By now, two things are abundantly clear about the Sack of Ciudad Bolívar. First, the riots this weekend gripped the whole city — this was on a different scale from looting episodes we like the one in Cumaná in June, for instance. Second, what started in Guayana didn’t spread caracazo-style beyond Bolívar State.

So why there?

And why only there?

Ciudad Bolívar: City of Pranes

by Adriana Moreno

The rise of the pran, the all-powerful prison gang leader, has been one of the defining features of the Maduro years. Pran authority now goes well beyond the prison walls, spreading into society as a whole. When el Conejo, the Margarita prison pran, was killed earlier this year, the whole island went into a kind of #TropicalMierda state mourning, dawn-to-dusk curfew and all. 

Pranes increasingly act like hyper-empowered local mob bosses, running protection rackets and imposing order over swathes of territory. So, if you want to understand what happened in Ciudad Bolívar, you’d better start with Wilmito, top dog at the city’s infamous Vista Hermosa prison.

Wilmito’s not any old pran. He’s understood to control some of the gold mines in the area, making him one of the nation’s most cash-flush pranes. In 2013, Wilmito let Sebastian Liste, a photojournalist for Getty, go into his prison kingdom to take some photos. Definitely take a minute to look through those to get a sense of what it’s all like. (One of Liste’s photos is at the top of this post.)

Wilmito throws some legendary parties, with loud music, alcohol and guns.

Here’s the thing: people see Wilmito as a “buen malandro”. For years, the sprawling protection racket he runs on businesses throughout Ciudad Bolívar was paid almost willingly, because “he takes care of his people”. In the slum where he grew up, El Hipódromo, Wilmito throws some legendary parties, with loud music, alcohol and guns. It’s a no go area for the police, to be sure, but who needs cops when Wilmito’s around? No one would dare cause trouble at one of his famous parties at El Hipódromo.

And here’s the real problem: powerful though he is, Wilmito’s not the only gang leader around, there are many others. They don’t just compete for control of the city or the mines, but also for the loyalty of the area’s people. Hence the parties and the protection. Each tries to position themselves as the good guy, and it works. When an area is under the control of a good pran, people feel somewhat protected, at least. Business owners prefer to pay a tax that actually deters crime than to depend on the entirely useless local police.

Pranes even offer some job opportunities, in the mines. You can take out all the gold you can find, as long as you remember to sell it to the gang that runs that area at the price they set. As the Tumeremo massacre showed, it’s a high risk job, but it’s a job.

You can pay your way out of jail with the help of the pranes too, which signals a level of influence over the judiciary system. As Clavel Rangel puts it, the power of the pranes in Ciudad Bolívar is an open secret.

Competition between pranes is unceasing, and the leadership changes are often chaotic. This is the stuff of Bolivarense gossip. People of all backgrounds constantly talk about who is in charge of what and who killed whom. In the slums, Pranes and the thuglife they rule over are just the way things are, to the point where people use “malandro” (thug) as an adjective to mean “cool” or “top notch”.

The Pran and the Loot

According to the Governor Rangel Gómez, “there is organized crime here that was moved politically to cause chaos in this city.” For once, it’s not a complete lie, it’s only 50% lie.  He blames the opposition for the lootings —that’s just noise— but the perception locally is that the looting really was encouraged by the organized crime. Or check out this bit of the press conference Diosdado Cabello gave in Ciudad Bolívar.

The questions are much better than the answers.

All weekend, social media carried rumors of malandros in slums waving machine guns in the air and telling people to get together to loot a given area. We can’t confirm whether that really happened, but it’s clear that a lot of people believed it happened. People felt they were looting with pran protection. And that’s all it takes. They know the police won’t intervene if a powerful enough pran is behind the call to loot.

They didn’t have to engineer every looting attempt to wake-up the monster, they just had to get the snowball rolling down the hill.

Our sense is that the violence in Ciudad Bolívar started as a genuine protests, a social outburst over anger for the Bs.100 bills measure. But on Saturday the malandros started egging the looters on, in many places of the city at the same time.

They didn’t have to engineer every looting attempt to wake-up the monster, they just had to get the snowball rolling down the hill. They had to do just enough to overwhelm the security forces. After that, the stew of hunger and desperation in the city did the work. Some people who aren’t even poor came out out of sheer opportunism, others because they’re angry at the shop owners for raising their prices, and some because they’re legitimately hungry. It’s a cocktail. With no police around, neighbors started to organized themselves to loot.

More than once we heard that in some places the looting got so bad that even the people that initially didn’t want to take part felt forced to join in: if they didn’t, how on earth could they expect to find food when the dust settled and all the stores were gone?

Perhaps some saw it as an opportunity to extend the territory they control: a kind of Pran Populism.

It is hard to pinpoint the incentives of the pranes in creating the chaos without going fully speculative. Guayana thugs had better reason than most to resent the Bs.100 bill measure: most of their operations are done in cash. Maybe the sometimes collaborative but always tense relationship with state authorities broke down entirely for another reason we haven’t heard about.

But our guess is that some saw it as an opportunity to extend the territory they control: a kind of Pran Populism, with thugs organizing a Dakazo of their own for the same reason the national government did. Come to think of it, what better way to undermine a rival gang’s authority —and tax base— than to get all the businesses that pay protection to it looted?

Possibly, it was a combination of all the above: what started as retaliation against the government morphed when another faction saw an opening to strike.

But there are some obvious signs that suggest competition between gangs had a lot to do with it. For example, and largely unreported, at about 6:30 p.m. on Saturday evening an almighty gang shootout broke out in Los Coquitos and didn’t subside until about 2:00 a.m. on Sunday. Whatever else was happening, gangs were fighting for turf too.

There are still many questions left unanswered and this is still going. This Monday the lootings continue. Who won the battle yesterday? Who’s the pran now? It won’t make an enormous difference to regular people: it will be just another name playing by the same old rules.

Three years ago, Panfleto Negro ran an essay contest on the topic of Dystopia. My entry was a meditation on the idea that, over time, the real challenge to chavismo’s power would come not from besuited politicians in a Caracas hotel ball room but from the growing influence of the Pran. In Prannation, gang leaders make decisions of State, eventually taking over the state itself and pranifying it top to bottom.

I wrote it as absurdist satire. But it’s 2016: the year absurdist satire has figured out ways to swamp reality.

 

17 COMMENTS

  1. Don’t you think the ones in power not didn’t do a similar thing during the Caracazo?
    The anger was real but some of the proto-Chavistas did the rest…not for money but to get the necessary conditions to be in power.
    Now they are in power and they fear losing it. They have outsourced the initial shocks to the high ranking criminals.
    And we are, understandably, afraid of going out to do some peaceful pressure.

    • That’s what I’ve tried to say here, that the lootings during those days had a direction that set them in motion, but people’s seemingly obssessed with the idea of the “spontaneous pueblo arrecho that obeys no one”

  2. Enlightening.

    If (heh) Iris is the link between government and pranes, this might undermine their relations, they would expect a heads up from her, there could be a chance of also a power strugle amongst the embassadors with the growing republic of prannation, and as you point out, those things don’t happen quietly…

  3. Really excellent background on this event. Do the gangs run the fencing operations? Maybe the fences needed an influx of cheap tires and stuff to resell elsewhere?

  4. Great piece, as always, I could not avoid to center my attention on Francisco’s speculation, “Maybe the sometimes collaborative but always tense relationship with state authorities broke down entirely for another reason we haven’t heard about”. Maybe, but who will benefit from the absence of autonomous food suppliers in the near future? The chavista state? or the pranes? I believe is the chavista state, they will be the ones ‘helping” rebuilding of the area, which will serve as a great leverage opportunity, if not control, over political discent. And because of it, I think is feasible that both parties worked hand in hand to take over the region. After all, 2017 will be even tougher economically, Chavismo will need resources $$$, and mineral exploitation will provide those resources. The Venezuelan Government has announced this week the payment of a first instalment-of a series of instalments- by US$300 million to Gold Reserve to acquire the Venezuelan part of what was going to be a joint venture, to exploit the Brisas/Cristinas gold deposit. I doubt that being the region the new golden goose of chavismo, the government will let the pranes chaos get out of control. I prefer to speculate that what happened was a joint operation designed to prepare the region so everything runs smoothy in the local level for what it comes.

  5. Today’s Wall St Journal makes no mention of the pranses in the riots in Ciudad Boliva or the possible tension/cooperation between them and the Chavistas. It focuses on zenophobia against the chinese merchants and general hopelessness. One intetesting notion the story includes is that the Chinese government was not pleased and that the chinese merchants are thinking of leaving Venezuela.

  6. The title of this piece is way too emphatic for a question that goes unanswered in a text full of phrases like “rumors of, we can’t confirm, our sense is, we heard that, our guess is”, among others.
    However I find really interesting to imagine the role that the “pranes” could play in the case of a total implosion of our society, what side would they lean towards nowadays?.
    But just like there were Whatsapp audios being shared from people with “accounts” of the riots and looting, there was also at least one were an alleged “Pran” said they had nothing to do with that. Should I belive in one, but not the other?
    What I think is the reason for the lack of response from the authorities is that not a single chief would give an order that could potentially cause dozes, if not hundreds, of deaths of civilians and would put the goverment in the same position of that of CAP 2 that has been used as a cornerstone of their origin and rethoric. Instead, is safer for them to let their political chiefs acuse the opposition of the looting and demand “judicial” actions against them.
    Of course, it could also be a result of an alliance between the gangs and the military as was suggested in a documentary shot in the mines region and broadcasted by Discovery Networks.
    Truth is that so far there is not a single image of armed men among the looters or on the streets, as it is the case of policemen or soldiers just watching the looting unfold.
    Its sad to think that these events would be child games compared to all the violence that could be unleashed in Venezuela if this takes place simultaneously nationwide and makes me wonder how would an opposition goverments react if this had happened after succesfully outed the current govement, but lacking the means to provide for the people in the short term.

    • “What I think is the reason for the lack of response from the authorities is that not a single chief would give an order that could potentially cause dozes, if not hundreds, of deaths of civilians and would put the goverment in the same position of that of CAP 2 that has been used as a cornerstone of their origin and rethoric”

      Another naive who thinks that chavismo isn’t willing to slaughter dozens of people in a single day to make a point, when we’ve seen they’re more than eager to paint the streets with blood since 2002, when the corpse himself ordered the Llaguno gunmen to kill as many protesters in april 11 as possible, while positioning snipers with russian rifles to crack some more skulls near chimpanflores.

      Or more recent cases like in 2014, when vielma mora’s wife torched the governor’s house in Táchira to make an excuse to unleash the murderous colectivos upon the people, resulting in almost 50 murders in those days.

  7. This is what is going on:
    The government encouraged the looting by not intervening in the first 2 days.
    On the third day the government spread the rumor that the criminals were going to break into private homes to terrorize the masses but the government was not going to allow it yet and it did not happen. It was a terror plan.
    Now people in Ciudad Bolivar and all the country are scared to death of any disturb with the result that the opposition will not be able to lead street protests: they will not happen after Ciudad Bolivar, people will not participate. Don’t they keep on saying that chavismo is the only capable of keeping the peace? Now they proved it.
    Venezuela does not know yet whom they are dealing with.
    Venezuela will not implode; it will live a miserable life for 50 years. The only hope is Leopoldo Lopez but he will not be released.

    • “The government encouraged the looting by not intervening in the first 2 days.
      On the third day the government spread the rumor that the criminals were going to break into private homes to terrorize the masses but the government was not going to allow it yet and it did not happen. It was a terror plan.”

      No, it was just the regime letting their criminals to do as they please, the usual for chavismo, because that’s the deal they have with the criminals in Venezuela: “You can do anything you want, as long as you obey us.”

      “…the opposition will not be able to lead street protests: they will not happen after Ciudad Bolivar, people will not participate”

      So it’s the same message since april 11? “Protest and you’ll die.”

      “Don’t they keep on saying that chavismo is the only capable of keeping the peace? Now they proved it.”

      No, what chavismo proved is actually the opposite, that they can’t control criminals when push comes to shove, or worse, that they DO NOT WANT TO, which is, much, MUCH worse for them, because EVERY chavista who was fucked by this screwup has lost their faith in chavismo at last.

      “Venezuela will not implode; it will live a miserable life for 50 years. ”

      Neither, it won’t explode TODAY, nor TOMORROW, but it might explode NEXT WEEK, with the next fuckup from maduro or diosdado; Venezuela will remain oppressed as long as its people doesn’t reunite to fight and exterminate chavismo.

      “The only hope is Leopoldo Lopez but he will not be released.”

      Look, I have nothing against LL, but, according to your logic, what do you expect him to do with the scenario you just presented? Is he bulletproof? Can he exert instant mind control or some other fantastic superpower like those?

      • The first task of govt is to prevent situations like those that caused people to go out and sack the hell out of all essential goods stores .

        The govt failed at this task , in fact they created the circumstances which made people want to go out and sack all those stores: the shortages, the inflation , the free wheeling criminal bands , the abolition of the most used cash bill, all of which contributed to the enraged mood which fed the outbreak of the looting violence ..

        The second task of govts is to quickly control outbreaks of looting once they happen, and to protect the property of those threatened with such looting

        The regime failed at this too , the forces of order where easily overwhelmed and allowed the pran gangs to fan the flames of the conflagration to their own benefit .

        Less noticed is that the govt has itself engaged in the oficially sanctioned looting of private stores forced to sell their goods and at totally uncommercial price for serve the regimes demagogic ends.

        In short this is a govt that not only fails to perform the basic tasks of govt but even joins in the looting of its own citizen …..this is therefore a regime that has no cause to exist….!!

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