The Paradox of Violence in Venezuela

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Rebecca Hanson

From October 29-31, 2015, the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University hosted a conference that brought together research on violence in Latin America in order to better understand violence in Venezuela. “The Paradox of Violence in Venezuela: A Comparative Approach” was organized by David Smilde, Veronica Zubillaga, and myself.

The goal of the conference was to understand why a country that saw significant progress in reducing poverty and inequality (at least through 2012) at the same time saw crime and violence soar.

While the discussion focused on Venezuela, we sought to put it in regional context. Fernando Carrión (FLASCO), Robert Gay (Connecticut College), Dennis Rodgers (University of Glasgow), and Benjamin Lessing (University of Chicago) provided comparative perspectives on Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, respectively. Desmond Arias opened with a keynote address and Richard Snyder led the final discussion.

Below, I provide a summary of the presentations from the conference.

Desmond Arias (George Mason University) gave the keynote, asking: though violence in Venezuela is extreme, how different is this violence from other countries in the region? He reminded us that, though violence in the region has taken new forms, it is embedded in a country’s history and the ways in which countries have marginalized certain populations.

Asking why crime in the region is so resilient, he proposed that violence has affected a variety of life processes and created new systems. This system of violence becomes part of the collective life of people, part of their identities and subjectivities. It also creates new economic opportunities, in the form of illicit economies but also the legal economy.

Violence and criminal organizations have combined to create political systems as well. Once violence as a system is set up, it will not disappear simply because one leader is removed from it. Because violence has touched so many areas of life, we must think of programs that will make small interventions, not just one huge solution.

David Smilde (Tulane University) opened the first day of paper presentations noting themes across the papers and offered questions to consider with each topic:

*One-third of the papers spoke to the drug market and how violence is related to these markets. But why do illicit markets cause violence in some areas and not others? How can we better operationalize illicit markets and whether or not they are monopolized?

*Other papers examined prisons and they way in which violence links prisons and outside society. Why are prisons privileged spaces from which to organize crime and violence? Is it due simply to institutional weakness or is there another mechanism driving this relationship?

*Another group of papers looked at the diverse policies the government has enacted to combat crime and its continued lack of monopoly over violence. How can we conceptualize states and governments with an incomplete monopoly over violence? Is this incomplete monopoly simply a lack of capacity or a part of specific political and governing projects?

The first panel of presentations focused on situating the problem within the current Venezuelan context. On this panel, Dorothy Kronick (University of Pennsylvania) and Robert Briceño León (Laboratorio de Ciencias Sociales, [LACSO]) provided explanations for why crime has increased so rapidly in the past 15 years.

Kronick argued that since 1991 Venezuela has increased its role in drug trafficking. As the Andean initiative pushed traffickers out of Colombia, it pushed them into Venezuela, thus increasing the flow of drugs in transit increased as well as consumption and the micro trafficking of drugs. This increase in drug trafficking is a major factor in understanding the increase in violence according to Kronick.

Briceño León argued that the deinstitutionalization and breakdown of the rule of law that occurred under the Chávez government has directly led to the increase in crime and violence.

Fernando Carrión (FLASCO) provided a comparative perspective from Ecuador. Similar to Venezuela, Carrión (FLASCO) showed that the Plan Colombia also pushed drug trafficking into Ecuador, where it became an important export country to China, Vietnam, and Brazil. Though Ecuador is often viewed as one of the safest countries in the region, Carrión argued that the growth of money laundering, syndicates, and drug trafficking have combined to double Ecuador’s homicide rate since 1990. In contrast to Venezuela, however, the government has successfully implemented new security plans that seem to have reduced homicide rates in the past five years (at least according to government statistics).

The second panel addressed the relationship between drug trafficking, prisons, and violence.  Andres Antillano (Universidad Central de Venezuela) spoke to the relationship between the state and violence inside of the prison system. Antillano argued that, similar to marginalized sectors of the country, the government has relinquished control over violence and punishment.

The current system of governance inside the prisons is controlled by small groups of prisoners. In this setting, violence operates as a resource subjects can use to construct self-valorization, as a form of gaining and maintaining sovereignty, and as a means to extract rents and material resources from others. It is the extreme marginalization of those in prison that has created an environment in which violence is such an important and effective resource.

Veronica Zubillaga (Universidad Simon Bolívar and current visiting Professor at Brown University) provided an overview of the factors driving violence in Venezuela, emphasizing that drugs and arms are key players. Concurring with Kronick’s argument, she argued that there is a new spatialization of violence in the country as drugs and narcotraffickers have migrated from Colombia to Venezuela.

In addition, the tension within the state between a militarized and civilian-controlled model of security has kept the state from being able to control new violent actors. Finally, the collaboration between state actors and criminal actors engenders violence.

Robert Gay (Connecticut College) discussed the long history of gang-run prisons in Brazil. The three main gangs in the country use prisons as the bases through which they run the drug trade in the favelas. According to Gay, any security plan that does not rupture the linkages between communities and prisons via gangs will fail. The new Pacifying Police Units (PPU) put police stations in these favelas, and they seem to be interrupting the relationship between the prison and the favelas.

However, it is unclear how successful they have been and whether or not the government can afford a program that has greatly increased the cost of policing: from 1.7 billion to 10 billion. Furthermore, even with these expenditures the program only covers 3% of favelas and only 10% of the favelas population.

The third panel addressed new citizen security plans that the Venezuelan government has implemented. Luis Gerardo Gabaldón (Universidad de Los Andes) provided a detailed overview and critiques of the national police reform, which began in 2006 with the CONAREPOL, and the disarmament commission, which proposed a disarmament law that was passed by the National Assembly in 2013.  

However, because there is little support, even within the government, to follow through with disarming the population, disarmament has largely consisted of publicity campaigns and the destruction of small guns. According to Gabaldón, police reform is hamstrung by the involvement of the military in day-to-day policing, which promotes mass arrests to fight crime. Despite these problems, Gabaldón cautioned against “starting from scratch” when many security plans have been developed, just not implemented.

David Smilde and I presented data on citizens’ receptions of recent citizen security reforms. We showed that while 45% of the population support recent reforms, which have championed human rights and the regulation of police officers’ use of force, most of those surveyed (42%) believed that limiting officers’ use of force limited their ability to fight crime (this is compared to 35% of people that did limiting force limits the police’s ability to fight crime).

Furthermore, we argued that support for security reforms is heavily dependent on political affiliation and not necessarily for the content of the security reforms. Thus, while many obstacles stand in the way of successful security reforms, public opinion and political polarization are perhaps two of the most important challenges to take into account.

Dennis Rodgers (University of Amsterdam) compared Venezuelan security to Nicaragua, a country often held up as the safe exception in a violent region. Rodgers critiqued the notion that Nicaragua is an exception to the violent countries it is surrounded by. Though Rodgers noted that homicide rates are lower, he argued that those rates are much higher in Nicaragua than what is currently reported.

Furthermore, these lower levels of violence are not simply the result of effective policing or values handed down from the Sandinista revolution. Instead, Rogers argues, they are principally due to the contemporary Nicaraguan state effectively becoming a oligarchic narco-state based on a particular elite political settlement. The latter has been facilitated by the fact that the Sandinista revolution was the only successful revolution in Central America and it forced the elite to agree to compromise and divide up rather than compete for the Nicaraguan pie.

The fourth and final panel looked at the ways in which citizens and civil society respond to violence—interpersonal, structural, and state. Manuel Llorens ( Universidad Católica Andrés Bello), spoke about ways in which people have negotiated violence and attempted to survive the risk of becoming a victim in the absence of the state’s protection.

In one barrio, mothers were able to convince young men to stop selling drugs and using guns to settle disputes within the community. Evangelical groups have provided safe spaces for some and an alternative to violence. Yet, others have turned to lynching in an attempt to protect their communities. Despite resistance and resilience, Lloren’s presentation highlighted how living in violent environments produces identities and strategies predicated on the use of and anticipation of violence.

Alejandro Velasco (NYU) talked about the ways in which the state has historically interacted with and enacted violence upon civil society in one poor grouping of barrios in Caracas, Venezuela—23 de Enero. He traced the ebb and flow of organizing in the sector and the ways in which the state interacted with these groups: violent repression of dissidents, the cooptation of local civil society and political groups, and the creation of cultural and sporting initiatives. Velasco stressed that in order to understand current violence we have to look at continuity and breaks with past violences.

Benjamin Lessing (The University of Chicago) spoke about the reduction of violence in El Salvador through a truce between gangs, negotiated by the government. According to Lessing, though negotiating with criminal organizations remains taboo, we need to recognize the potential for mutually beneficial bargains between states and criminal organizations is obvious. Specific governments (or even regimes) stand to lose public support or even power if criminal organizations carry out threats of mass violence. Conversely, criminal organizations live largely at the mercy of the state, particularly when their leaders are imprisoned. Thus, both sides have motivations to negotiate to reduce violence.

Presentations and debate over two days made clear the following. Other Latin American countries such as Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua share many of the basic causes of violence in Venezuela—drug trafficking, dysfunctional justice and corrections systems, violent police forces, and ready access to guns. Yet Venezuela’s homicide rates are two or three times as high. There must be something else going on and that something likely has to do with the radical processes of change in the economy, state institutions and criminal networks. It is the unsettled character of Venezuela’s licit and illicit institutional context that seems to intensify processes of violence compared to neighboring countries.

The conference ended with a discussion led by Richard Snyder (Brown University). He suggested progress would require a more precise understanding of: the relationship between drugs and violence, how micro trafficking works and the relationship it has to the state, the incomplete control the state has over its territory, and the relationship between revolutionary movements and violence.

He also noted some gaps. None of the presentations included an analysis of Venezuela as a petro-state, which might have implications how violence operates. Furthermore, few of the presentations discussed the role of political parties in controlling or motivating violence.

The organizers plan to organize a second conference, this time in Caracas, which would seek to consolidate the discussion in the process of publishing a book in both Spanish and English. Our goal is to contribute to the urgent debate on violence in Venezuela and the formulation of public policies to address it.