2 June 2020
“I have known about many homicides that have occurred during this quarantine, especially among young people. Just a few days ago, a young man was thrown off a building from the eighth floor because of a family row. Also, two young men were killed by state security forces”. (Testimony from a community leader in western Caracas when asked about violence during the ongoing COVID-19 emergency).
The quote above is from a conversation I recently had with one of the community leaders of the organization I work at: Caracas Mi Convive. Caracas is the capital of Venezuela; it is located in the northern part of the country. It has approximately three million inhabitants, who live in very contrasting situations. According to the research conducted by the Caracas-based NGO “Enlace Arquitectura” in 2014, half of the population lives in informal settlements, commonly called “Barrios”. Nonetheless, these settlements only occupy a quarter of the total surface of Caracas, thus constituting neighborhoods with high density, with a total of 360.7 habitants per hectare.
Additionally, Caracas is the city with the highest homicide rate in Venezuela with an estimated rate of 99.18 homicides per 100,000 citizens. Venezuela was ranked as the most violent country in Latin America in 2019, with an estimated homicide rate of 60.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. The majority of homicides occur in these informal settlements, specifically in the Libertador Municipality. According to Monitor de Victimas, in 2019 63.37% of the deaths that occurred in Caracas and were caused by civilians and state security forces were concentrated in the Libertador municipality.
This is also where Caracas Mi Convive carries out its work. Caracas Mi Convive is a grassroot leadership initiative that implements violence prevention programs in neighborhoods with high levels of homicide, in alliance with local leaders in the Libertador Municipality, located in the western area of the city.
Monitor de Víctimas is a violence observatory promoted by the news portal Runrun.es and Caracas Mi Convive. The observatory combines investigative journalism and citizen participation with the aim of registering the violent deaths that occur daily in the greater metropolitan area of Caracas. Journalists go twice a day to the only morgue in Caracas and interview victims’ relatives and friends, as well as government officials, to gather information relating to the sociodemographic characteristics of the victim, the alleged perpetrators, and the context in which the homicide happened.
Since May 2017, Monitor de Víctimas has been striving to understand the patterns of violent deaths in Caracas and to inform the violence prevention initiatives that Caracas Mi Convive implements alongside a network of community leaders in the neighborhoods that are most affected by violence.
Public security policies in Venezuela are characterized by a militarized approach; the state security forces comprise the National Bolivarian Police (P.N.B), The Scientific Investigation Police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas, C.I.C.P.C), and the National Bolivarian Guard (G.N.B).
The data on domestic homicides and its perpetrators.
According to the 2019 Monitor de Víctimas report, violent deaths inside people’s homes have become significantly prominent in Venezuela’s capital. Urban violence in Caracas mainly consists of two forms of street killings: clashes between two young men (age 15 to 29) from working-class neighborhoods, or clashes between individuals from this category and state security forces. The data from Monitor de Víctimas shows that, in 2019, 64.47% of violent deaths occurred on public roads. Private homes constitute the second most common place where homicides occur, and it increased by 5.83% in 2019 compared to 2018, representing 30.79% of homicides that were registered in the past year.
The data drawn from the observatory shows that, when violent deaths occur inside people’s homes (inclusive of murders allegedly committed by civilians and state security forces), some of the patterns change in comparison to the other homicides registered by the Monitor.
When considering the overall homicides registered in 2019 by Monitor de Víctimas, state security forces, including police and military corps, were responsible for 37.94% of the total. However, when taking into account only the violent deaths that occurred inside people’s homes, state security forces are the primary perpetrators, responsible for 60.51% of the total murders that occur in that environment.
Among state security forces, the entity most responsible for violent domestic killings was the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (F.A.E.S.), the special tactical unit of the National Bolivarian Police (P.N.B.). This unit alone was involved in 48.12% of all violent domestic deaths. This is a recurring pattern for F.A.E.S.; 52.24% of the total deaths caused by this police unit were inside people’s homes. F.A.E.S. is the only state security force for which the majority of deaths resulting from their actions have occurred inside people’s homes, being more lethal than any other registered corp. In comparison, the scientific-investigation police (C.I.C.P.C.) is the second most lethal corps; overall, however, approximately a third of their victims were inside people’s homes.
The F.A.E.S. was created in 2016 with the alleged purpose of combatting crime and terrorism, amid the adoption of tough-on-crime policies. Their records confirm that each time a government promises to end crime through war-like tactics, civil liberties and human rights are violated and violence overall increases.
Testimonies gathered by Monitor de Víctimas have shown that this police corps usually sets up the crime scene to make it look like there was a confrontation at their arrival. The F.A.E.S. is known to plant firearms and drugs in people’s homes, in order for their official registers to show that the victim resisted authority and was guilty of possessing or dealing drugs.
Staged “resistance to authority”: a testimony.
A seemingly wrongful accusation of “resistance to authority” was the case of Darwin, a 27-year-old man who lived in a favela in eastern Caracas. [For security reasons the dates, the names of the people involved and the places have been changed.] F.A.E.S. came to his house at 6am, forced the family members out, and killed him inside his home. His aunt, who also resided on that property, narrated to a researcher working with Caracas Mi Convive how the F.A.E.S. killed Darwin:
“F.A.E.S. arrived at 6:18 am, I do not forget the time because I always woke up at that time to get the children ready for school, and then I heard a knock on the door and told my daughter, Jessica, to go to the door and see who was knocking. I think it is Juan, it is his birthday, and I am sure he is coming so we can congratulate him. Jessica looks through the door’s peephole, so she tells me: ‘mum, it’s the police.’”
Afterwards, F.A.E.S. forced every member of the family – except Darwin – out of their home, and several shots were heard to be fired inside the house. The F.A.E.S. officers then left the house, possessing what appeared to be drugs and a shotgun, and accused Darwin of “resisting authority”. According to testimonies taken from Darwin’s family members, F.A.E.S. allegedly robbed Darwin’s home. His aunt told the researcher:
“I could enter my house again at six in the afternoon, they took away his shoes, they took away my food, they shot several times at my mango tree, because I had a mango tree in my yard, they ate mangos inside my house after, and left the peels all over the place.”
These testimonies reveal that the security forces are following a systematic pattern: looking for people in their houses and killing them in staged shoot-outs. The reasons behind these killings do not seem to follow a unified motive. What is clear is that they disproportionately target dark-skinned young people who live in marginalized communities; 80% of the victims comply with this profile. One of the possible explanations that Caracas Mi Convive proposes is that this may be a way of social control to restrain working-class communities from protesting. January 2019, when protests increased in working-class neighborhoods, was also the month with the highest number of violent deaths in that year: on that month, almost half (49.52%) of the victims were killed by state security forces, more than the yearly overall of 37.94%. Nonetheless, this hypothesis needs more data and analysis to be confirmed.
From my point of view, what is most striking about these numbers and testimony is that homicides in private homes are commonly perceived to take place due to conflicts between family members, as per the initial quote of the community leader, or because a criminal breaks into the house. In Caracas, however, state officials are behind the majority of deaths that took place inside people’s homes.