“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.