Battling murder in the participatory republic

28 May 2009

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 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.

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 halved 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 insecurity" 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 two-pronged participation, 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 station. 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 away."

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. 

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