July 2, 2020
Keymer Ávila | @Keymer_Avila
I have been asked this question several times over the past few days. Sometimes more than asking me, people expected me to second that idea.
I have yet to read a research paper or study stating that all Venezuelans across the country and at all times accept and defend negative leaders in their neighborhoods, therefore we have to be careful with generalizations. To make this assertion, it would be necessary to conduct a nationwide survey and make an analysis based on the results.
When confronted with this question, we bear in mind that whenever the State and the institutions that regulate social life are absent and no longer fulfill their role, their space is occupied by other actors. This is the case on the outskirts of several cities in Central America, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Negative patriotism forces us to always say that we are the only case or the worst of them, but we are not alone in this even though our country does exhibit one of the highest rates of homicides and police violence in the world.
The regulation of social life exercised by criminal groups is not ideal; it should not be romanticized, it is also exercised in a despotic and authoritarian way. Thus, the people in working-class neighborhoods end up having multiple victimizers: socio-economic structural exclusion, the State, the security forces, and criminal groups.
So just as criminal groups should not be romanticized, residents of the neighborhood should not be criminalized. If the police come to the neighborhood to execute the youngster, mistreat women and children, destroy homes, and loot, the criminal groups in contrast guarantee a certain order – always violent, of course – in this space; try to establish minimum standards for coexistence between the neighbors, and keep their criminal work out of the neighborhood. This is not a question of morals, it is a practical choice in terms of cost-benefits. People want to carry on with their lives in a calm way and they will favor whoever offers this possibility in the most accessible, immediate, and sustainable way.
So, it is not a static allocation of roles for “good” and “evil”, the matter is more complex. It can be simplified into a rational choice for the “least of evils” amid very specific circumstances of extreme vulnerability. This happens when the difference between the security forces and criminal gangs becomes blurred.
Holding generalizations such as “people in working-class neighborhoods favor criminals” is nothing more than the perpetuation of class and racist theses that contribute to the criminalization of this population as the ideological substratum that legitimizes policies of systematic massacres like the People’s Liberation Operations (OLP) or the current Special Action Forces (FAES) operations.
An example of this is what happened on May 8 when 12 people died in Petare as a result of a raid by state security forces. Brian Cedeño was one of the youngsters assassinated. His case is not exceptional, Brian could be the son of any mother in the neighborhood; the same goes for Darwilson Sequera, Cristian Charris, or the more than 5,000 young people who die annually at the hands of the security forces in Venezuela.
Official figures and terror campaigns
From 2010 to 2018, some 23,688 people have died at the hands of the State security forces. 69% of these cases occurred in the last two years, or 16 to 19 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, a figure higher than the homicide rate in most countries of the world.
The ratio of deaths in the hands of the security forces to overall homicides in Venezuela is also increasing: in 2010 it was just 4%, eight years later it reached 33%. In other words, according to official figures, one out of three homicides is a consequence of the intervention of the State security forces. In a country suffering from one of the highest murder rates in the world, this can be considered a massacre: during 2018, 14 young Venezuelans died under this circumstance each day.
High profile cases such as the one that occurred a few days ago are often politically instrumentalized to launch official terror campaigns, militarized police operations where young men and women in working-class neighborhoods are massacred in huge numbers. This is legitimized by alarmist rhetoric against public “enemies”.
The result is the loss of thousands of lives, the radicalization and mutation of gangs that become more violent and better armed, and the greater empowerment of the police and military that end up doing as they please. Who loses? All of us ordinary citizens who end up at their mercy.
Translated by: José Rafael Medina.