It is very difficult to generalize, each slum has its own universe, actors and logic. Last year, when a violent incident took place in Petare, I made very similar comments. Anyone who intends to speak about La Vega, Cota 905, or the events that took place or are still taking place there should be familiar with the area in some way, either because it is the object of their field studies, observations, monitoring or analysis, or because they live in that place. This is not my case, and that is why I can only refer to very basic and general questions that any criminologist or sociologist specialized in the criminal system or the study of violence could discuss, more than just repeating what is already abundant on social media. At this stage, we must avoid unfounded opinions.
I believe three basic things must be taken into account when reflecting on these events: the context of deep structural violence that Venezuelans suffer, the structure of illicit opportunities offered by the system itself, and the institutional violence that is functional to both.
In the first place, how and why do gangs with this high firepower form? This phenomenon is a sample of the institutional precariousness of the State at various levels: the most fundamental is the social and economic levels. This is known as structural violence and has to do with social exclusion and the non-satisfaction of the most basic needs of the population. This absence of a real Social State, with truly universal, non-discriminatory, sustainable, institutionalized, non-clientelistic and non-sporadic policies, is the mother of all other forms of violence. It is the type of violence that deprives, for example, excluded young people of sufficient opportunities for a life in the licit world. Greater social exclusion reduces the options for legal life, especially in our current context where the private and public economy is broken. What legal options are currently being offered to young people in the country?
Then other types of violence cascade down, such as social violence, criminal violence, individual violence, etc. Traditionally, in certain political situations where structural and institutional violence is evident, criminal and individual violence becomes more visible as a way to cover up structural violence. We will return to this later.
Now that a framework has been described, in which criminal violence is inserted within a logic of structural and institutional violence that generates, empowers and defines it, we can focus on the criminal violence that occurs within armed gangs, beyond the cultural and age approaches that are fundamental for the study of these phenomena. There is one element that I consider fundamental: for organized armed groups to exist in a territory, a “structure of illicit opportunities” must pre-exist. This is the very core of the study of criminal subcultures. This brings us to the second aspect that needs to be considered.
Who loses? All of us ordinary citizens
What is an illicit opportunity structure?
It is the support of the “licit” world to the emergence of a criminal organization. This includes social, institutional, economic, and political support, among others, that translates into guarantees to operate with impunity, the collaboration of the police and military, complicity of prosecutors and judges, political and economic patronage, among others. This has nothing to do with ideologies or political programs, it is just a matter of business, of common illicit markets. These alliances are not stable, sometimes these common interests can come into conflict leading to irregular wars between the sides.
The criminal gangs would be, then, just one more link in the chain. Here are basic questions: How do they get the weapons? How do they have access to weapons of war? How do they get ammunition? How come do some of them possess grenades? Who is responsible for the manufacture, import, distribution, and marketing of arms and ammunition in the country? Who has that monopoly? Since when do they have it?
In short: big gangs cannot arise nor have power without the minimum support or at least tolerance of the police or the military, prosecutors, judges, and the political and economic power of the “legal” world.
This collusion and convergence of interests between the authorities -be it their low, middle or high institutional ranks- and the criminal gangs somehow end up creating the so-called criminal governance. Whenever the State and the institutions that regulate social life are absent and stop fulfilling their role, this space is occupied by other actors. This is not a unique or autochthonous phenomenon; we can see it in the peripheries of several Latin American cities in Central America, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, but negative patriotism often forces us to think we are the only ones or the worst case, and it is not. We are not the only ones, although we are among the countries with the highest rates of homicides and police lethality.
The third aspect that must be considered is the institutional violence to which State terrorism and the different forms of dictatorship and police and military repression belong. This type of violence is an instrument for the reproduction and maintenance of structural violence. That is why the criminal system makes both forms of violence invisible and only deals symbolically and selectively, especially in times of crisis, with some cases of direct individual or group violence that are defined as crimes.
In some specific situations of political, economic or legitimacy crises, the issue of citizen security can be a wild card; in some serious and dramatic cases, it can serve to cover up a structural crisis that is more difficult to address. It becomes a substitution of public enemies. Depending on the circumstances, the system evaluates which one it chooses and how it deals with it. This legitimizes certain armed state apparatuses while distracting public attention so that it does not have to deal with other issues that are possibly more difficult to address. This clearly happened with the police operations known as Operación Liberación del Pueblo (OLP), in an electoral year; It also happened with the creation of the Special Actions Forces (FAES) during the 2017 protests. As we have explained on other occasions, these policies are not a mere response to specific criminal phenomena which are just the excuse to enable a series of political and economic functionalities.
The existing figures and indicators show us, firstly, that the majority of deaths at the hands of the security forces do not take place during confrontations with equivalent criminal groups, but are rather the consequence of the excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force by these bodies. Cases of confrontations with equivalent criminal groups are rather exceptional. The problem lies when an exceptional occurrence seeks to justify the routine actions and drip massacre that is being carried out against the excluded and racialized young people of the slums of Venezuela.
According to official figures, one out of every three homicides in the country is the result of the intervention of the State security forces. In 2018, 15 young Venezuelans died every day under this circumstance. The partial figures of the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year, as well as the estimates of the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, suggest that this ratio has since increased.
The result is the loss of thousands of human lives, the radicalization and mutation of criminal gangs that are becoming more violent and better armed, together with the increasing empowerment of the police and military apparatuses that end up imposing their will. Who loses? All of us ordinary citizens who end up at their mercy.
Translated by José Rafael Medina / Hearts on Venezuela
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