Photo: Iván Ernesto Reyes.
You see them on the street: new clothes, expensive smartphones, riding around in motorbikes, and always surrounded by young women. No formal skills or occupations backed by diplomas.
They’re the eyes of the operation. Young men (and boys) from 11 to 20 years old, recruited for surveillance in the barrio; they report to the gangs who enters El Estanque, in Coche—with details on who you’ve been talking to, or if you look like a cop. They keep an eye out (“cantan la zona”) and get $10 or $15 dollars a week, according to neighbors who only agree to talk anonymously.
Gariteros (“post guards”) are the last link in the crime chain. Above them, lieutenants act as representatives of the gang leader, moving with almost unchecked power among neighbors, carrying out the decisions, collecting blackmail money and recruiting young boys. They’re the boss’ right-hand men, settling scores and inciting fear in his name.
“I once had one of my wife’s nephews at home, who had just joined the Military Academy. One day, he washed and set his uniforms to dry out on our ceiling, and less than 24 hours later, a lieutenant was knocking on my door. ‘We don’t want snitches,’ he said, the nephew left with all his stuff. It’s this, or they burn your house down.”
He had been living near the barrio’s entrance for ten years, and he’s never been as afraid as he was then.
He had been living near the barrio’s entrance for ten years, and he’s never been as afraid as he was then. “They said I should also control my dog’s barking, because they’d kill it too. We have nowhere to go, if you leave the house, they occupy it. It’s best to just come back from work and lock yourself inside.”
Human rights activist and coordinator of Provea’s monitoring and investigation area, Inti Rodríguez, says the state has disappeared in its traditional, democratic form and extinguished institutionality and Rule of Law, as a byproduct of its dictatorship over the country. There’s a de facto government that holds the monopoly on violence and applies it against common citizens.
The state, according to Rodríguez, has become more of a criminal corporation, operating in criminal economies and tolerating criminal affairs because, in addition to kidnappings and drug trafficking, these gangs have industrialized and found in neighbors the easiest way to make money.
“Not only do they control the slum, they’re also messing with stores, with informal workers who make a living in the Coche Municipal Market,” says an anonymous local vendor. “They go around kiosks, they see everything, and they ‘tax’ people in goods or cash, 10 to 20 dollars a day. They ask for cigarettes or booze for their bosses, or they’ll say ‘my wife will be here in a while to pick up a grocery bag.’ If you don’t cooperate, they take your spot the very next day. This repeats all across the mountain; the wives are sent to pick up grocery bags.”
They were charging $3,000 to the owner of a billiards club and, along with FAES officers who were operating independently, forced him through ‘taxes’ to close his business down.
Right now, they do more than tax kiosks: they’re establishing hours of operation.
Right now, they do more than tax kiosks: they’re establishing hours of operation. “The country has been given away to various criminal economies that control spaces and, in the case of Caracas’ slums, it’s reproducing the model imposed over the rest of the territory. There’s been an important industrialization of regular crime. Take the Cota 905, for example, where for a long time ‘el Coqui’ has been the known boss in a gang that kidnaps and extorts neighbors, as we see in 23 de Enero and Catia, where colectivos have grown and act independently from military and police corps, controlling neighbors, food distribution, transit and drug trafficking.”
They certainly found another source of income in food distribution. Criminals ask CLAP representatives for 20 to 15 boxes. “They pay for them, but those same products are then sold by gariteros on the market’s hallways,” said another neighbor in El Estanque.
“Here in Venezuela,” says Rodríguez, “what we have is a criminal corporation in the government, and not only do criminals help the de facto government to exert social control, they also keep it in power with money. This happens with gold in Bolívar State, southern Venezuela, and with drug trafficking, which are part of the regime’s sustainment mechanisms.”
The situation severely scourges the slums, because what’s wrong tends to be normalized. The absence of the state was occupied by these criminal actors, which in some ways exert security functions and even mediate in married couples’ problems. “If a woman complains about abuse to one of the members of the gang, they beat the man out of the house and stay with the victim,” says a witness. “I once saw how they killed the dad of a girl who coupled up with a gangster. He was a good neighbor. They wouldn’t even allow anyone to cover his body with a sheet.”
They have so much power over the slum that if the leader, or one of his lieutenants, needs a car to do any kind of business, they knock on a neighbor’s door and force him to drive. They do the same with jeep drivers when a gunshot victim must be taken to the doctor.
“It’s a really serious situation within the complex humanitarian emergency,” says Inti Rodríguez, about El Estanque. “And what makes the Venezuelan case stand out is that the state lost control of the territory, leaving it to criminal economies that cooperate with the state to remain in power.”
What’s even worse in this sharing of power is that there’s no longer a clear boundary established by law or by security forces.
As a matter of fact, the gang leader is more important for neighbors than a cop or a national guard officer, unless these officers are also part of the criminal organization, which is the point Rodríguez highlights: the state and the criminals work together, and that’s the industry ruling over the slum in the end.