violencia

Photo: Composición de Sofía Jaimes Barreto

How Violence Separates or Displaces Venezuelan Families

Security forces, gangs and guerrillas were forcing people out of cities, villages and Indigenous communities even before the massive migration waves

In mid-November 2021, Pedro (a fake name we give him to protect his identity) answered a call on his cell phone from an unregistered number. It wasn’t unusual for him to do so; a lot of people he didn’t know called him, it was part of his managerial job in a public company. The man greeted him as if they knew each other. He didn’t identify himself and began mentioning Pedro’s daughters. He let him know in no uncertain terms that he knew where they lived and where the girls went to school. He told him that if he didn’t transfer 1,500 dollars to an account, they would take the girls and they would kill him.

The extortionist kept calling and Pedro asked for help from his superiors in the company, which was state-owned. The solution they suggested was: “It’s best to not report it to the police. If you can, leave the city and you’ll start reporting to another office.” The following day, Pedro, his wife, and the two little girls headed toward their relatives’ home in the Andes. They took some clothes, essential documents, what little food they had in their house and the girls’ stuffed toys.

For the first couple of days, the girls didn’t stop throwing up because of stress. Pedro and his wife managed to keep their jobs, but they had to live several weeks in a strange city and then two months in another one, paying rent and a private school; an impossible expense for them. They finally found a borrowed house, without needing to pay rent, but in the city they were forced to flee. So they went back. They haven’t gone near their property, which they locked and left in charge of a neighbor. They changed their phone numbers and cut communication with anyone in the area, their old neighbors. They quit the social work they were involved in and now they live behind tinted glass. They drop and pick up the girls not at the gate of the new school they go to, but in the classroom itself. They went back to their city, but to a hidden life. They can’t hear the phone or the doorbell or walk around the street without being on high alert. They wish they could settle in a place where they don’t feel threatened. 

In all of these months, at least, they were never apart.

Jazmín and Juancho (also fake names, due to the risk they’re facing) were doing alright. Everyone knew her in her village because she was a teacher. He was a policeman, but they lived in peace. They had already paid part of the small house where they lived and they were raising their son.

That life was over when a gang started to take over the town. They began controlling the communal councils and recruiting Jazmin’s students, who were barely teens. Many neighbors would turn to the criminals, who were recognized as the de facto authorities in the area.

The gang didn’t want police around, so one afternoon in 2020, two of its members, one with a handgun and the other with a shotgun, went to the corner where Juancho would go with his son, who was playing a few meters away. They asked him if he was who they thought he was. Juancho said no and tried to hide in a house, but they didn’t let him in. The crooks insisted. “Well, you’re going to die now,” they told him, and put the gun to his forehead. Juancho begged his son to run, but the boy was too scared to move. The thugs didn’t shoot him in the end, but they promised him that the next time they saw him, they’d kill him.

Juancho went home shaking and told Jazmín what happened. “I called my sister. She gave me support. We looked for a few things, the ones we could carry at the time. In under two hours, we had to leave, because those people don’t joke around. We wondered if what was happening to us was real, because it felt like a nightmare. We didn’t know what to do,” says Jazmín. 

Jazmín’s brother-in-law had a truck and went to pick them up with their things. They lived with Jazmín’s sister for eight months in another town, trying to figure out what to do. Many of Juancho’s relatives had already left Venezuela because of the violence. The police force where Juancho used to work didn’t do anything for them, but he was also a skilled mechanic and that’s how he could make ends meet. They had to settle somewhere else, far away from the gang’s reach, but where? Jazmín wanted to go back to her town, or move to a city, work at a store; what scared Juancho the most was being threatened again. They were close to splitting up.

They finally traded their old car for a half-built house in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of the plains. They’ve managed to finish building the house, step by step, and they got another vehicle. Now they’re a half-hour away from the nearest school, learning how to farm. They have few neighbors, reclusive people who don’t like to deal with strangers. Jazmín quit teaching and did a manicure and pedicure course, but she can’t find clients in that rural area, or at least someone to talk to.

Unlike other countries in the region such as Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala or El Salvador, after going through the massacres and famines of the Independence and civil wars from 1810 to 1903, Venezuela didn’t experience internal displacement caused by armed conflict in the 20th century, until this horror came back ten years ago.

The signs began to show through specific phenomena. For example, about five years ago many parents had to withdraw their children from the Fe y Alegría popular school network, because they had to move away to another town or city. The reason: they feared their kids being recruited by gangs in certain areas like southwestern Caracas, eastern Miranda, southern Aragua, northern Guárico, Zulia, or the Paria Peninsula. 

The food shortages in 2018 or the electricity collapse of 2019 drove millions of people to emigrate, but violence has been pushing people out of the country for longer than hunger in 2017 and 2018, or the blackout in March 2019.

It’s the combination of the dismantling of public safety and the growth of gangs’ power that has provoked the internal displacement of entire families and forced migration. The second migrant wave—after the one in 2014, when families of mid to high income began to move out of the country—was largely made up of lower-income or middle-class citizens, who would be sent away by their families, especially to neighboring countries to get them away from violence. It became about preventing a teenager from a popular neighborhood to be snatched up by a gang, or a university student who had been captured, imprisoned, or tortured during the protests, to leave the country forever, as soon as they were released.

Magda’s story (fake name, to protect her identity) is different from Jazmín and Juancho’s, the same way the levels of vulnerability are in Venezuela, depending on socio-economic status or whether you can get protection from a relative already settled abroad.

Magda is a highly experienced doctor, and during the protests in 2017 she couldn’t sit idly watching young people from her neighborhood being brutally repressed by security forces. They lived in what had been until then a pleasant middle-class neighborhood, but then food shortages came along, which led to the protests, and it triggered massive violence from the state against people taking part in what was the most important social revolt in Venezuela since 1989. Magda joined med students and blue helmet doctors who were helping the wounded. She would spend her days tending to protesters of all ages who would try to escape through trails or ravines to avoid being run over by armored cars. She even had to do it herself so that they didn’t apprehend her. She was lucky: her house was one of the few that wasn’t raided in the area, and neither Magda nor her children were victims of torture, as hundreds of people were. 

Shortly after the protests ended, her eldest son went to study at a university in Argentina, and a year later, in 2019, Magda’s brother—an executive for a transnational company who had been transferred with his family to the U.S.—paid for two tickets so she and her son could go visit him in Argentina. It was a setup; as soon as she arrived in Argentina, her brother took it upon himself to convince her to not return to Venezuela. Magda didn’t want to leave her house, her career, nor did she want to stop working for the return of democracy. But in Argentina, her youngest son could have a better life and find the growth hormone he needed.

So, Magda, who couldn’t practice medicine in Argentina, began working at a retirement home, cleaning and looking after elderly people. After a while, her papers came in and she was able to quickly validate her degree, especially because during the pandemic they needed to have more doctors. Now, Magda works many hours in the Argentinian public health system and lives in a small apartment with her youngest son, who is trying to adapt to his new country. The rest of the family followed them shortly after. In 2018, only her eldest son was alone in the city; now seven of them are there. While the other part of her family, her brother’s side, is applying for residence in the U.S.

“We were always very close. Then my mother and sister came with my nephews, and we all lived together in a studio apartment. My sister was a real estate agent in Venezuela and she has a bakery startup here, something that she always liked to do. They rent their own place and I live with my youngest son. My eldest is thinking about going to Spain because he’s seeing that the situation isn’t too different to what we went through in Venezuela, but the plans fell through, so he’s going back to university, which he had abandoned.” The grandmother refuses to accept that they left their house, that the older aunts are over there unprotected, and she wants to return to Venezuela or go to the U.S. with her son. Magda tries to get her out of the house, take her for a ride, but she understands: “I’m very thankful, but I know this isn’t my place, and I still dream of going back to rebuild my land.” 

Other patterns of displacement caused by violence have emerged in Venezuela. 

In 2021, families of the populated areas of Petare or Cota 905, on the eastern and southwestern edge of Caracas respectively, left their homes to take shelter with relatives or friends in other areas of the city or the country from the war between gangs and security forces. When the violence ended, the families would go back to homes they couldn’t afford to abandon and they didn’t expect to sell or transfer under those conditions, but in the meantime, they had escaped from a stray bullet or having the men or boys in the family recruited, imprisoned or executed.

Ronna Rísquez, who has been researching organized violence and criminal governance in Venezuela for several years, explains that when the “mega-gangs” were strengthened with the failed “Peace Zones” experiment of 2013, the displacement processes began, and it hasn’t stopped. “In Barlovento, gangs have caused many people to move out, like entire families where one member is in law enforcement. For some, the gangs just took their homes or their cocoa fields. The Peace Zones don’t exist anymore, but the gangs are still there, and displacements keep happening today.” 

The same thing happened in areas like La Vega or Cota 905, where gang members took some of the neighbors’ homes for them to live in or to be used as headquarters or surveillance points. A particularly illustrative case for Rísquez happens in the southern part of Aragua, where the Tocorón prison stands. When the criminal governance of the penitentiary extended to the old towns of Magdaleno and San Sebastián de los Reyes, gangs replaced the scarce presence of the State or made alliances with the authorities. A lot of people had to leave and little is left of the artisan woodworking industry that was typical of the area.

While in northern Venezuela some groups are causing displacement by taking over territory for drug trafficking, extortion, carjacking, or kidnapping, in the south, it’s gangs and irregular groups that not only fight against security forces but also among themselves, over the river routes and gold mines.

When combat began between the Armed Forces and the 10th Front of the FARC dissidents in March 2021, Human Rights Watch denounced that at least three thousand Venezuelan citizens had had to cross the Arauca River to take refuge in Colombia. Airplanes were dropping bombs on campsites, guerrilla soldiers were taking over towns and farms, and soldiers were accusing farmers of collaborating with the guerrillas; there were even reports of civilians being executed by the military. Among the displaced people, some had stayed in Colombia, but most of them returned to their land when combat ceased: it’s not easy leaving crops and houses, less so if you’re poor.

In 2022, combat for territories between the FARC dissidents and the ELN extended towards Apure, Amazonas, and the north of the Colombian departments of Arauca and Vichada and displaced more Venezuelans. Juan Pappier, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, says that “what we’re witnessing in Arauca and Vichada is around 1,700 Venezuelans running away from the conflict between armed groups, groups accusing them of being complicit with their enemy, death threats, and the risk of recruiting minors, of which there are documented cases. Some of them are Indigenous, especially those who went to Vichada, and they’ve been suffering from this pressure for a long time. Families, almost entire communities are moving away in the case of the Indigenous people.” 

There’s an equation of violence, illegal economies, and displacement along the Venezuelan border with Colombia, Brazil, Guyana, the Netherland Antilles, and Trinidad and Tobago. Wherever most of the economic migrants go through, there are also people moving because of armed groups, which are also being trafficked or recruited by gangs or irregulars. In the west, gangs recruit young migrants or those left behind; in Paria, they traffic girls and young women to brothels in Trinidad; in Amazonas and Bolívar, they snatch underage teens for mineral extraction, prostitution, or mining and drug logistics.

But the bigger impact, and at the same time, the hardest to investigate may be on Indigenous populations, where you must add cultural devastation to social damage. 

As it happens with Waraos in the Orinoco Delta who ask for shelter in Brazil or Guyana, in the northwest corner of Venezuela, along the Guajira Peninsula and the Perijá Mountain Range, drug trafficking and the collapse of the Venezuelan assistance system, which had always been precarious for Indigenous peoples, is causing a mass exodus of Wayúu, Añú, and Bari communities. According to Saylin Fernández, of the Guajira Human Rights Committee, about one hundred Indigenous people might be crossing over to Colombia each day, to work in farms, houses, or prostitution: “Men were shepherds, fishermen, some worked in the salt mines; women stayed home, knitting. The Indigenous people who are teachers have had to leave. Those who used to shepherd had to sell their sheep. The fishermen can’t afford fuel for their boats. Artisan work, traditional, formal, can’t be done anymore. Large families, with many children, move away or separate.” 

Sioly Cadenas, a journalist for the Apostolic Vicariate in Puerto Ayacucho, explains that one of the 23 Indigenous ethnicities of the Venezuelan Amazon, the Jivi, has mostly returned to their original land in Colombia, or settled to work in the mines. The rest of the ethnicities are going through some heavy conflict among themselves to either support or reject the mining which has invaded their ancestral lands and is destroying their environment, and you hear more and more stories of entire Indigenous families that cross over to Colombia or Brazil because they’re being threatened with death in Venezuela for opposing the mines.

As Juan Pappier, from Human Rights Watch, confirms, the ELN or FARC dissidents recruit Indigenous people as young as thirteen years old and force communities to abandon strategic river ports in 24 hours. With them, Cadenas says, “our blood purity is leaving, our basic ancestral knowledge. Who’s fighting for the territories if their protagonists are leaving? Under whose care are these spaces going to end up? Of the military who are forcing the Indigenous communities to move away for wanting to reclaim the illegal mining spots? Those who tell the Indigenous people: either you leave or this is the end of the road for you?”

According to José Mejías, coordinator of NGO Fundaredes in Amazonas, an Indigenous community in Río Negro managed to have four minors be given back by irregulars who had taken them by force, but then the boys’ families decided to leave the area. In another settlement, in Apure, inhabited by around one hundred people, everyone left for Colombia: the village is now empty. The misery that puts them in the hands of mine recruiters or drug warlords chases them in their exile in Brazil or Colombia, where they must survive disconnected from their lands and traditions.

Indigenous or not, all of those displaced by violence lose their way of life, what they had built, their family ties, their past. They’re castaways, condemned maybe to a nomad life from now on. Ronna Rísquez says that this displacement is mostly impacting entire families, who never return to the place they were expelled from.

“Some displaced people fall into a pattern of permanent moving,” she adds. During one of the periods when there’s been tens of violent deaths at the hands of either gangs or the State in La Vega, she interviewed a local resident, a woman with three children. She had arrived running away from the Valles del Tuy, in southern Miranda, where gangs had killed some of her relatives and had forced her to escape with her sons, while her sister had to leave with her family to another place as well. 

In her hometown, where she used to be a useful person and had many friends, Jazmín has no one left: all her family has moved away and they spread out throughout Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. And that house she wanted to buy with Juancho is empty, surrounded by gangsters.

 

Our thanks to Factual, Adriana Parra, Martha Fernández, Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian and Gabriela Álvarez.

Read the Spanish version of this story on Cinco8.