The scarily high murder rate in Venezuela could reflect social breakdown, imported narcowar or a ‘foreign conspiracy’. President Chávez has accused Bogota of trying to foment war by moving against Colombian rebels allegedly seeking refuge in Venezuela.
The Spanish newspaper El País rarely understates its criticism of Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian” Venezuela. But on 18 April it said: “Caracas is a bloody city. Rivers of blood flow from its buildings; rivers of blood flow from its mountains; rivers of blood flow from its houses.” Local residents to whom I showed this laughed, but they all agreed violence was a major issue. “We have a very serious problem” (Tulio Jimenez, president of the interior policy commission of Venezuela’s national assembly). “My wife has been attacked twice in two years – under that bridge” (a representative of Brazil’s MST landless workers’ movement). “For people in working class areas, violence is part of everyday life” (a resident in the Petare suburb). “Even policemen wearing bulletproof jackets get killed, so what chance have we got?” (a working class woman from Ocumaré del Tuy, a city south of Caracas). “Almost everyone in our community has lost a relative” (Father Didier Heyraud, a priest in Petare).
With a homicide rate of 48 in 100,000 in 2008, Venezuela is near the top of the fear league. In Caracas, the rate is as high as 127, with 1,976 murders between January and September 2009 in a city of 3.15 million.
The opposition blames Chávez; the media too: France’s L’Express said in May: “Under President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution, the capital of Venezuela has become one of the most violent cities in the world.” Miguel Angel Pérez, the executive vice president of the Institut d’Etudes Avancées, complained: “They would like us to believe that insecurity is a product of Chavism. They’re forgetting how terrible it was in the late 80s and early 90s: you couldn’t go out in the street.”
In December 1996, two years before Chávez came to power, the French military/police specialist periodical Raids said: “With an average of 80 people shot dead each weekend, violence on public transport a daily occurrence, poverty growing exponentially and an economic crisis that has been gnawing away at the country for over 15 years – inflation is at more than 1,000% – Caracas has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world, perhaps the most dangerous.” Few people seem to remember this.
“This is an election year,” explained Pérez (1). “In election years, what we call the insecurity curve soars. Insecurity is the warhorse of the opposition and the media fan the flames.” Every Monday, an army of reporters gathers at the morgue in Bello Monte. Microphones at the ready, they rush to meet the families of the weekend’s victims – especially old women in tears – and shout: “Señora! How do you feel?”
Changing causes of violence
“Unofficial sources” have made incredible allegations. On 3 June the daily El Universal claimed that “the [national] homicide rate today is well over 70 per 100,000”. This is enough to make your heart rate go up if you live in a wealthy part of Caracas, such as Altamira, Los Palos Grandes or La Castellana. The authorities are partly responsible: the press offices of Venezuela’s scientific, penal and criminal investigations corps (CICPC) have been closed and there are no national databases providing figures based on uniform criteria. Anyone can make up a “record death toll” without the risk of being contradicted. And nobody ever considers the causes, only the effects.
At the beginning of the 20th century, oil was discovered in Venezuela. Peasants from the Andes and the plains flocked to the cities – Maracay, Valencia, Maracaibo and Caracas – in search of work, hoping to benefit from the oil miracle. The hills and mountains around Caracas were soon covered in shantytowns, without running water or electricity, clinging precariously to the slopes. With them came poverty, social exclusion and insecurity.
I was told: “People would rob you of a pair of shoes, a watch or a gold chain, because they had to, because they needed money to buy food. It was a very different kind of violence from what we have now.”
A typical incident occurred on 25 May in Petare: a young man was stabbed several times, then shot, for defending a friend involved in a dispute. Delinquent youths often start fights over a trifle. In another incident, El Sapo (the Toad) died in a gunfight. People said it was El Pupilo (the Pupil) who had killed him. El Sapo’s friends looked for El Pupilo. They caught his brother and demanded to know where he was. The brother said he didn’t know, so they killed him with a burst from a machine gun. Four-year-old Gabikley Ávila, who happened to be playing nearby, also died.
The victims are mainly from working-class areas, aged 15-25 and poor. People say: “You’re just walking down the street when you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a shootout and bang, you’ve had it.” It’s a mistake to resist: you can get a bullet in the head for not handing over a mobile phone.
People blame the usual causes: broken families, gender-based violence, violence in the home, imitative aggression or overcrowded conditions. Some say Venezuelans are naturally violent. Others believe there has been a loss of morality: people are no longer stealing out of necessity but just because they can. They see the emergence of a new value system, in which the respect a man commands is measured in terms of his motorcycle, the girl on the pillion and the number of people he has killed. Yet others blame the easy availability of alcohol and guns, or the influence of television (films that promote violence, advertising that encourages greed). Since poverty has been reduced, they say, people have more money, so there are more opportunities for thieves. They also believe the law favours the criminals, who know how to use it: you can arrest them, but they will be out again straight away.
The poverty rate has fallen from around 60% to 23% over the last decade, and extreme poverty from 25% to 5%, but crime has soared. The government may have fallen into the trap of blaming violence on poverty alone: it has channelled all its energies into accelerated social programmes focusing on health, education and food (with some success) but has neglected insecurity, which was supposed to go away as conditions improved.
As in almost every Latin American country, the police are part of the problem, rather than the solution. “The difficulty,” said Soraya El Aschkar of the General Police Council, “is that we have not one police force but 135.” In federal, decentralised Venezuela, every governor and mayor has his own security force. There are no common rules, even on training, which is often entrusted to former members of the armed forces who create institutions that are more military than professional.
Until recently the Metropolitan police force and five other municipal forces have shared responsibility for Caracas. They have not coordinated and have sometimes been on opposing sides owing to their political differences. In April 2002 elements of the Metropolitan, PoliChacao and PoliBaruta forces (controlled by opposition mayors) took part in an attempted coup against Chávez.
This May the (Chavist) governor of the state of Anzoátegui took a full page in Últimas Noticias to publish a list of 25 officers dismissed from the state police force for, among other offences, professional misconduct (15 officers), sexual harassment (two), theft (five) and homicide (one). The interior minister Tareck El Aissami recently said police officers were responsible for 20% of crime in Venezuela. El Aschkar told me that if the police remains “disconnected from society, without supervision or internal controls, violence will not abate. Only the far-reaching reforms we are undertaking will guarantee security.”
On 13 May, aware that the clock was ticking, Chávez opened Cefopol, a new police training centre at the National Experimental University for Secu0rity, set up to support the new Bolivarian National Police force. The centre is taking a novel approach: officers receive technical training but also learn to be sensitive to human rights and community relations. Some 1,058 “clean” former members of the old Metropolitan police force have already been trained and are serving in the Catia district. Their record so far is encouraging and insecurity has been substantially reduced. Another thousand are nearing the end of training. The force is seeking to recruit university graduates and aims to grow to 31,000 over the next three years. Given that the results may not be immediately perceptible, this is a lot – but also too little.
Sonia Manrique of Ocumaré del Tuy city council said: “These days, if a youth assaults you, it’ll be because of drugs.” Her colleague Andrés Betancur was angry that “minors are carrying heavy calibre guns – guns bigger than they are. Where do they get them? There must be gangsters behind them.”
Blame the Colombians
According to a 2007 survey, 4.2 million Colombians live in Venezuela, having fled their home country, which many observers claim (in all seriousness) is now a model of security. Most are honest, decent people and have been accepted into Venezuelan society (2). But thanks to the collusion of some elements of the police and the national guard, the Colombian drug trade is not only using Venezuela as a staging post on the way to the US or Africa but has also strengthened its hold on Caracas (3).
The scale of operations is huge. Marginalised youths are recruited with the offer of low price or even free (at first) cocaine. “We have seen a significant rise in consumption,” said a member of parliament, “and the indicators suggest a worrying number of teenagers are involved.” Once hooked, they burgle, rob, assault and kill to fund their drug habit. They become dealers but end up getting shot when they can’t pay their suppliers on time. They form gangs and fight for control of entire districts. “The turf wars between these imported networks,” I was told, “produce a lot of bodies, which is something the newspapers love.”
Could this simply be a natural result of the growth of international crime, which also affects Brazil and Central America, especially Mexico? Possibly.
The opposition and the media rejoice every time the US and Colombia claim (based on the testimony of supposed former guerrillas, whose identities are carefully concealed) that the leaders of the Colombian narcoguerrillas are in Venezuela. Yet they keep quiet about the revelations of Rafael García, former head of information technology at Colombia’s administrative security department (DAS, the intelligence arm of the president’s office). He does not hide his identity. Now in prison, García has revealed links between the DAS and extreme rightwing paramilitary organisations (the principals in the drug trade). He also claims that the former director of the DAS, Jorge Noguera, met paramilitaries and Venezuelan opposition leaders to plan the destabilisation of the Venezuelan government, and the assassination of Chávez.
It has long been known that paramilitary groups were present in the Venezuelan border states of Táchira, Apure and Zulia. In 2008 Últimas Noticias reported that the former head of the directorate of intelligence and prevention services (Disip), Eliézer Otaiza, had claimed around 20,000 Colombian paramilitaries were based in Venezuela and were involved in kidnappings, contract killings and drug trafficking. The Venezuelan press has said nothing on the issue, but on 31 January 2009 El Espectador, published in Bogotá, had the headline “The Black Eagles have flown to Venezuela” (4). The journalist Enrique Vivas reported that such groups controlled almost everything in Táchira, and even offered life insurance (except to members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, several of whom were assassinated this February and March).
With the collusion of the Zulia state police (controlled by opposition governors) the paramilitaries have, through violence or money lending, taken control of parts of Maracaibo and of local trade and small business in Las Playitas. I was told: “The authorities in Zulia organise a lot of‘peasant rallies’. Loads of them come over from Colombia – and don’t go back.”
In the state of Barinas, further into the Venezuelan interior, a resident told me: “We have never had so many Colombians. They buy up property and rent it out. When people have problems, they offer financial help. They behave like the narcos in Brazil. Violent crime has shot up to the kind of levels they have in Caracas.” I asked if the criminals might be Venezuelan, and how was it possible to distinguish between criminals and paramilitaries? “In the past, the Colombians never came here. They used to go to Caracas to find work. We never saw contract killings, massacres or kidnappings on this scale.”
In April 2007, while investigating the kidnapping of the industrialist Nicolás Alberto Cid Souto, the Cojedes state police captured a group led by Gerson Álvarez, former head of the United Self-defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), who had been “demobilised” but had since become treasurer to the Black Eagles. In March 2008, in Zulia state, the CICPC arrested narco-paramilitary leader Hermágoras González. He was carrying Disip and national guard identity papers. In November 2009 Magally Moreno, known as La Perla (the Pearl), a former member of the AUC known to have links to the DAS, the army and senior government officials in Colombia, was captured in Macaraibo.
“We sometimes get quite abnormal peaks in insecurity. It looks like a policy of destabilisation,” said Guadalupe Rodríguez of the Simón Bolivar Coordination in the 23 de Enero district of Caracas, a Chavist stronghold. Pérez has studied the question in detail: “Caracas today is like Medellín in the 1980s. It’s the same MO – hidden forces are fostering insecurity with the aim of creating a para-state.”
A Venezuelan diplomat wondered if there really was a conspiracy orchestrated by external forces. He was taking a risk in expressing this view: it was Chávez himself, with his back to the wall following revelations of his collusion with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) (see “ The Colombian gold rush”), who came up with the smokescreen of a “foreign conspiracy”, partly to pay his accusers back in their own coin and partly to divert attention from his failure to combat insecurity.
Nevertheless, in 2004 a band of 116 Colombian paramilitaries were arrested on a farm near Caracas, while preparing to destabilise Venezuela’s government and assassinate its head of state. A few days before the constitutional referendum on 2 December 2007, several more were arrested in the La Vega district.
According to witness statements collected in La Vega, Los Teques and Petare, “the Colombians” are buying up houses and opening restaurants and bars, where they sell drugs; trying to take control of legal and illegal gambling and betting on horse racing, prostitution and taxi companies and cooperatives; lending money at 7%, without any guarantee; and offering protection (which it is advisable to accept) for a fee.
Near the Colombian border, in Apure and Táchira, paramilitaries have created chaos with violence, assassinations and kidnappings. Now they are handing out leaflets proclaiming that they will do away with drugs, crime and prostitution. They have provoked panic and now present themselves as saviours – this looks like a carefully planned strategy.
A senior civil servant told me: “I believe people at the higher levels of government underestimate the dangers. They are still talking about gangs of criminals when what we are facing is an organisation, or even an occupying army.” Was he exaggerating? Maybe not. The fact that the US is conducting “counter-subversive” operations in the region doesn’t make it easier to understand the problem. Venezuela may simply be witnessing the emergence of entrepreneurs in violence, who do not in fact have either a strategy of destabilisation or any real political loyalties.
With the exception of a few districts such as 23 de Enero, Guarena and Guatire, which are highly politicised, have been organised for decades and are in control of their “territory”, most districts seem defenceless. “Local governments are not yet sufficiently developed and can’t see what is going on,” said a Brazilian working with peasants in the state of Barinas. Referring to the rojos-rojitos (red, very red) districts, Aníbal Espejo said: “People know what is going on, but they don’t yet have the political maturity to face up to this kind of challenge.”
On 13 April 2002, two days after a coup that had ousted Chávez, massive demonstrations by the poor forced the putschists to back down and restore him to power. The writer Luis Britto García is concerned that “If there were to be another attempted coup, the presence of well-armed and well-organised paramilitaries in the barrios would make another 13 April impossible.” Pérez merely said: “The chaos created by these criminal groups, amplified, if not supported, by the media, is serving the interests of the right. The higher the body count, the more votes there will be for the opposition.”
Translated by Charles Goulden
More by Maurice Lemoine
Maurice Lemoine is a journalist specialising in Latin America
(1) Venezuela is due to hold legislative elections in September 2011.
(2) Around 520,000 Colombians have obtained Venezuelan citizenship, 200,000 have refugee status, around a million have permanent resident status and the rest are “illegal aliens”; more arrive every day.
(3) This does not make Venezuela a “narco-state” as the US would have the world believe. If it did, the US itself would be near the top of the leaders board, its own illicit drug market being worth more than $60bn (street value). According to the Venezuelan National Anti-drugs Office the authorities have seized around 28 tonnes of drugs on Venezuelan soil since 1 January. On 13 July three drug traffickers, including Carlos Alberto “Beto” Renteria, suspected head of the Colombian Norte del Valle cartel (captured in Caracas on 4 July), were extradited to the US.
(4) A group that reformed after the demobilisation of paramilitary organisations under the controversial “Justice and Peace” law of 2005.