They say they are killing people in Venezuela

November 26, 2020. Book presentation by Manuel Llorens and Verónica Zubillaga.

Original article in Spanish here. Photo credit: REACIN.

The game we are playing

A mother tells the story of her son’s execution at the hands of the state’s security forces. She says how, as he left his home, the officer snapped: “We didn’t eat the black beans because they lacked stew”, meaning they didn’t stop to steal the scarce food she had on the fridge, after killing her son, because it wasn’t tasty enough.

That fragment accumulates all the horror that Venezuela is facing: the brutal indifference to the wounds left behind by the abuse; the unbridled omnipotence of power sarcastically showing off in front of its victims; the way in which the state is not only the protagonist of many of these killings, but also mocks its victims in multiple ways. It’s a bleak picture of dehumanization.

Before this suffocating reality, us, as researchers, have decided to place the tools that concern us first: the register, the analysis, the reflection and the complaint. We are committed to the resistance we have known up close: the mothers that gather to negotiate peace agreements with the armed youth in their neighborhoods; the teachers that insist on working for the future despite the daily threat; the artists that turn cynicism into a soul trace, to force us to reflect amid the hustle and bustle; the activists who won’t stop supporting the victims, despite all the risks they face, and the insistence of many Venezuelans on pressing and proposing solutions to the horror, thinking of a future coexistence where we can live with dignity.

Four years ago, we funded the Activism and Research Network for Coexistence (Reacin) with the purpose of linking our research work with the efforts of activism. The violence we have been experiencing for decades, which has intensified in recent years, is a research problem, but also and more deeply, a drama that affects our lives. We seek to enhance both sides of the equation with the aim of registering, denouncing and constructing alternatives to the violence installed in the country. This book is one of the products of that initiative.

Here we gather a team of researchers that have been studying, very closely, the armed violence in the country for years. We try to offer a vast and diverse look that goes through the intimate consequences in the concrete lives of those implicated, the impacts of the exacerbated militarization in the country, to the quantitative challenges of measuring the violence, passing through its effects in coexistence.

In the 80s, Venezuela was considered the peaceful exception of an American continent plagued by violence. The events of extreme violence and state repression during the Caracazo, occurring in February 1989, woke us up abruptly from that dream. By the end of that decade, we began to stand alongside the most dangerous South American countries. The continuous progression of the Venezuelan violence, added to a certain stabilization of this issue in countries like Brazil or the relative pacification in Colombia, has reversed the order. The levels of violence in today’s Venezuela place us next to countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, countries that have experienced the havoc of civil wars and ill-fated “Iron Fist” policies, which is how state violence expressed in massive military operations of “war against crime” is known in the region, where abuse at the hands of law enforcement against the people prevails.

Venezuela did not live a civil war, like those countries, but lived a process of social, cultural, political and economic transformation known as the “Bolivarian Revolution” –defined as a peaceful but armed revolution– that unleashed an intense disruption at the heart of the state and in the relation between state agencies and the different social sectors. Since 1999, with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to the presidency, a series of events of frank conflagration between the traditional elites and those aspiring to take their place: coup d’état, oil strike, social protests. Likewise, within the state, this process of transformation created divisions and internal struggles, especially among security institutions, creating a severe disruption in their capacity to apply public policies and also in the rule of law. A permanent social divisiveness, with conjunctures of major or minor belligerence, together with the uncontrolled proliferation of weapons, multiplied lethal interpersonal violence among citizens. The persistent exclusion in which the male youth has lived, as in the past, continued expelling them towards networks of unlawful economies, accompanied by weapons, marking their trajectories towards a tragic fate.

From 2010, in parallel to a police reform that aimed to control the involvement of police groups in crimes, as well as regulate the abuse of force towards the poorest population, a new wave of militarization and “Iron Fist” plans took place. This militarized advance curtailed the police reform as it created massive incarceration at the same time, and as a consequence, led to a reorganization of the criminal world as a reaction. With the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013, the assumption of the presidency by Nicolás Maduro and, since 2014, the collapse in oil prices and production, state violence became brutal. A new wave of repressive “Iron Fist” plans initiated in 2015 with the so-called People’s Liberation Operations (OLP), as in El Salvador and Guatemala, far from soothing discontent and controlling a more organized criminality, encouraged a larger armament among criminal groups. These, willing to respond to “war”, dragged the people of the popular sectors to it, where the majority of the dead come from. In the post-Chávez era the failure of the Bolivarian process to achieve the promised inclusion of the poor creating a new state becomes clear. And, still beyond, the profound contradiction of a “revolution” that claimed it would stand up for the poor is obvious, because in its aftermath, it ends up repressing them in a bloody manner.

A series of works, starting with The Violence in Venezuela, have documented an increase to epidemic levels of the violence in our country for the past thirty years. Local and international researchers have turned their gaze to Venezuela trying to explain this phenomenon.

This book adds to the analysis of Venezuelan violence. It aims to reveal the diversity of expressions that armed violence has acquired in the country in recent years, including the multiplication of scenarios in which it unfolds –from lynchings in a middle-class Caracas neighborhood, to the frontiers of the country, passing through the violence of criminal gangs and the state’s militarized operatives–, the different manners in which it has organized, the logics of the perpetrators and the consequences it’s producing in good part of the population.

José Luis Fernández-Shaw offers a review of the manners in which an attempt to record the violence has been made and proposes a numerical and conceptual framework to refine the register and comprehension of specific local dynamics. His analysis goes to show that it’s worth studying the specific conditions that influence violence in the different parts of the country. For example, what happens around the Orinoco Mining Arc has different particularities to what happens in the Paria peninsula. Despite being the last chapter, we mention it first because the book follows this logic, trying to show a national outlook through records that will not stop short of grasping the local experience and the diversity of the logics of violence.

In this sense, in the first two sections, we examine the impact violence has in intimate life and in the communities. A team collected data in three areas of the Great Caracas where we registered the impact of violence in children’s lives, in their schools and communities. We discuss how chronic violence influences the manner in which we link and how it affects the exercise of citizenship. Then, Francisco Sánchez provides us with the testimony of the mothers whose sons were killed, the manners in which they deal with their pain and their attempts to fight against impunity.

In the third section, Andrés Antillano and Chelina Sepúlveda offer us an inquiry on life paths and the explanations given by the convicted murderers to their own lives, through the analysis of a series of interviews. The stories compiled from the perpetrators allow us to think about the social conditioning that enables the access to violence as well as the interpretations that perpetrators make of their actions.

Understanding the failure of what started as a proposal managed by the government to reform the police at national level, but gave rise to the dismantling of the institutions that it created through militarization, is a key element offered by Keymer Ávila in his chapters. His analysis, contrasting the data of police officers killed versus citizens killed in the country and abroad, further proves this warped tendency.

Following, Verónica Zubillaga and Rebecca Hanson examine the repressive logics of the Venezuelan state, which has moved from what they call prison punitivism to systematic killing, through militarized operatives. Throughout the book the state’s grim responsibility is evident, both by neglect and inefficiency as well as due to an excess in the use of force. Andrés Antillano, Verónica Zubillaga, Francisco Sánchez and Luz Ortiz close the section with a description of the violent logics that operate in the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

The last chapter by José Luis Fernández-Shaw, as mentioned above, besides proposing a quantitative approximation to the study of Venezuelan violence, serves as an organizational framework for the observations collected throughout the book.

Through all the works the helplessness of the population with scarce access to institutionalized justice and the impact of the militarization in everyday life is clearly reflected. With militarization we refer not only to the growth of the military apparatus but also to the war logics manifested in speeches and practices from power defining a big part of the population as the “enemy”.

The violence, then, not only refers to the armed death that we suffer daily in disproportionate amounts; it also refers to the deep wound inflicted on coexistence, taken by distrust, with a civil society increasingly cornered and disjointed, less willing to resort to formal instances to settle their differences.

We are undoubtedly describing a bleak picture, a country that bleeds out with the violent death of a good part of its youth, crying out for justice into the void. But despite this, we do not write from a place of discouragement. This is also a country that insists in resisting: through the nuns in a religious school preserving a space where families can mourn their dead without the rival gangs that want to access and sabotage the ritual; through the mothers of murdered youth that gather in the Southern General Cemetery to celebrate the birthdays of those who are no longer here and offer comfort to each other; and yes, through the journalists, lawyers and researchers as we do not cease in our efforts to show that which power would like to keep hidden.    

This is not a book seeking to lament, but looking for a diagnosis just as the doctor tries to organize the suffering to create a plan; as the poet who tries words to get closer to the health of knowing he is very sick, writing to see how to digest the desperate and moldy loaves of death.

The book can be found online and in bookshops.

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