“She walked into our office and told me: ‘If they were so sure my son did something, then why didn’t they just lock him up for 30 years? At least he would be alive! Why did they have to come and shoot him like that?'”

You can become habituated to a number, but people die in ones.

Silence takes over the room. I look at Jesús, who’s telling me the story, and see him nodding. A gesture of resignation. A way of saying ‘hey, that’s life’. But neither of us know what to say next. The weight of his words envelops us. I shuffle through my notes, ask him a question. He takes a deep breath and continues.

All kinds of people do hard jobs made harder by our crisis. Doctors, schoolteachers, journalists, child services workers. But Jesús…Jesús is in a league of his own. He works at the epicenter of Venezuela’s social collapse.

Jesús is a grief counsellor at the Bello Monte morgue.

The place has become something of a symbol, its failing installations and overcrowding reflecting the staggering homicide rate in the Greater Caracas Area.

We’re worryingly desensitized to it all by now, large numbers are easy to ignore: abstract, meaningless signifiers built out of acts that remain abhorrent but are no longer shocking.

It’s when you sit face to face with Jesús, his face congested with pain despite his remarkable social good graces, that you realize: this is real. You can become habituated to a number, but people die in ones: to the families of victims, the loss is devastating anew every single time.

Some of Chavismo’s most radical pundits called out the government’s incompetence on OLP’s, and got promptly fired for it.

I meet him in a small, private office, painted light beige, with the venetian blinds drawn down and the murmur of the workday in the background. He’s very polite but it’s easy to tell he feels a certain discomfort. He knows I’m here to poke around at some difficult memories.

“We try to support the patient and lead them to an acceptance of their relative’s demise. In many cases, we start asking the patient about what happened and let things evolve from there.”

But Jesús has noticed one group that sticks out above the other visitors of the morgue: relatives of victims of OLPs —Operaciones de Liberación del Pueblo, the government’s latest, heavy-handed attempt to regain physical control of barrio ganglands.

For years, Chavismo experimented with well-intentioned but half-baked reforms to fight crime. At times we got shady dealings with pranes and colectivos, at others various “security plans,” the whole punctuated with spells of outright inaction. Even some of its most radical and hot-headed pundits called out the government’s incompetence on the matter (and got promptly fired for it.)

When the OLPs were first announced, many of us discounted them, figuring they would be just another toothless initiative that would fade away soon enough. That was a mistake.

Approved by presidential decree through the Enabling Law (la nunca bien ponderada Habilitante), these crime-fighting operations consist of military-aided raids in the gang-controlled slums. The opacity that surrounds them is remarkable even for a country where institutional murkiness is the rule.

The one thing OLPs produce in great numbers: dead bodies.

“The case I remember the most was a mother from La Vega,” Jesús says. “She told me that it was the second son of hers that was gunned down. That they came in the middle of the night, wearing hoods, saying they were from the CICPC and demanding her to open the door. ‘Señora, open the door. If you don’t open the door we’re going to kill you too’, they yelled.”

She complied. They were looking for her youngest son, the one that was still alive. They were going house to house up and down el cerro, with no warrant, answering any questions with threats.

The opacity that surrounds OLP’s is remarkable even for a country where institutional murkiness is the rule.

“They make her go outside her home and downstairs, under the watch of a female officer, not letting her go back. The others go up the hill, looking for her son at his girlfriend’s house, shots are heard, then they come down to her place, more shots are heard, and they go hill down, leaving in a black van.”

That was at 3 am. At 6 she’s allowed to go inside her home. There are shots everywhere and her youngest son is nowhere to be found. At 10, she gets a phone call telling her to come to the morgue to identify someone who is believed to be her son. That’s when, if needed, they get to talk to Jesús, or one of his colleagues.

The son was 18 years old and had an eight-month old daughter. The mother says that the time before, when they came for her eldest son, the officers also took the chance to steal money, a TV set and some home appliances from her. This time they didn’t. A small, useless, shred of solace amid her pain.

“Most of the files say ‘probable shootout,’ what they do is to fill the place with bullets to create a credible story.” Jesús all the OLP-related cases are more or less similar and they all end same way. “They ask us why. Why aren’t they prosecuted? Why is this done in this way if we don’t have the death penalty? That’s what they feel, this is a death penalty meted out to those they think can’t be redeemed.”

I don’t know why either. It’s just one of the many things I don’t know. In the absence of data, talking about crime, homicide, violence or anything related to the security forces, we just don’t know…all we can do is estimate.

I know the system is broken, the courts are corrupt and so are the security forces, that jails and gangs are out of control and there’s very little we can do except whisper to ourselves: “Not today. Please, not today”.

They ask us why is this done in this way if we don’t have the death penalty.

How do I know this woman’s sons aren’t some azotes de barrio? I don’t know that either. I know nothing beyond what Jesús tells me. I have no right to pass judgment with the information I’ve been provided the very same way those officers had no right to exercise violence the way they did.

“There was another case when a young man, a student on an athletic scholarship, was being extorted by a police officer. His mother demanded protection from the Fiscalía and the OLP came to their home. Same MO: hoods, CICPC uniforms, and armed. They called for her son and shot him in front of her.”

Jesús is distraught. His voice breaks a bit. He takes a deep breath and continues.

“She told me, ‘I know it’s revenge because I stood against corruption and he also stood against corruption'”.

They called for her son and shot him in front of her.

For him, after seeing many similar cases, the OLP appears an unchecked entity. The biggest example? Barlovento, a case where a group of army personnel acting under the guise of an OLP made a group of farmers in Miranda disappear. Months later, the bodies showed up. Some mutilated, others sexually abused. This was another case Jesús was personally involved with.

“They had no previous record of misconduct. They were clean. One of them had some kind of misunderstanding with one of the army troops. That got the army man suspended, but soon he was reinstated.”

I ask him how he thinks the survivors will act over time.

“People get used to murder, including the idea of killing the authorities.” With 19 police officers killed in Caracas in the past two months and constant attacks from gangs, it’s easy to see how your average paco can barely fend for himself these days. It’s been like that a long time.

“One mother told me ‘I want to see them dead, those damn cops are more malandros than all the malandros put together. I want to see them all dead!'”

And how about the malandros themselves?

People get used to murder, including the idea of killing the authorities.

“Nowadays, there’s a complete change in the perception of what makes a criminal. People claim they feel safer in areas controlled by organized gangs than in those controlled by the police. The malandro has become an antihero of sorts.”

Recently, president Maduro called for a relaunch of the OLPs —rebranding them the OLHP, with the ‘H’ standing for ‘Humanist,’ which seems lazy, at best, and profoundly insulting, at worst.

“It’s like if we’re working in a bottomless pit, because each day you feel society is decaying more and more as a structure. And for us, who were trained to treat people within the structures they live in, we have less and less to work with. Our most important tool is making people aware that they have a social support and today, nobody has that.”

It’s hard to grasp exactly how things could exactly change. As violence becomes normalized, crime more gruesome and overall Venezuelans become desensitized to human suffering, there’s less and less that those of us caught in the middle can do.

I admire Jesús’s service. But I then I think of myself, too. I’ve been shot once already, by a stray bullet. I was just 13. Every now and then I look at the bullet-shaped scar a couple inches above my ankle and wonder if I’m going to be less lucky next time.

13 COMMENTS

  1. So many words for so long, but where is the rage? Long intellectual discussions while at same moment babies are dying for lack medicines that are readily available in almost every other country. What happened to the fire in the Latino belly? Once you get your country back and remove the fear that keeps your borders closed your friends throughout the world will rush forward with vital food and medicines. Is there not one commander in your military who is fed up with watching his countrymen, young and old, suffer needlessly? And now diphtheria. For the sake of the innocents, hurry!

    • The rage is everywhere. You think violence in Venezuela is not caused by rage? by fear? by hopelessness? It’s all there, everyday.

      There’s rage in murders, and in the victims of murders. There’s rage in lynchings and lootings, too. There’s rage in lines for food and medicines. Rage is present constantly on the streets of this country.

      Don’t call for rage. We have a lot of that already. And informed (not merely intellectual) discussion is something that we simply can’t afford to lose in our nation, we have precious little of it already as it is.

  2. Complete control over the society through violence, extortion and mass murder, the chavista wet dream made real of violent revenge against those they were taught to hate.

  3. It is easy to understand why there is such an acceptance, a status quo, in todays VZ. The rich for the most part have left, the thinkers, the professionals, the educated, and ones that are able have as well. Leaving the poor, the chavista, and working class to bear the burden of the King and his fellow drug running cronies. Those who have been specifically indoctrinated over the last decade, still yearn for the free goodies that were their god given right.

    But, most know that the Kings Empire is rotting, and that in the last 3 years in particular, the massive changes to ones safety, health, income, and food scarcity is a issue. Problem is that the King has effectively shifted the blame elsewhere.

    The current crop of politicians seem to have a very low appeal, and trust issues with those in and out of VZ

    What hard to understand, is why the hell, a prominent VZ has not risen to the top. A non political, person. A sports figure, a literary master, a movie star, an artist, etc. There must be a hundred candidates, that have the passion and love of country. Who is old enough to not give a damn, who if killed would be a martyr, or if jailed would cause massive outrage, protests, and eventual change. One or many who have the stature beyond reproach.

    Without a real patriot, Venezuela seems to be in unlimited downward spiral. With the educated, really gambling their country on the hope of implosion, when there are EQUAL odds that your country will become another Cuba or Zimbabwe. A lifetime of regrets.

    • Venezuela’s last real non-bought-off patriot leaders were MPJ (forced out) and Betancourt (deceased). All the rest have been ignorant aprovechadores, with the exception of LL, who was just plain ignorant in handing himself over to DC. The Cubans are running Venezuela, have 50 years’ experience submitting/controlling the lumpen, and have little intention of leaving anytime soon….

    • Don’t believe in Messiahs to save Venezuela, actually to save any country.

      The ones that exist (let’s say, Trump in the US or Kuczynski in Peru, for example) are always brought up to evidence by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of anonymous people working silently and diligently in the backingstage. That’s why MCM could never save Venezuela, she doesn’t have enough support.

      From what you guys write here, I see that 99% of the educated Venezuelans that could make any difference have as main concern themselves, secondly their immediate families, and thirdly to put selfies on facebook/instagram of both (themselves and families) smiling in their new countries while doing ordinary stuff. In that scenario, Venezuela becomes just a vanishing memory. That’s why Venezuela very probably won’t get out of this, and the Venezuelans in the US will never have the impact on US politics that the Cubans have.

      Imagine if, I don’t know, 1000 extremely competent and educated Venezuelans abroad started working hard to save Venezuela, making ties with important people and among themselves in their new countries, arranging meetings to discuss and plot strategies for Venezuela, incentivizing public debates with important figures and broadcasting it like the CC guys do so often, and even seriously funding political figures like MCM, how all that could shake Venezuela’s status quo.

      But there’s so much guys like the ones behind CC and other sites can do. Venezuela needs more, a lot more, to save itself. But while most people that could make a difference do so little, the picture is gloomy.

      • More than the masks, what actually disgusts me is the avalanche of “they fucking deserve it and I don’t like you so you deserve to be killed too” comments in response to the tweet, most of them coming from what are supossed to be people that are against the regime, only one clear chavista posted anything blaming the guarimbas for everything.

        • On that, I agree. It is disgusting. It is another indication that Venezuela is becoming more lawless and less civilized. People do not trust “system” to provide justice. That, in turn, allows them to rationalize that “justice” was served in another way. They forget that the same goons can as easily be turned against themselves or their families. But, there it is… cracks in the facade of civilization.

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