Dystopia Today

Forget about Yubraska. The real incarnation of Venezuela in the 21st century was gunned down in a Porlamar disco last Sunday.

Two and a half years ago, PanfletoNegro ran an essay competition on the theme of dystopia. I entered with “Prannation”, a broadly satirical little screed on how “pran” (prison gang lord) ethics could metastasize, burst the banks of the prison system, and eventually colonize the rest of Venezuelan society.

This week, as the murder of Margarita’s legendary pran Teófilo “El Conejo” Cazorla convulsed the island, I found the think piece I’d written to underline the absurdities of a system bizarrely transmogrified, repackaged and served back up to me as the morning news.

This sort of thing has been happening to me with disturbing frequency this year.

“El Conejo” wasn’t any old prison gang boss, he was a visionary. The Steve Jobs of prans. He pioneered the “pax pranica” – the jail so tightly run under a leadership so absolute, it becomes safe. Paradoxically, safer than the communities that surround it. El Conejo was the first guy to see that if you could do that, you could plough back the profits from your other illegal activities into the jail itself, turning it into a kind of recreation center able to in turn make more money from the surrounding community.

El Conejo’s entrepreneurial vision – profiled by Simon Romero in this jaw-dropping 2011 New York Times piece – yielded jails that were the polar opposite of the hellscapes depicted in Carcel o Infierno, where several competing prans kept the jail in an endless cycle of violence, and where nobody remotely sane would think to spend a relaxed weekend with the kids. El Conejo’s vision is strewn all around, for example, Tocorón Prison, with its Disocteca Tokio and its petting zoo.

But El Conejo’s vision had long since burst the banks of Margarita’s smallish San Antonio prison. Virtually every taxi on the island now sports his trademark (-infringing) Playboy Bunny sticker – visual evidence that the drivers had paid their protection money. Nothing seemed to move in Margarita without the rabbit’s say so. And that’s why his funeral brought the island to a standstill, shutting down shops and schools and bringing throngs of mourners out into the streets.

The guy had a proper mass following. Margarita is now the kind of place where you can be gunned down on the street for expressing satisfaction that El Conejo got whacked. 

Forget Yubraska. Teófilo Cazorla is the real incarnation of 21st century Venezuela. Faced with a collapsed state, Venezuelans are doing what Sicilians did at the end of 19th century, what the survivors of the bombing – atomic and otherwise – did in Japan in 1945. They’re rallying around men able to organize violence, coalescing around systems called “mafia” in one place and “yakuza” in another but all basically offering the same thing: the kind of order the “official” state is no longer in a position to offer.

El Conejo was in the business of providing that order. Whether the organization he had begun to build can survive him, or whether Margarita now regresses to a state of war of all against all is an open question. More than an open question, it’s the reason why the island’s schools are closed and why so many of the island’s residents are just shutting themselves in their homes this week, just waiting. Waiting to see what happens next.