Battling Murder in Venezuela’s Participatory Republic

If participatory democracy is to offer an alternative it must rise to the direst of challenges. In Venezuela, where the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution explicitly aims to create a "democratic, participatory and self-reliant" society, yet over 100,000 people were killed in a decade, this challenge is insecurity.

Increasingly, the Left's response
to representative institutional frameworks – "participatory democracy" –
demands a further empowerment of the people, the antidote to an at times
suffocating conglomeration of modern elites. This suffocation gave birth to the
Venezuelan Caracazo in
1989, where in response to popular protest against the imposition of
neo-liberal reforms the security forces massacred Caracas slum dwellers in their homes. If
participatory democracy is to offer an alternative it must rise to the direst
of challenges. In Venezuela, where the 1999 Bolivarian
explicitly aims to create a "democratic, participatory and
self-reliant" society, yet over 100,000 people were killed
in a decade, this challenge is insecurity.

Professor Ross Hastings of Ottawa University
identifies three determinants of a person's engagement in criminal activity:
personal disposition, personal situation, and lack of fear of the justice
system. In Venezuela, with poverty
since 2003, the stand out cause of homicides must be considered the
impunity with which they are carried out. Barely 3% of murders result in a
sentence. Yonny Campos, Commissioner of the Caracas-wide Metropolitan Police
explains, "they commit homicides, 2,3,15,20, and no one denounces them, no one
chases them, no one takes action."

The roots of impunity in Venezuela are
complex. General Commissioner Pedro Tang blames the overwhelmed judicial
process, "Investigators can have as many as three or four thousand cases at any
one time!" Yet Tang admits, "the police themselves are a part of the problem."
The institution has inherited a culture of brutality in which human rights are
still abused by police forces, sapping confidence, leading to lower levels of
denunciation and in turn higher levels of impunity. Venezuelan NGO Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz
(RAJ) found 113 cases of torture, and 985 of cruel, degrading or inhuman
punishment in 2004. Add to these causes of impunity the familiar mix of
corruption and incompetence and Venezuela's
fight against insecurity seems unwinnable.

While the Republic fails in the most
basic of state functions, guaranteeing the lives of its citizens, its leader
has been attacked because only after securing the ability to run for office
again in February's referendum did Chávez shift a real degree of his serious
rhetorical weight onto the topic of insecurity, decreeing "7 fronts against
" on the 17th of March 2009.

The fight against insecurity by
Venezuelan society, led by several NGOs, began years ago. In 2000, making use
of a provision in the constitution that allows laws to be presented to the
National Assembly by popular mandate, RAJ, gathering thousands of signatures,
presented a draft law on the Venezuelan police: the first presented to the
Assembly via popular action. Soraya El Achkar, a founder of RAJ, described to
me the disappointment when it fell off the agenda in the ‘time of conflict' –
the failed coup of 2002, and the subsequent lockout in the country's core
industry, oil.

The truth is that in 2006 the state
caught up. The Ministry for Justice created Conarepol
(the National Police Reform Council),
with El Achkar at the head of its technical team. Conarepol embarked on a
nation-wide consultation in which over 75,000 citizens participated,
identifying causes of insecurity and generating proposals to meet them. 58,857
people contributed via the Internet, phone lines, and suggestion boxes placed
in communities across the country: in jungles, inner city slums, open savannas,
and Andean mountain towns. This effort pushed deeper with specialist forums,
discussions with vulnerable groups like sex workers, and focus groups,
including one series in which 1374 police officers took part.

In 2008 Venezuela's new
police law
came into being, following the consultation's recommendations to
the letter. "We have insisted on the need to reach a moral agreement with
respect to the police that we want. We've indicated that no change is possible
if the state, society and functionaries of the police don't come to a sustained
political agreement concerning democratic and responsible reform," declared the
then Minister for Justice, Jesse Chacon.

Not only did the
people have a say, they decided to maintain their own involvement, scorning
long established liberal assumptions. 78% of participants deemed citizen
supervision of police accounts essential, while a mere 2% believed
inter-institutional monitoring presented a solution. Citizens now have the
right to supervise the rendition of police accounts to an unprecedented degree.
What's more, the people have demanded that the police bow to the reality of a
participatory republic: that they shift from a reactive, repressive policing
model to preventative, community-based policing.

Pilot Nuclei of Community Policing sprang
up in three of the toughest Caracas
slums. With similar numbers of officers and little by way of extra resources,
after 3 months of work the nuclei were evaluated as "excellent" by 85% of those
using them, in comparison with 15% in Anzoategui state. Residents living around
the nuclei put it simply, "we shoot at them less".

But the constitution mandates more than
participatory "formation" and "controlling" of public policy, it calls for
participation in the "carrying out", a domain rarely handed to any population,
particularly in Latin American executive-heavy democracies.

Approximately 24,000 Community Councils
have emerged in the last 4 years in Venezuela – state sponsored
neighbourhood associations which operate democratically in the creation and
implementation of local development projects. These councils have begun forming
‘Committees for Citizen Security' taking on police assistance roles –
everything from accompanying patrols, denouncing the community's criminals, and
changing the environment to reduce crime by increasing public lighting and
widening alleys. This is Venezuela's
, via state institutions in policy formation, while civil
society independently controls and to an extent executes those same policies:
Participatory State and Participatory Society.

Yet a powerful participatory culture is
not so easily controlled. In 2001 Venezuelan NGO Cofavic investigated a group of killings
in Portuguesa state leading to a nationwide inquiry into the operation of death
squads; in only two years they were found responsible for 392 deaths, with a
98% impunity rate. Suddenly
Venezuelans were confronted with horrific cases such as that of the García
brothers. When a mother protested at the extra-judicial execution of her son,
Luis José García, a police patrol promptly tortured and murdered her other son,
Óscar Antonio García, to deter further investigation.

Tang declares that such groups must be
"eliminated": to do so they must be understood. Cofavic's research finds common
use of a discourse of "popular justice" among officers who participate in death
squads, which worryingly correlates to public demands for a "strong hand". Such
officers see themselves, and are sometimes seen by communities, as "taking
justice into their own hands", an intelligible claim in the Venezuelan climate
of impunity.

Illegitimate participation by the state's
security forces is a sad Latin American tradition, more uniquely Venezuelan
society is also battling insecurity illegally. In 23 De Enero, a major Caracas slum, a long
history of police repression and the inflow of leftwing ex-guerrillas led to
the creation of armed groups generally called the Tupamaros. Though these
groups are really much more diverse than generally depicted, together they
threw out or killed criminals and gradually asserted their authority over the
slum, culminating in the expulsion of the Metropolitan Police from their
headquarters in 2005. Today flags can be seen flying different colours above
buildings, demarking the territory of the respective groups, known as
"collectives" to residents.

23 De Enero's collectives are more than
vigilantes. The headquarters were not abandoned, but converted into a community radio
. Wilfredo Bermudez, the station's head technician argues, "We must
recognise the context, the reality of each collective… The collectives were
born of necessity, from the severe wants of the communities, the first of which
was to confront insecurity." "The police were the servants of the right wing.
They were repressing the population while the criminals were corrupting
society. In this context, some collectives had to defend themselves, to create
spaces." The crucial difference between these collectives and straight
vigilantes lies in the use to which these spaces were then put. "Violence is
not the most effective arm against criminality. To prevent insecurity one has
to care for young people, giving them an integral development." The radio's
role lies in "bringing culture to the people, and thereby helping to eliminate
the community's vices." Other collectives have created sports facilities,
theatre programmes and parks.

Yet commitment to this positive vision among the
slum's collectives varies. Too often, the frequency of armed interventions is
still considered the measure of a collective's radicalism. Commissioner Yonny
Campos admits, "its hard to tell what the ultimate end is, which side of their
character is dominant." They face the same pressures as any group of police drawn
into illegal activity, "they kidnap, they shoot at people and intimidate; they
might kill a drug dealer so he stops but bit by bit they become no more than
those same criminals. The original idea, of living to protect an ideal fades

The collectives present a stark dilemma
for the "revolutionary government" ruling the Participatory Republic.
Participatory Society in 23 D'Enero takes participatory democracy so far as to
negate the modern state, refusing a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
The government hopes that community police forces ushered in by the new police
law, cooperating with Committees for Citizens' Security can reconcile it while
making inroads against impunity. As El Achkar proudly declares, "If there is
one law based on social consensus, it is the police law. A law that owes its
existence to popular participation." Venezuela
counts on a dialectic between Participatory Society and Participatory State
in the battle against murder.