“No more executions in the barrio” is the title of a campaign against police violence. It is organized by Surgentes, a leftist human rights collective that has been involved in popular power and self-government projects in the barrio of San Agustín del Sur, in Caracas.
According to figures from the Interior Ministry, the percentage of homicides committed by state security forces has increased dramatically in recent years, and this violence is occurring in popular sectors.
In this interview, Venezuelan community media outlet Tatuy TV talked to Surgentes’ members Ana Barrios and Martha Lía Grajales about the campaign’s motivation and goals, [former President Hugo] Chavez’s views on the matter, and the difficulties surrounding critique in the current Venezuelan context.
What drove Surgentes to organize this campaign against police violence in the barrios?
Ana Barrios – The campaign was borne out of a concern over the marked increase of homicides committed by the security forces, the so-called “deaths due to resistance to the authorities.”
These homicides have increased by 384 percent between 2013 and 2018, according to official figures. Although the total number of homicides has decreased, the proportion of those caused by the state has grown. In the work that Surgentes carries out in San Agustín del Sur, we have witnessed how police violence has been on the rise, affecting people in the barrio. This sparked the need to investigate and characterize what is going on.
Martha Lía Grajales – We believe it is imperative to open the debate. The repression by security forces in popular sectors is not a subject discussed among the Left, in spite of the serious picture painted by official figures. So first of all, we believe this campaign could contribute towards opening up this debate from a leftist stance and discourse, breaking the self-censorship which exists out of fear of being called counter-revolutionary. Another very important reason is that, in light of the impunity that these practices enjoy, this campaign becomes an alternative mechanism to denounce them. It puts a face on the victims, humanizes these chamos (young men) and the families that have been targeted.
What are the characteristics of security forces’ violence?
AB – The campaign started with a quantitative and qualitative investigation about police violence and the patterns which occur. There is clear class-based pattern. The violence being applied by security forces, and especially the FAES (Special Armed Forces, an elite police unit of the Bolivarian National Police), is only taking place in popular sectors, and almost exclusively targeting young men between 18 and 25. Many of these youngsters are involved in criminal activities, they might be on parole, they might have spent time in jail, we are talking about small scale crimes, like petty theft or pushing drugs, perhaps extortion.
In the security forces’ operations we have found a pattern of executions. What usually happens is that agents execute these young men after they have surrendered, and then they construct a [false] confrontation crime scene.
We have also found cases of torture, abuse, threats against family members, and a complete disregard for [police] protocol. For example, it is the FAES agents themselves who transport the bodies. There is a whole pattern of action which is not spontaneous, it seems designed to make denouncing and investigating [these homicides] much harder. In most of the testimonies we gathered the people have not reported the cases, mainly out of fear. Either they or some relative might have been threatened, for example another son. On the other hand there is also very little faith in the justice system.
What would you say are the main goals of the campaign?
MLG – One question to keep in mind is that this “heavy-handed” approach enjoys a high degree of social acceptance. In that sense, we find that by opening up the debate, the campaign can tackle this legitimacy. Another priority we have is to bring together voices from the Left, from those who identify with Chavismo and the revolutionary process, so as to amass strength. We believe it is important to demand a necessary correction from our government.
AB – First of all we look to shed light on a reality which, for many different reasons, is made invisible. This behavior from police forces is affecting a lot of people and reinforcing the class divide, which does not contribute towards constructing popular power and strengthening the Bolivarian Revolution. A second goal is to try and impact those people with power over these matters, so as to begin a process of reflection and debate around the need to make changes. This is a campaign which defends security policies from a leftist stance, where the ultimate goal is to build a different society, a society of equals, a socialist society. We cannot undertake a socialist revolution if we have repressive bodies reinforcing class inequality.
An important element in this campaign is this slogan “Not in Chavez’s name.” What were Chavez’s views on this issue?
MLG – For us, Chavez is fundamental on the matter. He is a reference point from which we, as leftist forces, should gravitate to in order to transform this question of violence, tackling it from its structural dimensions and not just from its consequences. From the very beginning, Chavez had a consistent discourse of denouncing and transforming these practices which historically characterized the racist, class-based behavior of security forces. He always stressed that the issue of crime should be tackled through prevention.
In fact, when he took office, Chavez believed that improving social indicators would bring a decrease in criminal activity. When this did not happen he began to understand the phenomenon in its complexity. He understood that kids in the barrios need options that give them a life project. It is not just a material question, it is also a matter of recognition, of power. That is how the mission “A Toda Vida Venezuela” (1) and the police reform project came about.
What did this police reform project consist of?
AB – We need to recall that public security policies in Venezuela before Chavez were characterized by their class nature. They reinforced inequality, criminalized and stigmatized the poor, the young men in the barrios. In that context we had, for example, this group inside the [now disbanded] Caracas Metropolitan Police called “Los Pantaneros,” which was dedicated to these kind of heavy-handed operations in the barrios.
In 2006, after a few cases of homicides committed by security forces, a widespread reflection on the need for police reform got underway, and Chavez pushed the CONAREPOL project (National Commission for Police Reform), a police reform that generated a new model, new legislation, and even the UNES (National Experimental University for Security). Chavez was the driving force behind this new perspective on policing, a non-criminalizing perspective. It was a participatory and democratic perspective which respected human rights. As we stress in the campaign, Chavez always denounced the criminalization of the poor and “plomo al hampa” (heavy-handed) policies.
The process generated a lot of positive expectations. For example, once the communal police, a component of the Bolivarian National Police, went out on the streets in Catia [barrio in West Caracas], the first reviews showed a significant reduction in crime levels. This had to do with the presence of a police force which was close to the people, which looked to solve conflicts and did not persecute or criminalize.
How does this police reform project contrast with the current behavior of bodies such as the FAES?
AB – We believe the police reform project has been abandoned. For example, the FAES are an “elite squadron” inside the police. They are very specialized, have very sophisticated weapons, to deal with complex scenarios. The recommendation always was that this kind of force needs to exist, but that it needs to be small and heavily controlled. What we have seen instead is a tremendous growth of the FAES and an indiscriminate use of force.
Furthermore, the FAES appears to have become an autonomous force, acting practically without any oversight. One of the main arguments to have control over police forces is to have adequate accountability and an evaluation of each procedure, and that is not happening.
In the current context of foreign aggression against Venezuela there is a tendency, intentional or not, to suppress critique, because it might play into the hands of the Right, or because “it is not the right moment.” What are your thoughts on the matter?
MLG – Our position is that what is actually playing into the hands of the Right is not critique, it is the behavior of security forces against poor young people. It is a behavior that targets the weakest links in the chain, this reserve army of poor young men, which gets renewed with every death, while the large structures of organized crime remain untouched. That is what is truly playing into the hands of the Right, because all these kinds of practices do is sow grief and resentment, while reproducing inequality.
Furthermore, we believe this blackmail surrounding critique has done a lot of damage to the revolution because it has favored the most conservative and regressive political positions. Not only that, we believe that Chavismo is known for being critical. Chavez encouraged critique, because that is the only way to sustain a true dialogue between the leadership and the organized people. Once this communication link is broken, the consequence is the reinforcement of practices such as the ones we are denouncing, and silence will only weaken the revolutionary project. That is why critique, from the left, is important, in order to generate an accumulation of forces that can push for policy changes from the government.
AB – We understand that in the current context many doubts emerge when there are these denunciations which relate to government policy. There is a predisposition against these kinds of campaigns because there is this idea that “it is not the right moment” to undertake them. But what we defend is that it is always “the right moment” when it comes to the people.
We also need to clarify that the campaign does not have the goal of delegitimizing or weakening the government. What we are looking for is to draw the government’s attention to what is going on, so that the necessary corrections can be implemented. This is a central question. In the end, this is a campaign in line with Surgentes’ work of supporting and taking part in processes that construct socialism and defend Chavez’s legacy.
- “A Toda Vida Venezuela” was a mission launched by former President Hugo Chávez in June 2012 to address insecurity and implement the new security model.
Translated by Ricardo Vaz for Venezuelanalysis.com.