The Invisibility of Protester Deaths in Poor Areas

Twenty-eight people were killed in Venezuela between January 21 and 24. Venezuelan human rights organization SURGENTES examines who has been most affected by the spiral of violence.

By SURGENTES
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A street protest in the popular sector of Catia in Caracas, where two youth died on the night January 23. (Archive)
A street protest in the popular sector of Catia in Caracas, where two youth died on the night January 23. (Archive)

In the context of the illegitimate and illegal self-proclamation of Deputy Juan Guaidó as Interim President of the Republic with the support of the United States and its allied governments, implying a new attempted coup d'etat in Venezuela, a number of protests have occurred in poorer areas of several states of the country, with at least 28 people killed between January 21 and 24. In response, Surgentes, a human rights collective, manifests itself in the following terms:

1. The right to protest is a right human, enshrined in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the main international human rights treaties. Protests allows one to express ideas and opinions, as well as play a direct role in influencing public affairs. The protests may be peaceful or violent. However, only the peaceful protests constitute an exercise of the right to demonstrate, while violent ones may involve the committing of crimes or misdemeanours. The Constitution clearly excludes violence from the right to the protest: "Citizens have a right to protest, peacefully and without weapons."

2. It is important, however, to clarify that there are different human rights standards that also apply to the protests considered violent or illegal: security forces should use force exceptionally, proportionally to the aggression confronted, only against the violent persons in question, in self-defence or the defence of third parties, and to minimize damage caused and to protect both protestors and potential counter-protestors. The protection of the life and integrity of the protester population should guide the actions of the security forces.

3. With the available data, it is possible to identify some irregularities in the demonstrations that occurred between January 21 and 24, 2019 and their public control:

  • At least 38 percent of the protests were violent and 28.5 percent of them saw confrontations with security forces, with firearms and blunt objects used. One of the people killed is a Second Sergeant of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) and two members of this organisation were beaten by protesters in Chacao (east Caracas), constituting a lynching attempt, with their motorcycles being burned. There are several security officials wounded and several government offices in different parts of the country have been burned.

  • In 42.8 percent of the cases, it is alleged that the action of state security forces was responsible for the killings. The Bolivarian National Police (in particular its special forces command, FAES) is the body most denounced, followed by the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB). In the rest of the cases, information is lacking about the possible perpetrators or civilians who have been accused (business owners who defend their property and committed killings, civilian supporters of the government or pro-opposition protesters).

  • Almost all of these deaths occurred in poor areas.

  • The high number of protester deaths (both in peaceful and violent protests) indicates that security forces have departed from progressive and differential standards of the use of force.

  • We have seen direct testimony concerning police actions following the protests, where the FAES has illegally entered homes, threatened and abused people.

4. The background of repressive and systematic practices in poor sectors (extrajudicial executions, illegal raids, torture and ill-treatment, threats) in the last five years by the PNB and other security forces, as well as the high number of deaths occurring in just four days, shows that state security bodies are fixed in a pattern of class-based and racist actions, that has been consolidated since 2013. The poor areas are seen as occupied territories and populations which need containing, all in a context of a growing socio-economic and political crisis.

5. In the public debate, these killed protesters from poorer sectors have not been cause for concern among the major players in the opposition. That contrasts with their practice in the insurrectionary demonstrations of 2017 and 2014, when outbreaks of protests were in the territories of predominantly middle and upper classes. The government, for its part, does not speak of these issues, nor points out the need for an investigation into what happened. In both cases, it is a very expressive silence: lives appear to have differential values based on social origin, the territory and the policy option.

6. We have seen testimony indicating a high turnout of young people linked to criminal practices in these protests. If that data is analyzed along with allegations in 2017 that young people linked to criminal practices were paid to do what they did in a violent way, it is possible to think that this is a repetition of this tactic by the political opposition. What are being promoted are small concentrations of violence in popular sectors in order to symbolically and materially undermine the main base of support of the government. In the case that this is true, we urge state security bodies to respect the standards of progressive and differential use of force in the course of legitimately controlling these actions. In the middle of a peaceful demonstration, there may be people employing violence and the state is obliged to treat them differently, protecting life in any case. We also urge the government of President Maduro to refrain from criminalising generalizations, which put the population of these areas or the legitimacy of their right to protest at risk.

7. We ask the public prosecutor to carry out an impartial and prompt investigation into these deaths that guarantees justice in all cases. Also, we ask the National Executive to revert the class-based and repressive security policy that is victimizing the poor sectors over the last five years. Public officials responsible for security, including to President Maduro, should be reminded of the way in which Commander Chávez understood this problem. We hope that these observations, with which we conclude this statement will serve to illuminate a correction of the course of security policy:

  • In 2005, after the police massacre of the Kennedy district, Chávez referred to police deviations in the following terms: ".. .We cannot have a few murderers with ID cards on the streets killing people, ah! After they are killed, the old procedure of killing them twice, kill them twice occurs: because you killed them and then you are converted into a criminal, a bank robber, a murderer, a drug addict, etc., we cannot allow that, I repeat, I'd rather not have a police force.”

  • In 2008, on the occasion of the creation of the National Council of Public Security and the Regional Councils of Public Safety, he said: ".. security is associated with repression, with the existence of police, military and paramilitary bodies whose task is to beat the people, it is a class-based view [...] Well, it is the bourgeois state, it is the bourgeois state organized in police forces, military bodies [...] why, to beat the poor, to beat the working classes, to take care of, I say, particular interests, preserving the interests of the ruling classes [...] still in many police forces and other bodies of state security, the disease of the repressive nature of security is still alive.”

  • Finally, in 2012, at the launch of the Grand Mission A Toda Vida Venezuela, Chávez said: "Dark or black skin color is criminalized, racism, poverty is criminalized, the poor are criminals... That's a reactionary vision, it is the vision from the bourgeois point of view of this problem. Open fire on criminals! Shoot first and ask questions later. And that [vision] settled in here and still we are struggling with these old vices, old poisons that inoculated the social body, police, security forces and society itself, everything as a whole."

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

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