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Opinion and Analysis: Law and Justice

Andrés Antillano: Economic Recession and Increased Repression Are the Spark for Social Explosions

Andrés Antillano, chair of the Department of Criminology at the Central University of Venezuela School of Law, discusses the relationship between violence, criminality, and the state in Venezuela under the Bolivarian Revolution. On the basis of his field work, the social scientist analyzes the crime surge in Venezuela as well as the Maduro government's recent police offensive, Operation Liberation and Protection of the People, arguing that the latter marks a return to a more repressive model of policing that risks criminalizing the poor and excluded. -VA Editor

From Expressive to Instrumental Violence

Q: Is Venezuelan society submerged in violence?

A: Yes, of course, but one has to distinguish [between types of] violence. In the first place, it is a phenomenon that comes from the '80s. Starting in 1989, the homicide rate doubled for the first time and, from then on, has persistently escalated. [It's] a phenomenon that occurred in Latin America during this period. Very few countries have succeeded in reversing this tendency, perhaps with the exception of Colombia and Brazil. For this reason, Venezuela has become the nation with the highest number of homicides in South America.

What is it that has increased in Venezuela? On the one hand, street crime, small crime, robbery, threats, drug dealing, which are not the most serious, but they end up having a much greater impact on public opinion: a motorcyclist comes and snatches your phone.

On the other hand, violent crime has increased: armed robbery, kidnapping, and of course homicides, which have rose disproportionately. Moreover, there is another important change: these crimes tend to be democratized, they become more and more intraclass crimes, [in which] the principal victims- very clearly in the case of homicides- are poor people.

Q: Poor people, victims of poor people.

A: Poor people, victims of poor people. The violence in Venezuela is, in the first place, a consequence of social exclusion. It's not coincidental that the homicide and violent crime rates skyrocketed at exactly the same moment as the peak of neoliberalism. Violence has a lot to do with the exclusion of specific sectors of the population. In this way, it has been a fundamentally specialized violence.

Here the idea of organized gangs, of organized crime does not seem to have analytical value: the situation observed in Colombia with paramilitarism, in Brazil with the First Command of the Capital of Sao Paulo or the Vermelho Command in Rio de Janeiro, with the Maras in the Central American countries. That's not the type of violence that we have here [in Venezuela], our [violence] is more on an expressive level, between excluded kids, irregular groups with more or less defined ages who kill each other. Here violence is a source of symbolic status.

Q: But we are in a moment where hard crime, homicide, kidnapping, dismemberments have been imposed as forms of everyday violence.

A: What I believe has started happening- and this has begun to appear in recent months- is that disorganized violence is giving way to more and more sophisticated and organized degrees of violence: expressive violence becomes instrumental violence.

Q: What do you mean when you speak of expressive violence?

A: Violence that is an end in itself. It's not violence that can be explained as a means to achieve a purpose. It's violence that, in itself, is a source of recognition, of meaning, as much for the affected as for the perpetrator. I believe that [expressive] violence is becoming violence of an instrumental degree that is a means to achieve an end: rob, kidnap, charge a ransom, eliminate adversaries, control determined territories, extract tribute from those territories.

Q: Since when has this transformation of violence been happening?

A: It's a tendency that has been growing in the last two years. It seems to me that it has a lot to do with the setback [suffered by] the police forces and with the situation of economic recession hitting this country. Above all, it has accentuated, in my eyes, over the last year.

And it's a paradoxical effect, because the state's own security policy has contributed to this [violence]. I am doing field work in the most violent areas.

Police and Colectivos: The Breaking of Equilibrium

Q: And what have you found?

A: I am researching an area that is now under this idea that it is a "peace zone"and that it's taken over by paramilitaries. We have seen two things there: first, that the violent actors are not paramilitaries, but excluded kids without jobs, who are outside of the education system and come together with similar kids of the neighboring barrio in scuffles and violent altercations that are ways of earning [status] recognition.

This recognition has to do with the rhetoric of "showing face". S/he who is not seen, because they are excluded from the forms of social recognition, becomes a recognized person, at least among his or her peers, in a situation of violence. These kids are armed criminal actors who operate in a particular area. Over the last year, and this is the second thing that I find in these areas, police violence and extrajudicial executions have grown.

Q: What police bodies are you referring to?

A: The CICPC [Scientific Body of Penal and Criminalistic Investigations], the [Bolivarian] National Police (PNB).

Q: The National Police? It's not too young of an institution to be involved in these things?

A: Yes, that's the way it is. There are also groups of para-police that are proliferating, and it's something that's given very little attention, [and] furthermore they define themselves under political discourse and begin acting autonomously.

Q: Are these what are called colectivos?

A: Yes, colectivos. But I know a lot of colectivos, and these are made up of police offiicers and ex-officers.

Q: Are we talking about colectivos like the March 5th colectivo?

A: In the area where I work, they are police officers who are acting as self-described "colectivos". So, during this period of time, they have killed twenty kids in the area, thugs- as they say here- and "clean" people that are in no way implicated in the crime episodes. What ends up happening in these police actions, paradoxically, is that the gangs, which had in the past been confronted, are reconstituted.

The escalation of police violence, as I tell you, ends up bringing about a reorganization of crime and armed violence. [These criminal groups] defend against the incurusions of the police, with the same weapons that the police sell them. This has to be emphasized, [that] weapons are sold by officers of police bodies.

Q: But what motivates these police bodies like the CICPC and the PNB, these vigilante police colectivos in going into the barrios to kill people? Retaliations, unsettled scores?

A: We are experiencing a shifting of the balance between the police and crime in which the police has a sort of division of labor in which certain types of pacts are established with criminality. Informal and illegal pacts, fundamentally based on the charging of what they call "fines". This has an extortive function that regulates the relations between police and criminals.

And this system has diverse rungs. The "smaller" police or of lesser impact, the preventive police or simply the officials of certain bodies- to distinguish the people from the organizations- take charge of the sale of drugs, the sale of illegal alcohol, taking of bets. Meanwhile, the officers of the CICPC are involved fundamentally in much more complex criminal activities.

This equilibrium, which was a sort of silent, mafioso pact, ended up being broken during the last two years, and is giving way to an open confrontation between criminals and police forces. This has precipitated a reorganization, as I was telling you, of the criminals' response. A response that they call the "word". The criminals speak about the "word" between different gangs that halt the violence against each other in order to come together and respond to the police violence.

Q: There is a reorganization of the police-criminal relationship. What triggered this battle, you talked about economic recession and the setback among police forces?

A: I believe there are many factors, but in some way what has determined and contributed in the last year to this situation is policy of greater violent response towards the popular sectors on the part of the state. I can understand, clearly, the motivations behind these policies like [the police offensive] Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP). I understand that the people are clamoring [for government action]. In effect, [people] are seen as defenseless, as hostages of violence.

OLP, Criminalization, and Misconduct

Q: The situation got out of hand, is that why we’re clamoring for the OLP?

A: There is a great paradox. Violence has a lot to do with the issue of inequality. In the 90s, inequality went up and violence went up. In Venezuela, however, in the past ten years inequality has diminished, but violence has skyrocketed. I have some hypotheses about that. But in the current sense, there is a real plea from the people. That is why the reception of the OLP has been ambiguous in popular sectors. People feel a strong sensation of vulnerability and neglect. But we cannot forget that all of this is the product of a loss: that of the legitimate presence of the state.

Popular sectors do not know where to turn, there are no mechanisms of regulation in many territories. What I’m saying seems like a contradiction. Police bodies are part of the state they have, on one side an increased presence in popular sectors, but this doesn’t count, it doesn't guarantee regulation, or resolution of conflicts. Because they are irregular interventions, oscillating, compulsive. They arrive, they raid, they haul everyone off to jail, they kill someone, they leave and don’t come back. It’s a spasmodic presence.

One can see that the government is truly worried, because this institutional absence, this void, ends up being occupied by peripheral armed groups. They might be police groups, colectivos, criminals, whoever controls the situation in the barrio. At the same time, what has also occurred is that violence and crime, which before was between groups, is now more harmful and ends up victimizing neighbors in the most difficult sense. So, it’s imperative that the state recuperate institutional control over these areas, because if not it will be seriously called into question.

One could, then, understand the attempts and the tests [on the part of the state] to give an answer to the question of insecurity, crime, and violence. What I think is that these strategies, above all the OLP, have been mistaken. The diagnosis is mistaken and the assessment of the problem is incorrect.

Q: The diagnosis is mistaken?

A: There is an error in the diagnosis because the explanation given is that this is occurring due to groups that have more territorial control than the state. That’s the most habitual explanation in media, that the state has withdrawn from certain aras, and that has contributed the emerging of criminal groups. I insist, this is not how it is- at least, not in the areas we have been investigating, which make up a so-called “peace zone.”

Q: In the peace zone it’s up to the gang to control the territory.

A: It’s false that there is no police presence there. There is an utterly violent police presence, it is illegitimate, spasmodic, and in many cases it is these same police bodies that feed the criminal groups arms and ammunition. That is, the problem is not an absence of state, but rather the lack of an institutional presence that provides effective protection for people.

Q: You also believe the problem is assessed incorrectly?

A: Yes, in this idea of paramilitarism, that there are paramilitary groups that are infiltrating popular sectors and who respond to political agendas and foreigners. First of all, we’d need to define the criteria. Paramilitarism, in a strict sense, alludes to armed groups that are in part autonomous but rely on a certain support from the state, or at least tolerated by the state. We’ve seen such groups in Colombia, in Peru, in Northern Ireland.

Autonomous groups with members of the armed forces, police bodies, and civil associations which are at least tolerated by the state. They act essentially against political objectives, to annihilate adversaries. This is a strict definition of paramilitarism. From there, we could hypothesize that these para-police groups that are proliferating are closer to this concept of paramilitaries.

Q: What about the configuration of the armed colectivo?

A: The term colectivo has ample use and it can be misconstrued. I know many members who have no kind of political motivation, but consider this term “colectivo” a good pretext on which to act.

Q: So this has nothing to do with paramilitaries?

A: No. In fact, the references being made are to Colombian paramilitaries. It’s a very xenophobic thesis. Colombia ends up being the scapegoat for all of our ills, and the thesis is not empirically verifiable either. What ends up happening here is that there are delinquent groups that are reassembling to respond to police violence.

The use of this category of paramilitary violence ends up being very complicated, because it ends up labeling certain sectors of the people as military targets. The use of this category, as the OLP has used it, motivates other uses: bachaqueros, buhoneros, [resellers and street hawkers], and people who occupy apartments.

Q: Anybody who, as you say, has committed petty crime.

A: Not even crimes. Look at the case of the Panamericana [a roadside community that was raided by the OLP last month], where a whole community was evicted, possibly for reasons of urban development. It was done under the perfect pretext of paramilitarism, a term that generates consensus among the population that identifies with Chavismo.

Q: If it’s a problem of urban development, shouldn’t an institution be at the forefront, a political court or mediator?

A: That is the tendency: to use a very efficient label, such as paramilitary, in order to employ the military to resolve problems of all sorts: social, political, criminal, issues of urban development. It’s about declaring factions of the people paramilitaries, whether or not they are even delinquents.

A certain rhetoric is becoming prevalent between government and Chavista sectors, in which strata of the people are seen as enemies. This is what most indicates a loss in the connection with important popular sectors. And we can find it’s equivalent in categories such as “bachaquero”. What this does is displace the narrative of the Economic War- for which the oligarchy and big capital is responsible- to the lady that lives in a barrio and buys five packs of corn flour to resell them, or simply, to have them.

Now it’s not capital or corruption that is responsible for the Economic War, it’s not the police, the national guard that facilitates border contraband, no. It’s sectors of the people. This, without a doubt, speaks to a certain degree of [social] discomposition, anomie, it is a very curious search for a new enemy[…]

The Poor Man: The New Enemy

Q: Since 2013, when the narrative of the Economic War began, they have not found the “real enemy.” Did they end up finding it among the people?

A: Yes, I think that’s what happened. It’s very obvious there is contraband of goods to informal markets, and across borders, but that is not the responsibility of bachaqueros. It’s much easier to obtain consensus on this issue with figures you can see: the lady with the packs of corn flour, or the street hawker that sells [cooking] oil at a high price.

Additionally, there is a framework of negotiation between sectors of the bourgeoisie, but it’s not very convenient to look at the war from that angle. The bachaquero ends up being a useful figure, like the paramilitary, laying the blame on the “crook” on the corner. Without acknowledging the structural problems, the police misconduct in the trafficking of arms, the networks that are behind the violence.

Q: If the facts matter, the OLP was born with the "incursion" in the [barrio] Cota 905: fifteen people die, good or bad, we don’t know the conditions in which they died. Afterwards, a more routine version of the OLP began, if you will, with more focus on propagandistic effects.

A: But on that occasion they didn’t even locate the supposed criminals they were looking for. The result was truly ridiculous. The OLP is not a model for the goals of the state, even if we allow them, to quote Machiavelli, that “the end justifies the means.” The results clash with the efficiency of this.

Q: What then is the model for protecting the people?

A: There is, for example, the Pacifying Police Unit of Brazil, where there is a control of the territory that could not be controlled; the hills of Rio de Janeiro, the favelas, and they were left with a community police unit, and with urban political, educational, community and social interventions, the state reestablishes control- because the state is more than a police presence- over these territories that had been relegated to the margin.

Q: From the OLP then, will we see more organized criminality?

A: With these policies there is always a reorganization of crime toward more aggressive measures. There is an escalation of violence: the more violent the state, the more violent the criminal. Crime is reorganized into more structured forms. Police corruption worsens, because there is a direct correlation between police violence and police corruption- the more violent they are, the more possibilities there are for extortion.

Additionally, this has perverse political effects. There is a double meaning of the poor man; there’s the “good poor person” who goes to the [social] missions and “the bad poor person” who is a delinquent, a bachaquero, a criminal who bears the brunt of unmeasured violence, a criminalizing rhetoric. This is causing fractures and alienation within the social bases of Chavismo.

The combination between the economic recession and police violence is explosive. It is like holding a flame to gasoline. The history of dramatic social unrest has generally rested on these two factors. In fact, the Caracazo is a mix of both, with the famous police operations of the Union Plan. What is being done now evokes the idea of this operations, with raids happening during a comparable situation: an economic crisis. The police operations become political, in the sense that they are the only strategy of the state to combat the economic problem.

Q: In the middle of an economic crisis, the police and military concern of 2014 was the guarimba in middle-class municipalities. In 2015, the OLP is concentrated on popular sectors. Are we closing in on social unrest that must be restrained?

A: Well, if that’s the motivation than current politics are way out of line, because it’s the exact opposite: history shows us that an increase in repression is an effective spark for social unrest. I think we must also think of the military and police groups that act with their own autonomous agendas. What I mean is, those groups accumulate great power during these kinds of operations. Political and economic power. Because crime is another source of wealth; through patronage, extortion, and participation in criminal activities.

The Latest Strategy: Punitive Populism

Q. In this context, is it important to distinguish between the eras of Chavez and Maduro?

A: For a long time there hasn't been a clear security policy. During the period of Chavez, there was a kind of policy oscillation. First, there was the “leftist functionalism”: that crime is a consequence of poverty, of unemployment or of (social) exclusion. Through social justice, we can deal with crime without the use of repression just by overcoming the waste of Capitalism and neoliberalism.

This was the first rhetoric of Chavismo, and there was no alternative other than, “we won't repress, we won't criminalize the people”. Nor was there a shortcut to the problem of police violence, which, when faced with the difficulty of solving, began to appear with increasing cruelty. We remember the death squads in (the state of) Portuguesa, in Falcon, with extrajudicial executions.

Now, there is the opposite rhetoric. Already, the criminal isn't a victim of social injustice, but rather an accomplice of the system. The old notion of the “lumpen(proletariat)” has been dusted off: the criminal reproduces capitalist values, egotistic values. This is similar to conservative rhetoric that says there is a crisis of values, and will often blame mothers or dysfunctional families. Faced with this notion of morality, the response is more police violence, culminating in this war-like scenario that is the OLP's response to crime.

Neither of the two approaches to crime have been effective. On the contrary, the government has abandoned many important initiatives on the path to a security policy, such as what happened to police reform. This was started in 2006. I was part of that comission that made a set of recommendations which in recent years have been jettisoned from state policy. The project of the National Police has failed. Today, police officers are ordered to make 10 arrests per day. The result? The entrapment of young offenders.

Q: Now they're demanding 10 arrests per day?

A: I don't know if this has been the case in the last few months, but this was the case at the start of the year. You had to fulfill an arrest quota. So, who was arrested? They arrested the indignant person who got stopped with three rocks of crack in his pocket. That is, they arrest the small-time criminal, not the more serious criminals. In contrast, murderers almost never face justice. The prisons are full of drug offenders, mostly for possession and sale of small quantities of narcotics.

Q: The PNB (Bolivarian National Police) aspired to be a different type of police force ...

A: This new model was led astray. In 2006, the project wasn't to create a new police force, though that was the discussion. This would have only created a whole new problem on top of all the others. Instead, the project was intended to set up a system of policing that would pave the way for a melding of community standards with human rights, along with setting benchmarks for efficiency and effectiveness. The PNB itself was always intended as a small police force, exclusively operating in the Caracas area, that would take over the role of the metropolitan police.

Rather, the PNB has been expanded rapidly, subject to political and military authority. But the highest authorities of the PNB were active military members who distorted the function of the police force, and failed to create a PNB that would protect the people. The creation of the PNB wasn't a security policy by itself. Moreover, the disarmament plan was abandoned.

The reduction in homicides in Brazil was because of arms control, and arms in Venezuela circulate just as much in the hands of the police forces- the main suppliers of weapons for criminal activities- as they circulate among civilians. In Venezuela, the plan was to create a model similar to that of Brazil, with restrictions on the carrying of firearms by civilians, and a rigorous control of arms and ammunition in the hands of police. This model was rejected by the powerful weapons industry lobbyists, among other things.

Q: So has Chavismo lost its opportunity to create an efficient security policy?

A: The elements that would allow for the creation of an efficient security policy are abandoned. A more expressive, political policy has been favored: the iron fist. We could talk of “punitive populism,” using the iron fist through these spectacular yet inefficient actions, but that give political gain. We are in a political campaign [for the National Assembly elections in December], and the political gains of this type of populism are very short-lived. What happened in Cota 905: what they went there looking for they didn't find, and already they're at it again. The people quickly take into account that this is an illusion that means violence against them, and that doesn't resolve the problem of crime and criminality. The paradox is that this policy of the iron fist has always been under the flag brandished by the opposition, and now Chavismo has gone and converted this into its own political offering.

Q: Surely all of this isn't evidence the security policy implemented over the years has been a disaster?

A: There are other factors that also allow us to understand this turn of events. And, this serves to reveal the limits of re-distributive policies in a deep, structural, transformative process. This explains why violence persists, even though inequality has been reduced. Without doubt, re-distributive economic policies and Chavismo's social policies have improved the conditions of the most disadvantaged sectors of society. This is evident in the economic statistics, and when one goes to the poor barrios and accounts for this.

Yet this redistribution has had a paradoxical effect, generating new rifts in the popular classes. The focalized, non-universal social policies end by generating differences between those in better situations, those who are most able to take advantage of these policies- because there is a mission such as Barrio Nuevo Tricolor [the Barrio beautification and refurbishment mission], because there are communes, because there are assistence networks- and those who are excluded from these policies.

So, we begin to see intra-class divisions emerge. Rifts between the beneficiaries of these policies. and those who are excluded. And, there are small, yet evident differences- this results from all the classical methods for dealing with inequality, because it impacts the core of every family- for example, between a father that got work or that receives some other benefit from a mission, and a child that doesn't get work and is excluded from the education system. These rifts within the popular sectors have started to generate a distinction based on luck between those that succeed in seeing improved living conditions- in a significant manner- and those that remain most neglected.

Before the most obvious forms of inequality in Venezuela, there is this other inequality that is less obvious, but closer to home. This can generate a lot of tension and a sensation of injustice. This can explain this approach to security policy, so I emphasize: because different sectors of the popular classes are treated differently, there is a double policy of inclusion and punishment.

Q: So then, what is to be done after so much lost time?

A: There are basic things. I would first insist on the inclusion of those sectors of society that are neglected.

Q: Universalize the system of social protection.

A: Exactly. Universalize the system of social protection. And focus policies at those sectors that have not been affected yet. The social policies have, fundamentally, excluded those people from the old data. People that have been excluded since the 1980s as a result of neoliberalism, lost their jobs but are now being reintegrated into society. Without doubt, the new people being excluded are the unemployed youth, those excluded from education, those who haven't been included into society and those that haven't been aided by government policy. In this manner we can think about universal social policies, and focalized social policies.

Today there needs to be a resumption of the agenda of police reform in order to organize the police into a more efficient force. Look, many of the things that have happened with the OLP- the terrible manner of its actions and the bad results- we could change with police intelligence work. The police are able to identify- and I'm sure I know this- where are the people associated with unacceptable actions, who should be arrested, tried and imprisoned.

Q: After everything we've been through, why have we arrived at this situation?

A: We are in an unusual country because of the relationship with petroleum income and the historical condition of Venezuela. A state always distant from the people, very violent, because our police have always been very militarized. This anomaly of the state works for certain interests- for the old elites and the new ones that emerge to take advantage of the obvious state of abnormality. Corruption isn't a moral issue: in Marxist terms it's based on the primitive accumulation of capital. It's a form of transferring petroleum rent to concentrated sectors and classes of the country.

Q: Does the problem lie in the attempt to dismantle the state without having an alternative at hand?

A: In recent years the state apparatus has been recuperated following the neoliberal period, during which time only the repressive functions of the state were emphasized. During the early years of Chavismo, there was a recovery of the idea that the state was a great regulator of the social life, but the repressive apparatus was allowed to remain intact- the criminal system, the police, despite the attempts at reform. The role of the state was recovered, but remained associated with rentierism, the kind of rentierism explained by (the late Venezuelan anthropologist) Fernando Coronil in his book, The Magical State.

A state which becomes increasingly useless, more bloated, unable to interact with the people. The initial thesis of citizen participation, the water technical committees where the idea of a kind of co-management or self-management was validated has given way to an increasingly arrogant state that controls the oil rent and distribution, where the only role for popular participation is to serve as a transmission belt between the [oil] rent and the social bases, always with less and less real power.

So the state ends up as a giant with feet made of clay. It regulates everything but cannot regulate anything. It has only informal pacts, invisible clients, with emergent economic sectors, in which the problem of crime and violence is not foreign.


Translated and edited by

Source: Contrapunto