Venezuela’s Gangs Have Been Turned into Armed Capitalist Enterprises (Part II)

Criminologist Andrés Antillano examines a high-profile security operation to neutralize criminal activity in the Cota 905 district in July.

By Adriana Gregson & Andrés Antillano – Ph9
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The police operation in Cota 905 was surprisingly “clean,” argues Andrés Antillano. (Archive)
The police operation in Cota 905 was surprisingly “clean,” argues Andrés Antillano. (Archive)

In July, security forces carried out a three-day anti-gang operation in the Cota 905 barrio of Caracas after an uptick in violence in the working-class district. The Gran Cacique Indio Guacaipuro Operation, which caught the headlines of the global media, involved 2500 security personnel and left 22 gang members dead and 28 wounded. Four policemen or women were killed and 10 wounded, while unofficial reports indicate that five bystanders were also killed.

Government sources claim links between the leaders of the “mega-gangs” and far-right groups and regime change paramilitary activities stemming from Colombia. Opposition spokespersons have denied any involvement.

Part I of this two-part interview with criminologist Andrés Antillano looked at some of the historical transformations that gangs have been subject to in light of changing relations with the state and the recessionary economy. This second part examines the Gran Cacique Indio Guacaipuro Operation in more detail.


Adriana Gregson (AG): What triggered such a large-scale police operation in the center of the city?

Andrés Antillano (AA): The trigger for the episode was a police attack on one of the Cota 905 gang’s major allies in which they were badly wounded. But the development of the confrontation was a repeat of previous episodes that had already happened on many occasions: the gang overestimated their firepower and underestimated the response of the state. Gang leaders were trying to get away with more and more, including chasing down a police commission on the highway recently. They thought that the state wasn't going to react.

On the other hand, the Cota 905 gang (or one of its bosses) had begun to develop an idea about not only functioning like a company but also as a social movement. It was looking to bring together all the gangs in Caracas to pressure the government to negotiate certain conditions, a kind of criminal syndicate, a union of the outlaws of Caracas.

This idea had nothing to do with business or profitability, which, in fact, are contradictory objectives... Perhaps that's what caused the gang to fail [in its confrontation with the police]. Maybe the Cota 905 gang expected a response from their allies and believed that the government wouldn’t dare to do what it did. The increasingly virulent episodes from the gang may have also been a way to put pressure on the government and to show strength to its allies. That's my hypothesis.

AG: Why had the government not acted before?

AA: I think there are several reasons. The government has shown a complete inability to develop effective responses to the issue of crime. Two responses have been observed from the government: excessive and counterproductive violence, or nothing.

Let us recall that People's Liberation Operations (OLP) (1) were inaugurated in the Cota 905 in June 2015. I think there were 4 or 5 OLP incursions in total, all equally ineffective.

In parallel, the government tried to favor peaceful agreements that would allow it to abstain from [forcibly] taking over the territory until the last moment. The July operation was very serious in terms of human cost, occurring in the middle of densely populated neighborhoods and with an armed structure with great firepower. I was very surprised at the cleanliness of the police’s operation.

AG: A clean operation?

AA: It was relatively clean. We are not talking about the police’s dignified and humane treatment of people, but this was a very complicated area to take and control. The armed group was using around 200 armed youths in an intricate and highly inclined area. It was very complex and there was a risk of a massacre.

The operation was very clean in military terms. The police took the higher ground and of course, in doing so, they made the resistance of the band untenable.

Venezuela’s police forces use a wartime logic of extermination and which favors excessive or lethal violence. But in this case, although there were episodes of looting and illegal arrests and deaths, I have no evidence to say that there was a massacre. I expected it to be more dramatic, especially because there were precedents such as in [the Caracas barrio of] La Vega, where there were summary executions during several police raids this year.

But I am convinced that police control of the sector is going to be untenable, as it has been on other occasions. The gang is rearming itself, and the most likely thing to occur is that small armed bands will start to appear again, pitted against each other. This, in turn, will bring an increase in violence and opportunistic crime in the area.

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Special Forces enter the Cota 905 barrio in Caracas in July. (Archive)
Special Forces enter the Cota 905 barrio in Caracas in July. (Archive)

AG: What kind of security policies could the government implement in this case?

AA: First of all, an effective and targeted social policy is needed. One of the problems is that the gang has strong legitimacy because it provided real opportunities for the neighborhood youths.

The problem is complicated in recessionary contexts such as the one the country is experiencing. The state must be able to offer something to youths, not only as a preventive measure so the gang is not rearmed or so that bands do not re-appear, but because it is the state's obligation to guarantee social and economic opportunities to the less favored communities. A strong social policy is needed.

But that's not enough. The police presence must be different from occupation models that are marked by profound illegitimacy. If we ask anyone from the Cota 905 they will say that they preferred it when the police weren't there. I've asked a lot of people. The police’s practice is abusive and includes extortion or systematic violence. These abuses come in addition to a precarious presence, because police do not occupy permanently, but rather make incursions as if it were enemy territory.

One could use the 'sacrificed zones' terminology which is typically used in the debate on the relationship between territory and ecology. Many neighborhoods in our cities are sacrificed zones: the state has abandoned its responsibilities, both in regulating conflicts and violence as well as in terms of the social investment needed to reduce wealth gaps and urban inequalities. It is in these sacrificed zones that organizations like gangs emerge, taking advantage of the vacuum left. In these zones, one can also see security forces using practices not tolerated elsewhere, such as taking for granted that some citizens are second-class, disposable bodies who have no rights or guarantees.

So this has to be reversed. It is not only a question of re-establishing the presence of the state, which is of course necessary, but also of re-establishing the rule of law, restoring and protecting the rights of the population (violated by the gang, by crime, but also by structural conditions and by the security forces). Equally, the welfare state, as defined by the constitution, which guarantees access to conditions for a dignified life.

A permanent police presence that has a different relationship with the community, that guarantees security and that is not a further source of harm or damage is required. There are models that have been used, models of proximity or community policing that can be developed, but it certainly involves a transformation of the security forces.

On the other hand, there are different strategies of working with gangs, different policies that can be developed to reach agreements or prevent an escalation of violent activities. It is possible to reach agreements with gangs, especially when they're small. There are very interesting experiences even of gang transformation, because these are spaces for the socialization of youths that can be taken advantage of by reducing the more criminal or violent activities.

Every day we all commit crimes or small infractions like running a red light, smoking a joint, urinating in the street because we cannot get to a toilet on time, parking out of place. We all commit infractions and the police handle crimes differentially, with a very marked class bias. In the same way, one can bet on a model that manages crimes in a focused way, as has happened in the experiences of Boston or Pernambuco, where any crime that involves violence or the threat of violence is relentlessly pursued.

One strategy is a policy focused on those most dangerous activities, such as armed robbery or gunfights with neighboring gangs, while other illicit activities that are less violent, such as the sale of drugs on a small scale, are tolerated to some degree.

But what happens in Venezuela is just the opposite. Here, the police love to chase down marihuana users because if they arrest a smoker with three grams of crack the arresting officer looks good and might get a promotion. Likewise, if a middle-class citizen is arrested, then the officer might be able to squeeze some money off them. So, sometimes heavy-handedness equates to a bunch of imprisoned marihuana users.

It is necessary to focus on more serious crimes. How to deal with drug crime is a long debate, but everyone agrees that a small-scale drug dealer is less dangerous than a guy with a gun killing or threatening people.

There are also other formulas for integration, such as disarmament programs that can be effective. In other words, there is a constellation of affective responses that may prevent gangs from being reintroduced in this area, as will surely happen [in the Cota 905] because the exclusion and poverty remain intact.

But heavy-handed policies mean that you go from doing nothing to excessive and unnecessary violence, permanently going from one extreme to the other. A police force that kills people is not an effective force, quite the contrary. It is ineffective, because unlike in war where lethal force is the objective, in terms of security a police force that kills people is not capable of controlling the territory, reverting to military incursions after facing levels of violent responses that it did not know how to control in time. This is a cyclical dynamic.

The other thing is that the government or the state has been restoring certain capabilities and trying to recover spaces where it has lost control. That happens on the [Colombian] border, in the mines, and it's also happening in the case of the Caracas barrios of Cota 905 or José Felix Ribas. Sometimes this is achieved through the state’s own strength, but sometimes by forging alliances or taking sides with criminal groups, as I'm told is happening in mining areas.

I generally avoid the issue of the government and state, because often the problem just involves a sergeant who has a personal deal with someone or a police commissioner who's looking for some extra cash, it’s not the minister or the president. Our state, like every state, is fractured, it's an archipelago. There is an author who speaks of the fetish of the state, and just as money or merchandise is a fetish, the state is likewise because there is no single large coherent leviathan that moves at a single pace. Rather, it is made up of archipelagos, autonomous groups. Above all, a state like ours has high levels of deinstitutionalization like any rentier state.

AG: Finally, what do you think of the official line [of collaboration between gang leaders and opposition regime-change actors] concerning the Gran Cacique Indio Guacaipuro Operation?

AA: Well, I'm a social researcher not a police investigator. I think that there were people in the Cota 905 gang who had relationships with different political actors, because they had a social movement logic, a more interesting and dangerous phenomenon. A logic of linking up, of meeting with people runs alongside an economic, big business logic of accumulation.

So, I wouldn't be surprised if they have some kind of communication with the opposition, I don't know, it's possible, but I don't think it was decisive. I don't think they worked for the opposition because we're talking about a very profitable business of US $50,000 profit per week. One would not risk that to get into a conspiratorial plan, it would be foolish.

But I do not rule it out, it is possible, anything is possible. But I have no elements to support the idea. I think the gang acted like this because one of the leaders was hurt. If anything, I think that saying that the events of the Cota 905 are a direct consequence of a conspiratorial opposition-led plan is an uncomfortable narrative for several reasons.

First, it excuses or renders invisible the real causes (the persistent social problems) and even deepens them. It also ignores the failure of heavy-handed police policies and the possibility of bands such as these being re-articulated.

Another possible scenario is that some other gangs take over this gigantic space that is left empty, which is not that of the Cota 905 district but of the Caracas drug market. In fact, the main competition is in the hands of groups that may become the emerging market, such as the Aragua Train gang which also has a complex and sophisticated organization. But this narrative hides the causes, trivializes the phenomenon, and also ends up having a paradoxical effect of eulogizing the opposition's paramilitarism.

This narrative is a persistent government narrative, and it's interesting to wonder where it comes from. It is a kind of conspiracy theory that is very typical of the left, but which also connects with something that I find unacceptable, which is veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) xenophobia. According to this line, all the country's problems are the fault of the Colombian people, not even of the government, of the Colombians themselves. For example, there was a man who said that Koki [Cota 905 gang leader] was the son of a Colombian. That was the explanation: being the son of a Colombian makes you suspicious. Had [Venezuela and Colombia’s liberator] Simón Bolívar had his way, we would all be Colombians!

But there is an even more sinister element to this narrative: paramilitarism. Firstly a clarification: paramilitarism is not a phenomenon which is exclusive to Colombia. Perhaps the best-known example was the British Crown’s extermination groups in Northern Ireland. The concept refers to armed groups acting outside the law with explicit or implicit government support. They are groups controlled by de facto powers close to the state. Paramilitarism here would be more typical of those groups that act as pseudo-policemen, arresting people and setting up checkpoints.

Where does this narrative come from? How is it strengthened (especially since 2014)? How does it play out in the explanation of the problems of gangs and crime in Caracas?

It comes from a very paradoxical and dangerous twist that occurred after September 11, 2002 in the US’ narrative concerning counterinsurgency. This shift started associating criminal groups with terrorism. Different US right-wing think tanks tried to translate that to Latin America, and the appearance of this imperialist discourse in Venezuela comes about in special interest communities and through actors linked to the Interior and Justice Ministry who begin to have access to texts from these think tanks.

Imperialist rhetoric is not positioned through ambassadors. It comes through much more hidden mechanisms. It was interior ministers who came from the world of intelligence (a community with certain knowledge and technologies generally promoted by the great centers of world power, such as the US) who introduced this narrative in Venezuela, alleging for the first time that criminal groups were associated terrorism and political actors. Similar narratives associating criminal groups with terrorist organizations and political groups were also used in Central America, Colombia and Brazil, for example.

But this narrative paradoxically ends up legitimizing both terrorism and its actors in different sectors. To illustrate this point, I wish to share a conversation I had in 2015 with the gang leader of an area where I do fieldwork. I asked him what he thought of the government pigeonholing them as paramilitaries and he replied that “Of course we are, because look at this -and he shows me his weapon-, if the military comes, we're going to stop them with this! Let's be the 'para-military'!" He had no idea what he was talking about!

What I can tell you is that the Cota 905 was the great drug market of Caracas, and, therefore, was in direct contact with Colombia. Colombia's drug trafficking is closely linked to groups connected to the insurgency or the dissidents of the insurgency, such as FARC factions and paramilitary groups. In the world of crime, the ‘business is business’ maxim applies and ideological differences are of no interest, only money matters.

However, what is more worrying about this conspiratorial narrative is that it glorifies the opposition and paramilitaries. It associates them with a gang that has great prestige among youths who are excluded from the popular sectors of the city. This may end up having the rather paradoxical effect of eulogizing these groups.

(1) OLPs were police operations in which early morning raids on barrios were carried out with a “shoot first ask later” logic. Since their start in 2015, they were largely criticized for violating people’s human rights until authorities fazed them out.

Andrés Antillano is a social psychologist and criminology professor at the Institute of Criminal Sciences of Caracas’ Central University of Venezuela’s (UCV). He investigates violence and the conditions that favor it, examining these issues from a class perspective.

Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.

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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