“A city with wartime levels of violence but no war.”

Dorothy Kronick strikes again. First this, now this all-too-rare-in-foreign-media meditation on just how weird Venezuela’s urban violence epidemic is, with bloodletting on a scale normally associated with war spreading despite the absence of identifiable warring factions.

Personally, though, I think Kevin Ávila-style thug eruptions like the ones at UCV last week aren’t the best way to illustrate the mass anomic violence in the barrios. They’re the politically-motivated exception, not the senseless general rule.

It’s true that the government doesn’t directly control either form of violence, but I don’t see Chávez literally hugging random azotes de barrio like he did Kevin. Which makes a difference, I think.

That’s picking a nit, though. The broader point is that, in spite of itself, the government is making the case for liberalization more forcefully each day:

They take direct control of the cement sector and – puff – cement production plummets. They centralize the electric sector in its entirety and, pretty soon, the lights go out. They crowd out all other big players in food distribution and – ta da! – it’s impossible to find milk…

The one sector to flourish is the only one they’ve left to get on free of any attempt at top-down central control: shooting people.

50 thoughts on ““A city with wartime levels of violence but no war.”

  1. I think that Barreto at least, if not Chávez, did literally hug random barrio thugs. Remember Phil Gunson’s (among others’) reporting on that? (I can’t find any ungated articles).

      • Boah…there is so much wrong there.

        * Double bed for a criminal?
        * Minister of whatever hugging a serious criminal?
        * On his bed?
        * Both are obese. If such PRAN leaders are obese and can escape so easily, what is the physical condition of Venezuelan cops?

      • Not too long ago, I saw this particular PRAN. He goes by the moniker of “El Conejo” (The Rabbit). Did I have to go to the prison to see him? No, of course not! He was in the Panaderia where I have my coffee in the morning. He was accompanied by two guards from the prison who were acting as his bodyguards.

        El mundo esta completamente a revés.

        • Ah…yo estaba pensando: “en esas prisiones no pasan hambre”. Pero por supuesto que tenían que ser los cachitos y la chicha de la Panadería Madeira.

  2. Based on their record and past if they try to fight crime and the shooting of people it will turn into a an all out turkey shoot. They fail at everything. The only reason they are still there in power is petro dollars.

    Its like the spoiled kid that his trust fund always gets him out of trouble. He is only popular because of his money. His friends are around only for the perks of his money. We all know at least one!

  3. I don’t know, Kevin Avila is more like a tool of the revolution than the random violence the Government has done little about in the last decade out of incapacity and negligence. Kevin does follow orders, likely even gets a monthly payment to do his deeds. He targets the enemies of the process, common crime and homicides target the poor, where Chavismo is a majority (or so we are told).

    • Yup, I agree, and that’s why I think hanging this piece on the UCV vandalism is a bit misleading.

      What Dorothy is getting at, though, is that what we didn’t see was the government send in a batallion of Militias or National Guardsmen marching into UCV with specific orders from the top guy to bust some skulls open and tear stuff up, the way a proper fascist regime would have done it.

      Even when it’s political, violence is decentralized, run by guys like Kevin with some flight autonomy and with resources that may be state-aided, but are not the Resources of the State.

      • I’m not so sure these thugs (I mean, Kevin Avila and his associates) have some flight autonomy. They probably got the green light from “the top” to do whatever they considered necessary within some boundaries set by whoever gave the OK. If you call “to do whatever they considered necessary” to have “some autonomy”, then they do. Other than that they do follow orders from the top. They even have a good supply of tear gas, which you can’t buy at the corner store, and a handful of guns. So, I’m positive they do use the resources of the State.

        • Sure, but you need to recognize the ambivalence at play, because the resources of the State include not just tear gas but also hundreds of thousands of assault riffles, fighter jets, tanks, artillery…yet the vast majority of the deaths due to violence are utterly unhinged from that kind of resource.

          I fully take Dorothy’s point that it’s not a political decision as such that can account for the violence – but this thread captures neatly why picking out Kevin Ávila to illustrate a point about anomic violence is a mistake: there’s too much ambivalence at play to bring it home neatly.

          • I absolutely agree with you. I was just taking a shot at your claim that Kevin and Co. were not fully sponsored by the State. I just don’t agree with that.

            Having said that, I think Dorothy’s argument goes right at the heart of the problem. Even if the case of violence at UCV is not the typical case of violence in Venezuela, it does reflect the root of the problem: IMPUNITY! Criminals (State sponsored or not) know that they basically won’t be caught. So, they run free and do what they please. That also explains the increase in corruption, which by the way exacerbates the problem of a weak rule of law. It also explains why now when it rains in Caracas, hundreds of motor bikers find shelter under the bridges that go over the main highway and leave only one lane for cars to pass, which obviously is the cause of insane traffic jams on rainy days. There is no authority that dares to tell these people that they can’t stop the traffic just because they don’t want to get wet! In summary, the degradation of the rule of law is so deep that basic social rules are no longer so basic.

            I think one can make the case that this degree of impunity is the result of political decisions made by this government. So, It is indirectly sponsoring violence by omission because for some weird reason more crime and corruption serve its revolutionary purposes.

          • Quico,

            You are correct about it being hard to get a handle on. The societal norms that people outside of Venezuela take for granted have eroded. Chavismo has created an “Us vs. Them” mentality amongst his followers. The Opposition has been disenfranchised to the point that they are not considered to merit the protections of the State and the Constitution and dehumanized to the point that they are not considered to deserve the normal civility and respect accorded a fellow countryman.

            This is why an act as egregious as that committed by Kevin Avila and this thugs is simply not considered to be criminal here. But by disenfranchising and dehumanizing such an ill defined group as the Opposition and countenancing thuggery against that group, they have opened the door for general thuggery to survive and thrive.

  4. Most of your readers have probably already seen Onechot’s video “Rotten Town” but just in case, here’s the link:

    Quoting the artist: “Refleja el sentimiento de tristeza y desesperación por la ola de criminalidad, violencia e inseguridad social que nos asedia. A través del video, los artistas asumen una posición crítica ante la violencia, la criminalidad y la inseguridad que cada vez cobra más víctimas en nuestras ciudades, en nuestras calles. Es un video que pretende dejarnos claro que todos somos responsables de lo que ocurre y que depende de todos lograr soluciones inminentes. Es un video para la reflexión, donde no solamente resaltan la música y la letra; también se propone ir más allá para despertar la conciencia ciudadana y de convivencia, que cada día se hace más aciaga”.

    • What this Venezuela Rasta fails to convey is this is large part a product of Chavismo crap for over a decade. “Todos somos responsables de la inseguridad”? Yeah? What about the vast majority of people who never would even consider hurting or robbing anyone, yet are getting tormented and killed by a minority of thus who can easily live with impunity with their crimes. Who’s at fault for all the guns in the street, the prison system, the judiciary rotten system, le corrupt “police” out there,, etc.. You and me, and everyone? Chavismo has nothing to do with it? This is where these artists can get the wrong message across..

      • I think Onechot’s point is not that all Venezuelans are responsible for the violence, but they are responsible for looking the other way and not doing something about it. After all, when was the last time there was a marcha demanding action on crime? A public protest? A cacerolazo?

  5. “”People don’t seem to blame the government for the security problem,” Gerardo Gonzalez, an analyst with one of Venezuela’s top polling firms and a Central University of Venezuela graduate, told me in an interview. “In fact, it seems to us that violence might even help Chavez: the more people talk about violence, which they don’t attribute to him, the less they’re talking about unemployment, which they do attribute to him.”

    This is what’s puzzling to me. No one likes insecurity, or to be killed, and robbed every day. And most of it happens in “Chavez’ land”, the barrios, and such. Do people have such short memories to forget that crime has never been as bad as since Chavez took office, by far? Can’t they make the most obvious correlations:

    It’s far from rocket science: Unprecedented, world-record Murders, kidnapping and theft: due several main factors:

    – “Impunity”, as Dorothy and others put it: lack of any semblance of effective law enforcement, before, during and after the crime. This, OF COURSE, is related to Chavez’s putrid government. A corrupt and insufficient police force. A prison system in complete shambles. A Judicial system even more useless and corrupt. You’re gonna blame the pitiyanquis or the imperialists” for that?!

    – Over-abundance of guns everywhere, see above..

    – On a larger sense, the abysmal state of the economy, inflation, unemployment, which entices many poor or dissatisfied people to rob and/or kill for money. That, and as always, a lack of education and basic moral value across the board. Now most Venezuelan’s can’t add 1+1 and blame the Government for these evident facts and crude reality?

    I just don’t get it.

    • Psychologically speaking, people see two very distinct sides of laws and law enforcement: the side that prevents others from harming them, and the side that prevent them from doing what they want. Everyone loves the former, but hates the latter.

      This creates the duality of people in Venezuela who complain that too many other people have an easier time hurting them, but also who are happy that now THEY can get away with things they couldn’t dream of getting away with before.

      Most of the people who still support Chavez do it because he has allowed them to get away with stuff they could not get away with before. All the robbers and purse-snatchers and sicarios and con-men and drug dealers and “invasores”, etc, all are Chavez supporters. Even if they don’t agree with him, even if they don’t like him, even if they know that everything has gotten worse thanks to him, they have to support him because if someone else were to replace him and the law were to return to Venezuela, they wouldn’t be able to continue robbing, purse-snatching, etc.

      So it isn’t that people don’t blame the government for the violence, it is that about 30% of the people are thankful to the government for allowing them to get away with as much violence as they can cause, and don’t want this to change any time soon.

  6. For years this have been the biggest issue about Venezuela. This country is one of the most violent places on earth, beating Mexico and South Africa. The Global Peace Index has confirmed for the last 3 or 4 years that we are in the same level as Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.

    What’s the catch? Technically, we’re not at war.

    I think Venezuela is at war, just that is not a conventional one. I call it “The Everyday War”.

  7. Remember, guys and gals, that Chavez and his inefficiency are a symptom. Inefficiency propitiates effective impunity. A violent discourse from a government (in theory) interested in controlling everything under the Sun justifies violence.

    But I cannot picture the present situation (a bloodbath), in other places of the world where people will not murder you, where they will also not casually steal from stores or from any distracted bystander. Places with fewer policemen on the beat and with much less “security”, private or public. Wealthy places and poor places. Authoritarian and free societies.

    The shorthand answer is more police on the beat, a better judicial system, swift punishment of serious crimes, better prisons that try to prevent re-incidence and so on.

    But something is still quite rotten in Venezuelan society and has been for some time. Something is quite broken for Venezuelans to become predators of their kin. Something is rotten if it’s accepted social norm, or at all.

  8. There are multiple reasons for the problem of crime in the barrios of Caracas and the way their populations view crime.One of these reasons is Santerismo and the Cult of Maria Lionza.I have knowledge of this because I lived in the barrios for years and still have family in them.I am not there anymore but they tell me about this all the time.

    I invite all of you to take a trip to one of these places in Petare, Las Minas….or wherever there are poorer classes…. Santerismo has taken on a whole new twist.

    Criminals are legends in Caracas slums. The foot-high statuettes, wearing guns and knives in their jeans pockets, represent spirits trying to repent for their sins by warning young folks to avoid crime, helping people get out of jail and curing drug addiction.People believe in solutions that have nothing to do with government policy.Malandro statuettes began hitting the shelves some years ago and malandros as spirits surfaced in the early 1990s, along with a rise in crime…

    For the upper classes, the malandro personifies the growing threat of urban violence. In contrast, in the slums, the figure of the malandro oscillates between hero and villain.Most malandros who were killed by police or rival gangsters in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s are viewed as folk heroes — Robin Hoods who stole for the poor and protected neighborhoods.

    When I lived in Los Frailes de Catia in the 60’s I remember how proud many people were of the fact that we were protected by criminals.The local malandros went to other neighborhoods( mostly the rich) to rob and kill.As an example, whenever a drunk threatened me on the streets, everyone would come to my rescue because I was a local and I pretty much walked the streets in safety.Nobody told on the malandros because we were protected.Most who were killed were the malandros fighting among themselves.

    On the other hand as one undisclosed santero said, that while Santeria attracts many for positive reasons, there are those who use it for black magic “because they think they can go kill and rob and nothing will happen to them”.
    And then there are many good and innocent people who are afraid of the criminal santeros and think the government can do nothing to protect them.The think only the powerful but good brand of Santeros can help them.

        • Well, it is worrisome, the analogy is not gratuitious.
          There is a large Congolese community here and some discussion about the Congo-Rwanda-Uganda region. The region is completely concked out.

          I do think there is some major influence. After all: a large part of our African American background is precisely from the Congo area and most likely the slaves came not from ethnicities so close to the coast but from their enemies a little bit or more inland (group X sells people from group Y for steel machetes and glasses).

          Please, take a look at this abstract:

          http://www.jstor.org/pss/2668016

          This keeps coming over and over again in Congo, with guys heavily armed taking some drugs and thinking bulls could not hit them…until they were dead, that is.

          • Kepler, Where did you get that “a large part of our African American background is precisely from the Congo area”? I am interested in this and would appreciate a citation. BTW, I remember reading somewhere that IVIC did a mitochondrial DNA study that revealed that upwards of one third of the population of our country was of African ancestry, but the study did not indicate that the population came from the Congo area.

            • Pipo,

              If I recall well, you love the milicos. You are a Chavista. So: anything I say you will try to reinterpret into your wee ideological constraints.
              There is a lot of literature on this, history books.

              http://www.assatashakur.org/forum/afrodescendientes-en-la-diaspora/35365-procedencia-de-los-esclavos-negros-de-venezuela.html

              The key places were Congo, Angola/Mozambique (from Portuguese traders) and Gambia/Guinea.

              But there is also some genetic research.
              Since 2008 approx. and more so later IVIC has been forced to readdress its
              research on population genetics to show only part of the story. So: a given focus is given on trying to find out our African and indian roots.
              Very probably the caudillo wanted to get the “right” DNA from Bolívar’s bones
              but didn’t get what he wanted, for instance, so that DNA is now secreto de Chávez.
              I will write more on that in a post I am preparing on one of the recent papers.

              Fact is about 25% of Venezuelans have mtDNA of
              sub-Saharan origin, 25% European and about 50% (nationwide) native American.
              That does not mean others don’t have African ancestry. And that doesn’t mean their greatgrandmothers don’t also have European ancestry.
              On the other side, 92% of Venezuelans have European ancestors
              if we look at the y DNA (paternal) haplotypes.
              If we look at the autosomal markers – which motivate a lot of discussion still –
              Venezuelans’ biggest background is European, then native American and then sub-Saharan.

          • Interesting article Kepler…thanks!

            I can see in my mind’s eye a triangle between Venezuela, Africa, and Cuba.

            .

            • Kep,
              Thank you so much for the link to the article. I figured that you would have a good source for your information. BTW, I am neither of the things that you think that I am. If you were to ask me to categorize myself, I would simply tell you that I am a Venezuelan.
              As an aside, I appreciate your comments about El Libertador. I had also read somewhere that he, too, had subsaharan roots – Gabo in his book, El General en su Laberinto, makes mention of this. Again, thanks for the link.

    • Sounds also like Camorra, to the nth. power, only that the “guappos” are infinitely more murderous. With similarities to the criminal cults of Northern Mexico.

      Something is rotten in the former Republic of Venezuela. And it cannot be excised just by ending the reign of the present king.

      If this culture become entrenched, it can take literally generations, if at all, to remove, if it is at all possible.

    • I don’t think that santeria is the main culprit in the situtation. It’s just a side effect. It would be like blaming the dime westerns for the rise of homicides and gunshots in the Wild West. Yes, gunmen and other shady characters like Billy the Kid became icons because of these novels, but they’re just a consequence.
      The main problem is not the sympathy the people in barrios might feel for them. In my opinion, any sympathy that humble people may feel for thugs and azotes is nothing but Stockholm syndrome. You know that if you don’t get along with the armed guy, you’ll end up on the wrong side of the gun. People adapt to anything. Is just the survival instinct kicking in.
      Given that no police officer would dare to go up there – much less stay – people accept that the thug/azote is there to stay and adapt to this. Were the police force – and the state – to go up there to stay, I’m quite sure it’d be the end to the “friendly” thug.
      It’s the state’s fault. PERIOD. No need for a farfetched sociological explanation…

      • Allow me to disagree. Santeria is a side effect, I agree. The State is guilty as charged, I agree. It has dropped the ball totally in education and policing among other things.

        But a huge part of the fault, the lion’s share, is of the people of Venezuela itself. They have dropped the ball in education and in building a community, even more completely than the State did.

        There are plenty of places in the world where it’s very difficult to find a policeman or it’s equivalent, also next to impossible to be robbed and/or killed. Many of those are not known for being first-world, wealthy or even conventionally law-abiding.

        • Yes, probably the citizens should be doing more. But it’s not like we have a genetic predisposition or that we are morally broke. It’s probably more related to our cultural background. For instance, most of the people living in Caracas comes from some other place, principally from the countryside or some other country. Most of this guys have never assimilated the idea that they are citizens, living as serfs, expecting some favor from the noblemen (politicians) and with no attachment to the city. They’re not concerned about politics or the improvement of the city because they have no time for that. Their biggest concern is making ends meet. Rafael Poleo calls that prospector’s attitude. They’re for the quick profit and nothing else. They don’t feel responsible for nothing but themselves. They care about the noblemen and the city only because they can get some benefit out of it, but as soon as it is over, they’ll move.
          Yes, you need to get the citizens involved, but before that, you need to have proper citizens, i.e. people that feel the city as theirs and not just a random transport hub to somewhere else. In the meantime, it’s up to the politicians and the intelligentsia to point the way. That’s the way democracy came to being in Venezuela, and it’s probably the way it will be for a while longer…

          • It’s interesting you say this. I was asking several of my relatives in areas of Carabobo that are still either Chavistas or only last year voted just a bit more oppo. They have been living there for generations.
            I ask them: where are those Chavistas from? My relatives and friends (and they are in different municipios) confirmed my thoughts: the vast majority are newcomers, people who come from the Llanos, Falcón, from Vargas (because of 1999) or foreigners.

            It’s curious that Alexander von Humboldt saw the Llanos as a possible cradle for instability in Venezuela…two centuries ago. There were reasons for that: it was a society where the rule of law was non existent, unlike along the coast, education levels particularly bad.

          • This is a joke but it is true: I have been doing some mining on Tibisay’s little thing for us: the CNE records. And I see the family name Chávez is most likely to be found in the rural areas of Carabobo where Chavismo is stronger. Surnames, even typical Spanish surnames, show some curious patterns that reflect different migrations and histories

  9. “When music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war”
    Confuscius @500 b.c.

  10. I believe I am not the first one to mention this, but what has happened in the last decade is a democratization of violence. Ten years ago, most of the crime was restricted to dangerous neighborhoods. Everybody knew which places were dangerous. Petare, Antimano, El Valle, 23 de Enero, La Vega. There were also “safer” places like Chacao, Altamira, Las Mercedes, to name a few.
    So, there were two realities: the lawless frontier up on the slopes of the hills – barrios – and the “safe” city down in the valley. I remember one night I spent in 23 de Enero when I was a kid visiting some relatives and I recall listening gunshots for like an hour before I felt asleep. Or the other time, 10 years ago, when I was with my father visiting some friends of him in Carapita when a well-known thug just started shooting at someone in plain daylight because that guy insulted him. I also remember I could walk 10-12 years ago during the day or night in Sabana Grande, Altamira or even in donwtown without fear.
    But that was then. In the last ten years, the crime has expanded his territory. There isn’t such thing as a safe place in Caracas anymore. I guess everyone has a story to tell. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a traffic light in plain daylight, in a shopping mall or even at home, nobody’s safe anymore.
    Why aren’t we reacting against that? Probably because we know nobody will listen. Why bother telling the police that your cell phone was just stolen if they can’t even solve a murder? Just take a look at this grim depiction of our criminal police:

    http://www.el-nacional.com/noticia/14608/23/Policia-menguada.html

    People just talk about that when something big happens (Wilson Ramos, Faddoul brothers, etc.) because there are too many things to be scared of: meagre incomes, miserable labor market, goverments threats against anything that moves… Even the opposition, the guys who should be calling the shots and asking for accountability aren’t doing the job. Shouldn’t someone in the MUD be asking why we don’t have enough police officers? Or a better police force? Isn’t that like the job description for a politician in the opposition?

    • Totally agree with you A.Barreda, that’s why think the rise in crime has not affected Chavez so much, because IT WAS a big deal for barrios in the 80’s when Chavez was nowhere to be seen, so people don’t see a direct correlation between Chavez and the rise of crime.
      I have told this to many people, but for middle class and high class venezuelans is difficult to understand that crime WAS a huge problem. The issue now is that it has extended outside the barrios to every single place and of course the numbers have risen.
      Also, it’s like Firepiggete says, in the 70’s-80’s the malandros would protect the locals, so in your own barrio you could feel safe.This is no longer the case, everyone can be a target. But the gunshots at any time of day, the killings, the gang fights, all that has been always part of the life in a barrio.
      I don’t buy the santeria explanation either, or brazil would have a similar situation, the sincretism there is a lot more evident than in Venezuela and they don’t have the same tendency to worship malandros.
      I always tell friends a funny (not really) story of how my family from the interior was terrified of visiting us in Caracas because during the 80’s we had an all out war betweens gans. Around 2000 we convinced them things were much better and that since most of the gang members had died, it was safe to come and visit. We really felt it had been better or maybe we had gotten so used to it we didn’t realized how bad it was. Around 8 pm of their second night we heard a machine gun firing at full speed, people running and screaming, the whole thing. My cousin looked at us with an ironic smile and said, well, it’s soooo good that things have gotten better, I can’t imagine how they were before. No need to say that was the last visit we got from them.

      • Nothing like machine gun fire to get yourattention. I was pumping gasoline and heard shots a few years ago and alone and couldn’t wait to get the heck back to safe area..
        I worry about relatives all of the time…

  11. Violence is a hemispheric phenomenon and rising violence in Venezuela mirrors rising murder rates in all countries from Mexico all the way to South America. In Central America we constantly lament the state of things and how we allowed it to get this bad. Although we can blame people for looking the other way and repeat “los buenos somos mas” as often as we like, the truth is that a lot of this violence would have occurred because it is the product of forces that are were a long time in coming and against which the average citizen can do little. It’s not simply a matter of uniting against the criminals. The criminals ARE average people. Everyone (at least up here in Honduras, a country that vies with Venezuela for the highest murder rate in the Americas) agrees that criminals are to blame for the violence but these criminals exist in some nebulous area and only emerge to commit their criminal acts. The truth is that these criminals can be your neighbor, the guy that cuts your grass or just some random dude walking down the street. Thousands of people have resorted to criminal acts because our nations create the perfect breeding ground for these kinds of activities. The state has traditionally been weak, hobbled by corruption and completely inefficient. Throw narcotrafico and other forms of organized crime into the mix and you have police essentially being sent on a fool’s errand when it comes to halting crime.

  12. wouldn’t this make a good campaign “elevator speech”?

    government controls cement = no cement
    government controls food distribution = no food
    government controls electricity = brownouts

    The one thing we want to control is crime and they don’t

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