Kevin Valera was a father of two and a husband, a friend and a great cop. He was killed on my very first day at work as an El Hatillo Municipal Police officer, as he got home from work. He lived in El Cementerio, they killed him out in the open, in plain view of everyone.
You might think, “well, this happens all the time, he was mugged and it got violent.” But that’s not it. He was actually killed to steal his gun. Gossip had gone around that he was somehow involved with the police. El Cementerio is one the most dangerous places in Caracas: almost every person who gets kidnapped is taken and held captive there.
That first day was a baptism of fire. Every single man and woman I came across was grieving, some in tears. Long faces, silence. The force here isn’t that big, there are only 162 officers: everyone knows everybody: when an officer is killed or injured it ripples through the brotherhood. Because that’s what this police force is about.
What stings the most, considering the sacrifices, is that cops are universally presumed to be corrupt, and we know it.
Cops don’t make a lot of money in Venezuela. Most of them live in barrios. People think it’s a job for people who can’t do better than that, but I have met cops that speak perfect English, cops with specialist criminology or forensics degrees, with 10 or more years of service. They can definitely do other stuff, and still, they choose to be law enforcement officers.
What stings the most, considering the sacrifices, is that cops are universally presumed to be corrupt, and we know it. At El Hatillo, every single complaint about corruption is investigated through Internal Affairs and 58 officers have been dismissed for this kind of behavior.
But most cops risk their lives every day, on checkpoints, patrols or investigations and — as Kevin found out — even just when they go home. Day after day, their wages for it are people’s scorn.
Kevin used to work in Evidence. His wife worked for Internal Affairs. Days before his murder, some gang members were killed by CICPC, the National Investigative Police, and National Police Officers officers near the spot where Kevin was killed. We suspect he was killed in an act of revenge. He was shot 14 times in the face. That kind of MO is usually associated with score-settling.
“La Comandancia” felt absolutely bleak after the news came. Kevin’s office was just three doors down from mine. What a terrible week to start a new job.
When I see my fellow officers, I don’t see guys who became cops just for the shakedowns.
Yet everybody kept at it, just wanting to keep doing their job, as well as Kevin had done his, focusing on the hot spots, crime zones and every other useful tool that they could use to fight crime. In the days following Kevin’s murder, four suspects were caught and six vehicles were recovered. Life goes on, the work goes on.
When I see my fellow officers, I don’t see guys who became cops just for the shakedowns. I haven’t figured it out yet, but there’s something that just pushes a certain kind of person to take on one of the riskiest jobs in our country.
I see it in the fight against the gangs in Sisipa and Turgua, two outlying rural communities within our municipio.
Recently, one of Caracas’s deadliest gangs was taken down by CICPC, following an investigation the El Hatillo Police carried out in Sisipa. We set up checkpoints every day for months to gather info, we detained people for questioning and talked to neighbors and visitor. But the actions of El Hatillo Police did not stop at the prep-work: when the D Day arrived, three of our officers lead the search for suspects, guiding 30 heavily armed men from CICPC in the hunt. That takes talent, and commitment. I’m awed by these guys day in and day out.
But it’s not just brawn. It’s brains, too. I remember the day when we started using hotspot reports. Based on georeferencing software, hotspots produce a kind of roadmap of crime, on the basis of calls, social network keywords and police reports. Officers were coming into my office all the time to find out what the neighbors were asking. Once, after we checked the hotspot and social networks reports, we figured that many robberies were taking place in Los Naranjos in the early morning. For a couple of weeks, neighbors have been asking for police patrols and checkpoints. So, we talked to investigations and arranged two special operations in the area.
In the second one we caught the perpetrator, the motorbike and gun they were using. It was dicey: as they tried to get away, the perps shot at a car but missed. We know people sometimes tweet about crime out of frustration, feeling that an official “denuncia” is a waste of time. I bet they don’t realize those tweets lead to arrests.
But the tech gadgetry doesn’t change the fundamental calculus: in the end, we have to go head-to-head with the gangs.
Hotspot reports allow us to drill down on the places where criminals were making fear the norm, social media monitoring allows us to see where neighbors are asking for police checkpoints. Our goal is to get the word out that El Hatillo Police really does respond to every report. There are not minor crimes at El Hatillo.
But the tech gadgetry doesn’t change the fundamental calculus: in the end, we have to go head-to-head with the gangs. We try to support each other even in the worst moments: that’s the job. My colleagues never stop surprising me: they’re amazingly committed. They’re willing to give everything. Just ask Kevin.