Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto, with a photo from El Nacional

Putting Out Fires with Gasoline: How Police Brutality in Caracas Is Making Things Worse

On January 8th, a conflict among gangs in southwestern Caracas ended with a heavy police intervention and 23 dead. This is how the confluence of violent actors is felt in the community

According to locals, the presence of La Cota 905’s gang members in different sectors of nearby La Vega, in southwest Caracas, had grown significantly in the past few months. A voice note spread among WhatsApp chats describes how the gang offered young people money, clothing, and firearms to join them, ending with, “it’s like guerrillas; once you get in, you cannot get out.” Gang members were extorting local businesses and the people of the community were worried that one of the most prominent criminal gangs in the city, El Coqui’s gang, took over their neighborhood. 

People from La Vega have been struggling with crime for years, so they’re always seeking ways to secure peace in their neighborhood. After I got my bachelor’s degree in psychology, my first job was as a counselor in a health center located in one of the most remote sectors within La Vega. Parents would constantly bring their children, diagnosed with “behavioral problems” in school, and worried that these might be an early sign of future criminal conduct. I’ll never forget the case of a two-year-old boy who had real bad tantrums. His dad kept telling me that he didn’t know what to do, that he didn’t want his son to join a gang when he grew up. I understood that when you’re a parent in a barrio, protecting your children from violence is a responsibility you get from the very day they’re bornas important as providing food and shelter.

Community leaders from different La Vega sectors told me that this also was a common sentiment among La Vega families; parents feel helpless, some even want the police to intervene before the gang recruits one of their kids or gains control of their public spaces. 

Now that the shooting’s over, some families are considering selling their houses and moving out of La Vega.

The perception of those who trusted the police changed after last Friday, January 8th, when a clash occurred between armed gangs from La Vega and officers of the Special Actions Force (FAES), along with other police corps, resulting in at least 23 fatalities.

Testimonies and WhatsApp audios report that the people killed were part criminals. Others say that some of them were regular people who FAES officers sought inside their houses and just executed. In both scenarios, what the police did is obviously a human rights violation, illegal under Venezuelan legislation, which banned the death penalty nearly two centuries ago.

Now that the shooting’s over, some families are considering selling their houses and moving out of La Vega. As a community leader told me, “they don’t want their children to grow up in this madness.” Besides the irreparable human losses, fear and helplessness are the aftertaste of police brutality, and now the people of La Vega truly distrust the police. Evidence shows that these types of scenarios serve as fertile grounds for armed gangs to thrive.

As a community leader told me, “they don’t want their children to grow up in this madness.”

What happened in La Vega reflects a broader FAES policy, all over the country. The OHCHR Fact-Finding Mission’s report on Venezuela exposes different procedures carried out by FAES agents that match what’s described in La Vega: “Two former FAES officers, interviewed separately, told the Mission that should brigades fail to kill the required number of presumed criminals, they proceeded to kill innocent” and “If the person was wanted for murder there was a ‘green light to eliminate him.’” The last OHCHR update reports that at least 2,000 violent deaths by police’s hands occurred in Venezuela in 2020. Most of the victims were young men below 30 years of age who live in these communities.

The police operations have also become increasingly violent over time. ONG Monitor de Víctimas, which has registered homicide statistics in Caracas since 2017, shows that in 2017, only 1% of deaths caused by the police involved the use of assault firearms; in 2020, the figure grew to 20%. Last year’s report also shows that police operations in Caracas follow a systematic pattern of seeking young men inside their houses (this is in barrios) and killing them.

As Bowie sang in Cat People, putting out the fire with gasoline is just what violent police operations do to poor communities, enhancing the control gangs have and sinking complete neighborhoods in utter terror. 

Violence is a phenomenon that requires a constructive response so new things can grow. The police, with the basic responsibility of guaranteeing the right to life and peace, seems to be beyond this concept.