The on-going slaughter: police violence in Venezuela

By Keymer Avila

The recent UN report caused shockwaves in the international community by setting out a previously unknown number of homicides and deaths committed by the state security forces in 2018.

The report, from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), on Venezuela has led to a number of debates about the state of civil and political rights. One of the many contributions of Bachelet’s report, is the presentation of previously unknown figures of homicides and deaths at the hands of the state security forces for 2018.

The Venezuelan government reported a total of 10, 598 homicides in 2018. However, this figure, like that of 2017, doesn’t include those who were killed by the state security forces who were deemed to be resisting the authorities.

This means that the number of state homicides appears as a third less than it actually is. Omitting the figures of those killed by the state security forces is not only a cover up of the real figure but also a way of concealing serious human rights violations. When the 5,287 deaths caused by the state security forces are added to the official figures, the total number of homicides amounts to 15,885.

As explained in other research and made clear by this report, there has been a clear increase in the number of people killed by the state security forces in recent years. According to the official figures provided by the government to the OHCHR, in 2018, 33% of homicides in the country were the result of interventions by the state security forces. This is 5,287 young working-class Venezuelans killed by the police. Put differently, every day 15 young people die in Venezuela at the hands of “law enforcement officers.”

The percentage of these murders as a part of the total homicide rate is increasing: in 2010 only 4% of homicides were caused by the state security forces; just eight years later it has reached 33%. This means that currently one in every three homicides that occurs is the result of intervention from the state security forces.

Percentage of deaths at the hands of state security forces within total number of homocides | Nueva Sociedad, Ávila

To get a clearer idea of what is happening in Venezuela, we can compare it with Brazil, a country with seven times the population of Venezuela. In 2016 4,222 people in Brazil died as a result of intervention from state security forces, or 7.8% of their total homicides. These figures are significantly lower, in relation to both the number of victims and the percentage they represent as part of the total number of homicides.

We can say with certainty that, in Venezuela, between 2010 and 2018, the period when there has been the most access to systematised and up to date information, some 23,688 people have been killed by the state security forces, and that 69% of these cases have happened in the past 3 years.

The rise of hard-line policies in much of Latin America is of big concern. One sign of this shift is the increasing number of police raids targeting ethnic minorities which operate outside the law. These actions have occurred as a result of viewing the vulnerable and ethnic minorities through the lens of a military operation. Countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico which are different in many ways, have all begun to militarise internal security, leading to the deaths of thousands of citizens by the security forces in recent years. Cases such as the assassination of Marielle Franco, Bertha Cáceres, Sabino Romero, along with the murders of hundreds of Colombian social leaders – with the number of murders rising after the peace agreement – and the disappearances of the 43 from Ayotzinapa or Alcedo Mora. These are just some of the best-known cases.

Establishing which country takes the dishonourable first place here is difficult to determine and could be said to depend on party loyalties and partisan interests. Moreover, rigorous data is often difficult to obtain and in cases where the data is available, it is often not reliable.

Brazil, Jamaica, El Salvador, Venezuela are among the countries with the most dangerous law enforcement agencies on the continent. This conclusion can be reached through contrasting the research conducted by Anneke Osse and Ignacio Cano with the latest official information provided by the Venezuelan government outlined in the aforementioned OHCHR report. At the same time, it is important to point out that the cases of Colombia and Mexico appear to be so serious that researchers – in general – have a hard time assessing the real magnitude of what is happening there.

Osse and Cano calculate the number of people killed by police firearms for every 100,000 inhabitants globally, using a number of sources: international studies, publications from police supervisory bodies, analysis from non-governmental organisations, academic studies and official sources. The countries which had the highest rates were El Salvador (5.2), Jamaica (4.1), Brazil (2)and South Africa (0.6).

Due to the diversity of sources it is difficult to make a rigorous comparison between these figures and the rates calculated for Venezuela over the past three years. But according to official figures, 16-19 people are killed by the state security forces for each 100,000 inhabitants in Venezuela. These results place the country among the highest for police death rates, both regionally and globally.

Despite this data there are some sectors of the orthodox left, who haven’t got over cold war logic, and appeal for solidarity with the Venezuelan government. Their harmful logic is to deny the facts, something that ultimately serves to delegitimises them. These groups, which continue to shrink in size, look to justify, legitimize or relativize what is happening in Venezuela or ,if not, they keep quiet or turn away. Because of this response from parts of the left, it is left to mainly liberals to fight against state repression and flying the flag for human and minority rights.

Some groups who have been persecuted in the past have now become persecutors and justify their actions by arguing “it happened in the past” or because “they also did it”. They try and make comparisons, arguing that “in the past it was worse” or that neighbouring countries also do it. This immaturity and irresponsibility is a way of legitimising their hardships. They are like scolded children who try to defend themselves by pointing out that other children were naughty and got away with it and, how the world is against them.

It is very worrying that the those who are currently being persecuted could are the future persecutors, in a circular logic that is ultimately about the trying to get control of Venezuela’s enormous oil wealth.

One of the usual justifications for state violence is the fight against “terrorism”, the state of permanent “war”, a state of exception where everything goes. A very similar argument to those made by the Southern Cone dictators who did everything in the fight against “communism”. Now it seems that everything can be justified in the fight against “imperialism”. Of course, this is not the case for all imperialism: in case of China and Russia they look the other way.

This is a way of justifying behaving in the same way as ‘the enemy’ which sometimes means committing even worse atrocities. In criminology this is known as “neutralisation techniques”. There are 5 techniques involved in neutralisation, as explained by David Matza y Gresham Sykes more than 60 years ago: the denial of responsibility, the denial of harm, the denial of the victim, the condemnation of the condemners and the appeal to higher allegiances or superior values. These techniques try and preserve self-image while actually acting in ways s contrary to the values that are actually endorsed. This means indulging first in self-justification before justifying your actions to others. It is a way of neutralizing values and makes any feelings of guilt and shame more bearable.

Using this theoretical framework, Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni explained how some people justify state crimes through historical examples: colonialism, Nazism, Stalinism and national security. “This technique is used when it is claimed that in every war there are deaths, that innocents everywhere suffer, that mistakes are inevitable, excesses cannot be controlled, etc.”

This can be seen when people justify the murders of political prisoners in the custody of the Venezuelan state, of which there are at least 5 cases since 2015, all of whom were referred to as “terrorists” by the state. There is a similar logic at play justifying the massacre of thousands of young people, whose chief crime is being poor. This has been happening for years in Venezuelaand it is a testing ground for applying it later to other group in different ways based on the social status of the recipient.

Finally, we must not lose sight that terrorist states are the ones that have the strongest anti-terrorist discourse. Terrorism is a catch all phrase that is defined by the powerful in their own interests. Using that framework anyone can be a terrorist and it is a game that always ends badly.

**

This article was originally published by Nueva Sociedad and translated by opendemocracy.net. Cover photo: Oswaldo Pacheco Guzmán (used by Venezuelan Voices with the author’s permission).

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