing discourse. Furthermore, policies and discourse go hand in hand. The dominant discourse of the last few years, given the failure of responses to violent crime, has been to fall back on the case of paramilitares. This aims to make people think that the young men who are involved in violent gangs in the barrios are paramilitaries, and that’s a huge lie. I’m not saying that there is no presence of people linked to Colombian paramilitaries used by certain sectors in certain zones of the country to conspire against the government, but I know the processes of violence that exist in the barrios, I do ethnographic and organizational work there, and it’s simply not the truth. They are the sons of the women in the communal councils, of the Chavista workers who have simply not found in the Bolivarian Revolution an opportunity for a better life, nor recognition nor empowerment, and who have found violence to be a form of inclusion, recognition and of gaining power. They are not paramilitaries. But the discourse of paramilitaries has been useful for policies of extermination. In 2015, the number of deaths at the hands of the police reached more than 2000 people, in 2016, according to extra-official figures, the number is double that of 2015.
I believe that there are two phenomenons that explain this increase in repression on the part of the Bolivarian government. Amongst other factors, it is about the inability of leftist governments to think and respond in a effective way to the issue of violence, and to recognize that this subject is not a worker or from the working class, in fact he is defined by his very exclusion from the world of work. The second factor is the role of the security forces in constructing and determining that the problem [behind increases in violent crime] is this idea of paramilitarism. The previous justice minister, who is now the director of the intelligence services, constructed this paramilitary hypothesis to explain why security policies have failed, and why sixteen years on, crime and violence continue to increase. But also, this hypothesis is profitable for security forces. It gives them power and opportunities for illegal activities. What I have found in my investigations and in my work in the field, is that behind the violence there is extortion. The police ask for money not to kill someone or to not arrest them. They sell weapons. Armed criminal groups receive weapons and ammunition from police officers. This all means that this is a very profitable market. Repression, police violence offers profitable economic opportunities for police officials as well as political power.
The police, security forces, even the Ministry of Internal Relations, those responsible for security policies, extol a warlike logic, they construct an enemy, and without denying the serious problem of violent crime that exists in Venezuela, it is a way of justifying the heavy-handed security policies, as well as being very profitable. But there is also another factor. If you look at the history of Venezuela, these phenomena are cyclical. Repression against popular sectors always increases when a cycle of oil expansion comes to an end. At the end of the 1980s, when expansive policies started to become eroded, when the price of a barrel of oil diminished, alongside the importation policies of the first government of Carlos Andres Perez, police repression increased, the deaths at the hands of the police increased, as well as the prison population. Something similar is happening now. Oil prices fall, the redistributive capacity of the state decreases, and so repression increases. Clearly, borrowing the image invented by Pierre Bourdieu between the left hand of the state and the right hand, when the left hand, the redistributive hand is cut, the right hand, the “firm hand”, the violent hand of coercion moves in. At the same time, this generates legitimacy for the state, or certainly for certain sectors, amongst the middle class, for example. However it also makes it lose legitimacy amongst the popular sectors who increasingly fall victim, in a massive way, to state security policies. This has been inscribed in a discourse which is at the heart of a certain sector of Chavismo, which is growing, although I don’t believe that it is hegemonic just yet, but it threatens to be. This discourse is an anti-popular (pueblo) discourse, which sees the people as the enemy. The people are viewed as ungrateful, because they didn’t vote for the candidates of the revolution in the parliamentary elections of 2015, they are seen as infiltrated by the right-wing, and as confused, immature and lacking in ideology, and consciousness. They are viewed as “bachaqueros” [smugglers and vendors of subsidised food], responsible for the economic war. It’s not capital behind it, it’s the poor, who without a doubt are speculating, but that’s not the main problem for the economy here. They are also viewed as paramilitaries; a discourse which tends to criminalize the people, and which for me, moreover, renounces what is the essence of Chavismo, which is a commitment to the popular majority, and above all, that they are the ones in charge of politics, that they are the ones doing politics.
This means that there is a danger that Chavismo could end up being a minority which is closed-off on itself, which tries to preserve only the external signs of power, which it wields less and less, and that it gives up on the great majorities. This is a contradiction of the banner held-up by Commander Chavez. And so I think that the first thing is to abandon this policy, which doesn’t mean impunity, and to search for efficient policies. For instance, only punishing the most violent crimes with jail. This is the great irony, because I work in jails, and those that commit the most violent crimes are not in prison. Those in prison have been involved in small-scale street crime, drug dealers, 30 percent of the prison population are there for the possession of small quantities of drugs and petty robberies. They could employ house arrest schemes to combat crime. But I think it’s important to focus on violent crime. From a penal point of view, anyone who commits a violent crime, a homicide, a kidnapping, a violent robbery, knows that they will have to face the justice system. But it would also be necessary to reform the police, because responding to violence with violence all the time has increased criminal violence. This is because the police force has become a rent-seeking force, aimed at extracting income from criminals and the general public. In one of the barrios where I work, the police were charging a criminal there around $USD30,000 not to kill him. That means that the only way that that criminal can get that amount of money is by committing more crime, more extortions, more kidnappings, in order to be able to save his own life. It’s also clear that the majority of the weapons that are used in crimes come from police officers who are selling weapons and ammunition. That means that the police are not the solution, they are a problem. It’s necessary to retake the path of the police reform which began in 2006. I believe that is an essential task, as well as to de-militarise security forces, to remove the army and the national guard [from civilian policing], and to strengthen the capacity of citizen security bodies, and to reform the administration of justice.
What has happened to that police reform?
I think the reason that police reform failed in Venezuela is the same reason why police reforms failed in the rest of the continent. It’s not something exclusive to us. It failed across the whole continent because a democratic police force is of little use when it comes to determining political and economic agendas, and that is expressed in Venezuela in various ways. Firstly, it is difficult for a democratic police force to carry out heavy-handed security policies, when they ask them to kill or arrest so many people on a daily basis [for statistics]. That [policy] strengthens police repression, because the police stops being democratic and acts in a very violent way. This has occurred in all processes aimed at police reform across the continent. In El Salvador, in Guatemala, police reform has failed because of this.
Secondly, because of the militarization of security policies, the participation of military agents, the National Guard or the armed forces who are not prepared for duties that involve civilians. This also demoralizes civilian police officers who are deployed, but at the same time it also leads to the adoption of military practices and structures in the civilian police force, which ends up destroying the central tenets of the reform. And thirdly, and this is the case of Venezuela in particular, that the reform shouldn’t just be about creating a new national police force, which should have been secondary, because this didn’t resolve the central problem. It should have been about transforming all police forces, democratic-governability over the police, and the national police should be a relatively small force, called upon for specific tasks. But the path followed over the past few years has been to expand the national police force, and this is a limited approach, because the national police is controlled from Caracas, and it has had to grow very quickly meaning that officers are badly trained. Meanwhile, none of this guarantees that reform is taking place in other police forces [state-level police forces for instance]. So I think we have to take up the issue of police reform once again, but include other forces such as the [Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation Service] CICPC, which is a serious problem. We also need to rethink prison sentences; punitive responses are fundamental but insufficient. Even though the government has taken control over the majority of prisons, there are still tens of thousands in jail. After Chavez came to power, the prison population went down to 12,000, now there is a prison population of 50,000. That doesn’t include reclusion centers, which together could mean that there are presently 100,000 people behind bars…
The prison population has gone up significantly…
A lot! From 12,000 to 50,000, without counting those being held in police stations, which could reach 25,000. This is all to do with the idea that repressive policies are the way to deal with people who have not been benefited by social policies. They get the policy of criminalisation, the heavy right hand of the state where the left hand doesn’t reach, and so the prison population has increased. I also believe that most of the incarcerated population is essentially there for minor crimes. At least half of the population should be subject to other measures and prison should be reserved for the most violent and dangerous criminals. This is also intimately linked to violence, when the prison population increases, which has happened in Venezuela, Brazil, across the continent…
Under leftist governments…
Yes but not uniquely, it has also happened in El Salvador under the Arenas [party], etc.
This issue crosses ideological boundaries, then?
I believe that one of the things to take into account when weighing the progressive governments in the region is that they are indistinguishable [from the right-wing] in terms of repressive policies and prison policies. In all cases and in spite of initial attempts to build different police forces, they all ended up in some kind of punitive populism, which ties them to the neoliberal governments of the past and to others which are still in government. What has happened in the countries across the region is that the growth in the prison population has contributed to the state’s loss of control over the prisons, and that has generated the emergence of huge prisons, and the paradoxical effect is that criminal gangs inside the prisons have been created, what they call the pranes in Venezuela, which exist in a large part of the prisons across Latin America, and then they transfer that organization to the barrios, to working class areas. And so while there are more people in prison, there is more violence. It is necessary to decrease the prison population and to look for alternatives to prison for the majority of non-violent crimes.
There is a certain moralism in the leftist projects of the region, that tends to block issues such as the legalization of drugs. They believe that making drugs legal will only help to strengthen drug smuggling and the private capital behind it, as well as illegal businesses. But legalizing drugs is an important issue, because the fact that drugs are illegal does not solve the the problem of the illegal market, all it does is to criminalize the poor, who end up in jail, not the big-time drug smugglers. In fact, around 30 percent of the prison population is there due to drugs.
The administration of justice also serves to reproduce social inequality, only poor people go to prison in this country. There can be no socialism, there can be no equality, if the justice system produces permanent inequality. It is the poor that end up in the penal system, the poor who are charged and sentenced, and that’s why they are the ones in prison. It is necessary to build a much fairer justice system. Furthermore, the system is also steeped in hypocrisy, because there are laws against hoarding, for instance, but [Polar conglomerate owner] Lorenzo Mendoza will never go to prison for economic crimes, no, it’s the woman from the barrio who is found to be selling three packets of corn flour, or the owner of the local store in the barrio. The laws that claim to control big capital have really only deepened the criminalization of the poor. This demonstrates that the justice system continues to produce huge inequality. Beyond the changes in state control, control over the police, I think we have to advance in other areas. One area is policy towards the excluded youth. This government continues to lack policies for this demographic and the only policy it has is repression. If it doesn’t put forward policies for the excluded youth, not only is violence not going to go down, but we are also going to alienate ourselves from an extremely important sector of society in a young country like Venezuela. The fact that the youth do not find within the revolution a space for their recognition and dignity is a huge omission, and is the reason that the support bases of Chavismo are older people as opposed to younger people. Creating policies and spaces for working class young people is an essential task that can be carried out through the creation of employment, through culture, by creating spaces for participation and recognition which are of course denied by police repression. You can’t say that the Bolivarian Revolution is the face of the young, and then send out an OLP mission [anti-crime initiative Operation Liberate the People] to kill them or then dismiss them as paramilitaries.
Is there a difference here between the states governed by the revolution and the opposition?
No, there is absolute consensus, and in fact, in spite of all of the opposition drama in reference to the OLP, it is a policy that they would like to develop themselves and which they have developed in the past. Deaths at the hands of the police occurs in both states controlled by Chavistas and the opposition. In fact, if you want to look at the laws which have received unanimous support from both sides, they are the repressive laws. For example, the law for disarmament, which never really helped disarmament but essentially established that in order to have a weapon, you had to have money. Basically, the problem is armed, poor people, not the quantity of arms in circulation, or how guns enter into circulation; the issue was that the poor couldn’t have guns. And so in order to have guns, you had to have the equivalent of so many minimum wages and tax units. They also increased the prison sentence for the illegal possession of a gun. That was the disarmament law and it was approved unanimously. This also applies to other laws, regressive reforms to the penal code, reforms which legitimated punitive policies. There is absolute consensus between both sides, there is no difference, because Chavismo has increasingly assumed right-wing positions with regards to security policy.
And the OLP, and the December 2016 Barlovento massacre, when it emerged that the Venezuelan military had covered up the murder of twelve young men, are a symptom of this?
The OLP is nothing more than a rehashed version of the old policies they used to use in the Fourth Republic, the idea of the “operations” (operativos). The operations belong to a bellicose, military logic of security and are saturation tactics. Part of the idea is to determine a certain territory as enemy territory. It’s a totally antithetical concept to a revolutionary project, to see the poor barrios, or government housing projects, as enemy terrain. Enemy terrain can be the (upper class district) Alto Prado, but not (working class Caracas barrio) La Vega! And so, part of this definition of determining a territory as enemy terrain is practicing violent penetration and saturation, violating people’s rights, arresting all the people they can possibly arrest and even executing some who they presume to be criminals. This is being applied across the board, these plans, which had the same characteristics in the 1980s, during the agony of the Fourth Republic. It’s the same policy. Plan Union, for example. It’s about what I was telling you, when the state loses its redistributive capacity, repression against the working class increases. These are the same policies, there is no difference. Even in relation to the participation of the military. Before it was Operation Liberty, now it’s Operation Liberation. It’s a policy which in my opinion is attempting to respond to demands from the people on the issue of crime and insecurity, but the way of responding to these demands ends up reproducing the problem of violent crime, not solving it. The people in the barrio say, “we no longer know who’s worse, the police or the criminal gangs!”. In Barlovento, the people protest because they want the army to leave, but at the same time they protest because they don’t want them to leave them alone with the criminal gangs. If anything, this shows the resounding failure of the OLP.
The OLP is a very lethal apparatus, very ineffective, very politically damaging, and for the people as well. But it tends to be over-estimated. For example, deaths in 2016 as part of the OLP were 400, but deaths at the hands of security forces overall were 4000. What I mean to say is that the OLP is barely the most visible face of a much wider policy, but one that is also consensual across the board, because OLP operations can be carried out by the national police, the CICPC, or the municipal police such as Sucre which belongs to the opposition. Here the differences between the government and opposition are blurred, there is an implicit understanding on security policy, which I actually don’t think is a policy decided by the government, but rather by the police which takes advantage of the tolerance of the government, its indulgence and permissiveness, to carry out practices of extermination amongst working class barrios. Because if we are talking about 4000 deaths or perhaps more in 2016, this is clearly a policy of extermination towards the poor, and above all towards the working class in poor barrios.
I know first hand of many cases in which young men who were criminals were simply executed. An emblematic case, and I am going to write a homage to this kid because it’s like a Greek tragedy, is that of this kid in a barrio where I am working for whom I managed to get work in the Communes Ministry. Like many kids his age, he was really close to this issue of violence, but he had managed to get away from it, he had even started a family. He goes to the house of a friend in Los Valles del Tuy [just outside of Caracas] and the police turn up there looking for the enemy. They kill all three men that are in the house that day, because all men at that age are suspected of being criminals. They execute them, in cold blood. Even running away from the violence, in the end, the violence caught up to him, like a kind of destiny, a kind of Greek tragedy where the protagonist tries to escape his destiny, but destiny finally traps him. The destiny of a young kid in a working class barrio seems to be to die at the hands of violent crime, or at the hands of the police. There are many, many cases like this, kids that are killed for having suspicious faces, the illegal possession of a face, a friend calls it. Just having a young, brown face, is enough to be killed or arrested.
But let’s suppose that we extract all of these cases, which are sufficiently reported on by the press, human rights organisations, communal councils, the Ombudsman’s office and the Attorney General’s office, like the case of Barlovento. Let’s leave that to one side and suppose they are all criminals. There is no death penalty here, and yet, in 2016 there were 4000 deaths due to the police, and 2000 in 2015. Even if they all died in armed confrontations, this is clearly a highly lethal policy, as if we were at war.
I believe that the discourse of paramilitaries ends up justifying these policies for those high up. Because if they are paramilitaries, then we are talking about a bellicose hypothesis, and you can justify this policy of annihilation, like in war-time. In war, you look to neutralize your enemy. And that means to annihilate him most of the time. And so, this discourse, this hypothesis of paramilitaries justifies these policies. The results of this policy, which go beyond the OLP as its most visible aspect, are extremely worrying. Since 2013, even before the OLP began, when this violent police policy commenced, the number of homicides has not decreased, but rather it has increased. Furthermore, the number of dead police officers has increased as well. That means that an indirect victim of this police violence is actually the police themselves. The police should be the first to oppose this politics of extermination, because they themselves are the indirect victims, and instead should propose efficient, democratic policies to stem the violent crime. The case of Barlovento was to be totally expected, it was unfortunately a natural consequence. It has happened time and time again when the police are allowed, even incentivized to carry out abusive practices. You end up legitimizing police abuse, and that abuse then has no limits. It also ends up being used to settle debts, or to intervene in conflicts between individuals. For instance, I’m going to kill him because he killed the other guy, and then I’ll pass him off as a criminal and there is no problem. It ends up snowballing, because to justify police violence, that police violence comes under increasing pressure to produce more results. And those results are measured by how many people are killed in confrontations, they are false positives. The logic of the false positives in Colombia is the same. The pressure to produce results. And of course, they can’t present these results through the courts, because this isn’t a police force that investigates, it’s not a police force that is trained to process crimes, to obtain proof for trial. If they present an arrest warrant they will fail, and so they kill them and present the death as the result of a confrontation to justify their actions. But this was going to happen sooner or later because the police, security forces, or in this case the military, feel absolutely at license to act in this way, and furthermore, they expect recognition for acting in this way. That’s why cases such as this have taken place, but Barlovento is perhaps the most visible example.
I should recognize that it was an important gesture that the military assumed responsibility immediately after the Barlovento massacre and those responsible were punished, and that they had the right to a fair trial, something that they did not give to their victims, and something denied to the victims of the OLP. That is the least you expect from a democratic state. And so the OLP for me is a failure, because it ends up creating opportunities for illegal dealings, illegal opportunities for the police, eroding the social bases of support for the revolution, and furthermore, creates more violence and exclusion against the poor, and it is the poor who are stuck between criminal and police violence, which are increasingly linked. Because criminal violence is reinforced by police violence, and the police incentivize criminal violence because it is a way of gaining resources and profit through extortion, through the sale of guns. I think it’s very important that the government took action in relation to the Barlovento massacre, because if there is something clear in relation to police violence, it is that the practices of the police are sensitive to the signals of political power. The number of deaths at the hands of the police descend drastically every time that there is an event like this, such as Barlovento, and there are signals that these kinds of practices won’t be tolerated. For example, in 2006, with the Kennedy massacre, when the Minister Jesse Chacon decided to take the investigation to its ultimate consequences and he declared that police abuses would not be tolerated and the commission for police reform was created. It means that signals of this kind from the upper echelons of power against police violence have an important effect. Aside from punishing those responsible, they send an important signal that can lead to a reduction in police abuse.
For you, the claims of paramilitary activity in Venezuela are just discourse?
I am totally convinced of it. I have asked high levels officers to give me proof of the existence of paramilitarism. They say things like “the kind of weapons they use”. But these weapons are sold to them by the police! They even recognize that themselves. There is an increase in criminal organization, and greater levels of criminal organization, of criminal gangs, greater firepower. But that has been a paradoxical effect of security policies. What has happened in the barrios, for instance in the barrio where I do field work, is that there were a series of small gangs that were fighting amongst themselves. Given the increase in police violence, they arrived at a truce and began to organize, now they have an operational capacity, they buy guns from the police to use against the same police. This means that an increase in police violence has led to a greater level of organization amongst criminal gangs, but that isn’t paramilitarism. Now then, experiences in Colombia, such as that of Medellin, show that violence in the barrios and the greater levels of violence that it spurs, can be channeled towards political ends. Up until now, that has not happened, at least in Caracas, but evidently it could happen, above all because police violence, little by little, cements the idea that the state, the government, and by extension Chavismo, is the enemy. I am going to tell you something, I was conversing with one of the kids in one of these gangs. I said to him “the government says that you’re paramilitaries, that you have links to the paramilitaries, what do you think of that?”. He replies, “look Andres, I’ll tell you something, we are paramilitaries, because if the military come to the barrio, we’ll put a stop to them”***. These kids do not understand what paramilitarism is about. The government has labelled them as something that they don’t understand, but which they end up viewing with a certain sympathy because they interpret it in that way. But these are not paramilitary groups, there is no paramilitary presence. That’s a lie.
Not even on the Colombian-Venezuelan border?
On the border, I believe there is. On the border there are documented cases of it. There is a really interesting book written by the New Rainbow group, which emerged from the ELN. It is called Hot Borders and is about the armed actors that operate on the border with Venezuela and Ecuador. On the Colombian border with Venezuela, there have been signals since the middle of the last decade that there are armed paramilitary groups present there, now known as BACRIM. But curiously what they reveal, and this is corroborated by data that we also have, is that these groups enjoy the protection of local governments in the zone, independently of whether they are Chavista or opposition. There is articulation between these local governments and paramilitary groups in extensive ways, illegal markets, purchasing protection, the smuggling of gasoline, immigrants, the contraband of fuel, all on the border. There, yes it does exist. But this is irrelevant because there is no paramilitary presence in Caracas. On the other hand, I see no reason why one of these kids in Caracas, if a right-wing actor were to come and put a gun in his hand and tell him that he will give it to him if he kills so and so, wouldn’t do it. They have told me “I’d do it, if they gave me the weapon”. Maybe they wouldn’t do it if the person in question is their brother, friend, cousin, but it could happen. This is especially the case if the state becomes an enemy for them, and doesn’t provide any alternatives to the violence for them, to these groups, who are essentially excluded.
What is the greatest obstacle to reforming this picture?
There are some things that are very evident. One is related to the issue of the political opportunities for young people, others to do with changing the police and justice system, and there is the fundamental problem of weapons and ammunition. Here they have tried to implement gun control several times and it hasn’t worked. Because behind the political polarization there are mutual interests that go beyond that. Because the issue of guns is a business opportunity for the military in terms of supply, and for the middle classes in terms of demand, and so nobody is interested in it. One side [Chavismo] is uninterested because weapons mean business for the military, and the other side [the opposition] is uninterested because of their [middle and upper class] electoral base. The middle class believes that arming itself is the best way to say safe, in spite of the fact that all studies across Latin America show that is incorrect. Nobody is prepared to carry out gun control, and the problem of guns is fundamental. 90 percent of homicides are carried out with guns. Look at the issue of ammunition. It’s the Venezuelan state which produces ammunition when it goes out to kill I don’t know how many people this weekend. The people who will die today will be killed by bullets produced by the state. Six million pieces of ammunition have been produced in recent years. You could try and control the ammunition. I participated in the Commission for Gun Control, and it was proposed that bullets were simply marked which would allow them to be traced, to see where the ammunition being used to kill was coming from, but it’s never been implemented because there is no interest, because it’s a business. The illegal weapons market is a big business and people are involved from both sides.
How do the issues of race, gender and masculinity play into all of this?
I believe that there are three factors that essentially interlink when it comes to police violence, and in general with everything to do with the right hand of the state – state repression, the courts, the police and prison – and those factors are race, age and class. These poor kids who are brown and male, are those who die because of criminal violence, police violence, and who end up in jail. This is also how the behaviour of the police, the courts and prison services end up deepening inequalities. What good are redistributive policies, if these youths are the ones that end up in jail, that die, or that kill someone? Because all of that doesn’t just affect the direct victim, but also their family. Normally young people are the family’s income, and so then their family is in worse condition, but it also ends up affecting the whole community because it breaks the community. The barrios where the OLP is being carried out are experiencing a tearing-up of the community fabric, which paradoxically leads to more crime, because the community, community organisation, is fundamental for reducing crime, what they call collective efficiency. This isn’t because the communal councils are acting as police, but because they have a real regulatory function on people, the capacity to mobilize collective resources to stop people committing crime. This all falls on young, poor Black men.
In terms of masculinity, it’s an explanation for the violence as well as a response to the violence. What happens with the kids that I work with, let’s say that a central element of their exclusion is the fact that their virility is placed in doubt, their masculinity, which is related to the construction of gender in a machista, patriarchal society. The man should be the provider, he should be autonomous, he should be independent, and so obviously, a 25 year old kid who lives with his mom, who doesn’t work, who can’t have a stable partner because he doesn’t have a house etc. etc. contradicts that stereotype of a man. I remember one of the kids I work with was able to get work, but he gave up the job because they made him clean the floor, and he said that it was women’s work. This is essentially a service economy, and the few job offers that exist are effectively for women. And so the violence ends up being an affirmation of masculinity. In addition, the necessary recognition of these excluded men needs to come from the affirmation of other values, alternative masculinities. But it is also related to the body. Because the excluded have only their bodies. For a young woman in the barrio who can’t get a job, her focus will be to become a mami, a pretty girl, get herself a malandro (gangster) boyfriend, or a policeman, she can use her body to get that. A young man from the barrio also only has his body, and that is his capacity to carry out violence, the capacity to put his body in the game of violence as the only capital he has as an excluded young male, his only resource. He didn’t study, he doesn’t work, he doesn’t have the cultural capital to get a job.
Repression as well also falls above all on men, because there is gender difference. The girls have access to government [anti-poverty] missions like Madres Del Barrio, but the boys end up in jail. But this is also the case with police violence. I have worked with police for many years, and there is also a component there that is related to the affirmation of masculinity. This is a dispute over masculinity, because the police also come from the same working class sectors, and being a police officer is one of the only ways of gaining dignified work for working class kids. In 2006, when we began the police reform, we carried out diagnostics in the training centers for the police and in the university institute for the metropolitan police. That year the main demand for places came from young high school kids in public schools. That means that being a police officer for kids in the barrios is a very attractive profession. There is a symmetry here between the police and the malandros. Many of the kids that I know that are involved in that, who have killed, when I met them years ago, they wanted to be police. Maybe if they had gone into the police, instead of being killed, they would be out there killing kids who are the same as them. The pressure of masculinity also falls on the police.
And the impact on women in the family, in the community, women who are involved in the sex industry?
Firstly, according to the studies that have been done in Venezuela, police repression falls principally on those who are socially devalued, young men in the barrio, street vendors, prostitutes, sex workers, the LGBTQ community, transexuals, homosexuals etc. If we were to go to the LGBTQ bars a little later, we would see the police turn up, mistreating people, hassling transgender people in the area in a really brutal way. It falls principally on those groups, socially devalued groups which do not have power. One thing is clear if we look at the time before the Bolivarian Revolution, when Chavez came to power repression against the popular sectors diminished and not just because Chavez was opposed to repressive policies, but also because he gave power to the popular sectors. I remember I lived for a long time in a barrio in La Vega, and once a police officer from the metropolitan police force turned up, which belonged to a local government that was hostile to the Bolivarian Revolution, and somebody was saying to the police officer, you don’t know the Constitution! You can’t arrest people like that! And the police officer had to leave, because the people had effective power. I think you have to see the increase in police repression in tandem with the decrease of power in the hands of the people. They are a socially devalued group, disempowered. But at the same time the police act with a predatory logic, a logic which searches for profit and economic incentive. In this sense, the possibilities for extortion over women sex workers are very frequent. For this reason, a lot of sex workers end up marrying police officers, because they defend them from other police, and from other people who want to hassle them. That is power against the police and other attacks. But it has a lot to do with extortion. Attacks on transgender sex workers are not just motivated by moral evaluations, but practices of extortion, to get money from illegal activities. Repression also has a very significant effect on women, and not just on sex-workers. A girl who I work with had a relationship with a criminal, and they killed him three weeks ago. Now the girl is alone with a young daughter, no job or money. It’s a bankrupt situation. This policy of exterminating young men not only ends up removing the sustenance of an entire family, but leaving many widows in a desperate situation. That’s why I believe that the key to facing this repression is through the mobilization of women, because women suffer in a very severe way, mothers and wives, from this violence in all of its expressions, including police violence.
Do you want to make any concluding remarks?
It seems to me that emancipatory processes have an historic challenge. I believe that capitalism has transformed. Thirty years ago, emancipation was related to the emancipation of the working class, the emancipation of the workforce. But what has happened in post-industrial, post-Fordist societies, in neoliberal societies, is that work has become a scarce good, the great majorities are outside of the labour market, excluded from work. At the same time, the criminal dimension of capitalism, the deregulated dimension which is expressed politically through neoliberalism, but also through organised crime and illegal markets, is recruiting the excluded, who are no longer at the factory, but are recruited into organized crime networks, sex trafficking, prostitute networks, drug trafficking, informal businesses, smuggling, food trafficking. There is a transformation of capitalism, and also a transformation of the subjects which are exploited, those who suffer at the hands of capitalism. I think it is necessary to rethink our strategy towards those sectors, which are not mobilized by traditional leftist slogans or programs and are presented as criminals and lumpen. But this is a fundamental class, the same as the working class which still exists, for the transformation of society. This I think is an urgent debate for the left, for leftist governments in the region.
*Operation Liberate the People was created in 2015 as a government initiative to combat gang-related violence in the country’s shantytowns, and has seen numerous security force raids on communities with high levels of crime. Despite being a popular initiative among the country’s general population, the operation has been criticised by human rights organisations, Venezuelan intellectuals and targeted communities.
**Estimates range from 300 to 3000.
*** This is a play on the word “paramilitaries” in Spanish, with “para” also meaning to put a stop to something. In this case, the young man is translating the word paramilitaries as “stop-the-militaries”.