Originally published by Internationalist 360.
In July, security forces carried out a three-day anti-gang operation in the Cota 905 barrio of Caracas after an uptick in violence in the working-class district. The Gran Cacique Indio Guacaipuro Operation, which caught the headlines of the global media, involved 2500 security personnel and left 22 gang members dead and 28 wounded. Four policemen or women were killed and 10 wounded, while unofficial reports indicate that five bystanders were also killed.
Government sources claim links between the leaders of the “mega-gangs” and far-right groups and regime change paramilitary activities stemming from Colombia. Opposition spokespersons have denied any involvement.
Part I of this two-part interview with criminologist Andrés Antillano looked at some of the historical transformations that gangs have been subject to in light of changing relations with the state and the recessionary economy. Part 2 examines the Gran Cacique Indio Guacaipuro Operation in more detail.
Adriana Gregson (AG): What are the mega-bands? What characterizes them?
Andrés Antillano (AA): The myths concerning the treatment of violence and gangs in working-class neighborhoods must be debunked. For a long time, there has been an almost conspiratorial and sensationalist interpretation about the gangs in working-class barrios.
Gangs have existed in Caracas for many years, and in general can be described as an expression of the profound inequalities and the dynamics of exclusion experienced by young people in popular sectors. Until a few years ago, gangs were entirely dedicated to the affirmation of young people: their socialization and reputation building out of courage and solidarity through the use of violence was one of the few social and cultural resources that an excluded person may wield.
Being a bad, daring, reckless, brave, or evil kid was the way of “being someone” for a person who has no other chance of a decent job or access to schooling that may allow them to improve their living conditions. These characteristics are valued in these excluded territories.
The gangs used to function fundamentally in this way: they were very small groups marked by expressive violence which was essentially linked to confronting those in neighboring sectors to show reputation, honor, respect, ancestry, group solidarity, etc. This was the dynamics of the gangs for a very long time. They incorporated very young kids who were engaged in these activities and would sometimes also dabble in selling drugs, but essentially they were gangs associated with sociability and with the construction of reputations.
Sometimes, those who obtained greater social capital through neighborhood confrontations could be recruited for criminal activities elsewhere — such as stealing a car — by more mature criminals. But the life of the gang was also consumed in a dynamic of us-against-the-others, the enemies, “the snakes,” in other words, those associated with rival groups in specific neighborhoods.
That’s the dynamic that prevailed at least until 2014-15. But this has been changing in recent years, and what we find in the Cota 905 and in other neighborhoods of Caracas and Venezuela is the result of the generational transformation of these groups of excluded young people.
AG: In what ways have they been transformed?
AA: The transformation of gangs has essentially been due to two factors.
Firstly, the paradoxical effect of heavy-handed [government and police] policies. Since 2008-10 a heavy-handed policy has contradicted the strategy of non-criminalization of the poor that the Bolivarian government [previously] implemented.
This shift resulted in the imprisonment of many young people from the barrios. Venezuela’s prison population has doubled from 20 or 21,000 to more than 50,000 in a few years. This overcrowded, collapsed system controlled by prison gangs brought a transformation in the criminal careers of the youths who came from a background of neighborhood conflicts and some opportunistic crime. They went to prison and entered the sphere of the gangs that control the prisons. After that, they left with a series of relationships and cultural capital which generated changes in their way of thinking and allowed them to transform the lives of the gangs they returned to.
From 2013-2014 onwards, when the youths who had been locked away began to return to their neighborhoods, we see the first great transformation of the gangs. The gang was no longer that which clashed with rival groups, or not only so, but it also started to engage in more lucrative activities. We see the transition of the gangs from practicing expressive crimes to instrumental ones (1): crimes that sought accumulation, surplus money.
So mass imprisonment brought about the first gang transformation or mutation: they gained a greater degree of coordination and centralization and association networks between bands from different sectors began to be formed.
Then comes another moment of heavy-handed policies with the People’s Liberation Operations (OLP) (2) and the Special Action Forces (FAES). In the face of the growth of more lucrative criminal activities, the state’s response was not to shift its policies away from dysfunctional heavy-handedness, but rather to accentuate it with policies leading to the extermination of every suspicious young person.
This generated a new transformation of the bands that had faced each other off for a long time: they ended up articulating amongst themselves and generating a change in their rationality. They also abandoned a set of criminal codes such as honor, respect, blood debts, etc., which were transmitted from generation to generation, and they began to have a much more pragmatic, instrumental, and even business-oriented logic.
Another element at this stage is that their leaders are now adults, they are more grown-up. Police violence triggered the transformation of the gangs because the youngest were killed and the surviving elders colonized the bands. Before gang members and leaders were very young, around 20, but now the leaders were all around 40.
In addition, gangs began to grow in size, not only geographically, but also with a much more complex level of organization. Unlike the previous bands that were small, horizontal, and without hierarchy or division of labor, gangs started to apply hierarchies, division of labor and the delegation of tasks.
AG: Heavy-handed policies are the first factor. What is the second?
AA: The second factor is economic change. Previously, youths were used to an expanding consumer economy. There was a boom economy that had left some sectors behind, mainly the excluded young who were the ones who found a way to compensate for this relegation through violence.
In this context, the use of violence was closely linked to the expressive demonstrations of “tagging” or “fronting up,” which were related to reputation. The idea of “fronting up to life” is an economic one because it speaks of the singularity of “being someone” in a world of exclusion in which you are nobody. “No-bodies” became “someone” through exercising violence. That’s “fronting up” for folk who own nothing with which to front up.
However, the contraction of consumption in Venezuela meant that these groups shifted to much more economically attractive activities. It was no longer profitable to “front up,” there was no longer any point in this expressive economy.
In addition, instrumental crime was becoming less and less violent because it was necessary to detract police attention in order to engage in profitable activities. This is how the rates of predatory crimes such as hijacking or vehicle theft end up falling because they involve a lot of risks and little profit.
As such, gangs are turned into criminal enterprises that function just as a company would, with a logic of capitalist accumulation, surplus investment, recruiting more workers to lower costs, reinvest and expand. We observe a change in the nature of gangs that have become instrumental enterprises, mainly concentrated in illicit markets with managerial rationality. They are armed capitalist enterprises.
As a former kidnapper once told me:
Before, you stood on the highway and kidnapped anyone because you could get a lot of money from them — there was a lot of money in the country. But now a kidnapping is worth at least US $50,000… You’d have to look for someone who has that sort of money because if you kidnap them and you’re grabbed by the police you’re probably going to get killed.
Kidnapping today only occurs in very specific cases when there is inside information of someone who has $100,000 to hand over. Running the risk of being killed to steal a cell phone worth $50 or $100 doesn’t make sense. Predatory crime such as homicide has fallen, and the gangs are moving into much more lucrative and less attention-grabbing activities.
We are essentially talking about illicit markets of inelastic demand. There are markets that do not contract even in the crisis, like food or drugs. The latter not only does not contract but in times of crisis it grows. If I am a crack consumer I will not stop consuming it if I cannot pay. Rather, in addition to stealing, I will start selling crack too, generating a market expansion.
Something similar happens with the food market, they are the two large niches that are controlled by armed groups: the drug markets – here the Cota 905 gangs had a central role – and food, which is largely controlled by collectives associated with the police.
AG: Is this what happened in the Cota 905 district?
AA: The Cota 905 was transformed into the largest drug market in Caracas. We are talking about a drug market controlled by the gang that could make about $50,000 a week, according to some sources. Secondary sellers shopped in the Cota 905 and a lot of people also bought directly there.
It must be said that the Cota 905 has very specific social and geographical characteristics. The area is one of the poorest in Caracas because they are very new and precarious barrios. In fact, it grows around a very old avenue, but it was populated much more recently than [other large barrios] La Vega or Petare. In addition, it is a sharply inclined hillside where only people who cannot live anywhere chose to live. There is still a green area there that is populated: it is an area of natural growth of excluded people. There are people who live in very precarious conditions, much more precarious than people who live in other barrios of the city center.
The sector houses about 50,000 people that are about 10 or 15 blocks from the [central] Plaza Bolivar of Caracas, and it is next to [the middle class] El Paraíso district, which is very close to the center of the city, and it has the Cemetery district on the other side, where the largest popular market in the city is located. The Cota 905 enjoys ideal social, geographic, and economic conditions.
As a result of police violence and mass imprisonment, many gangs shifted from being gangs that were pitted against other gangs to organizations that began to effectively control the drug market and territory. Predatory crimes came down and the gang in the area dedicated itself to selling drugs or other more complicated activities such as extortion, extortion in informal mines, the issue of the border, etc.
In addition, the gang began to develop armed resistance capabilities, yielding the ability to negotiate with the state. This is another transformation that was alien to criminals before. Traditional criminals did not negotiate because it was a matter of reputation: “I don’t care if they kill me.” Now, gang leaders are able to sit down with so-and-so to pay him or to negotiate politically: “we guarantee that there will be peace here, there will be no violence, but you will not enter.” This demonstrates an effective, successful capacity to establish negotiations that had been alien to the traditional criminal logic.
This transformation was not only seen in the Cota 905, but it also happened in other places, and the gangs that have managed to thrive are the ones that established some kind of agreement [with the authorities]. This allowed for a large economic growth, which made the bands stronger at the same time.
AG: At what point does the exponential growth of the Cota 905 gang occur?
AA: There is an unforeseen circumstantial factor in the case of the Cota 905, which was the pandemic. With the pandemic, the Cota 905 gang grew rapidly.
Firstly, the impoverishment of already poor sectors increased with the pandemic, which means that there is a much larger potential workforce for the gangs, stimulating their numeric growth. The new recruits were no longer just from the Cota 905, because the gang started to receive people from different places and to grow and establish alliances with other bands in other places.
There is also an important circulation of people from the Caracas center and outside the city who deal in the Cota 905, which allows a greater availability of workers because many who could not find work elsewhere, especially in the moments of greatest recession due to lockdown, looked to the gang for employment.
Secondly, in the absence of a presence of the state, the gang started to carry out state functions.
The reports from informants are incredible: the gang functioned as a much more effective state than the state itself. During the pandemic it imposed curfew, applied safe-conduct passes, everyone had to wear a facemask, there were checkpoints at the barrio’s entrances and exits, and people had to spray themselves with disinfectant. It achieved a very effective form of control.
In addition, the gang provided food and sold it at cost price, even sometimes helping the worst-off families. It became a supplier. The gang not only exercised functions to maintain order and sanitary control (the right hand of the state), but also exercised the left hand with redistributive functions, generating a high level of legitimacy in the territory.
As one of the most impoverished urban sectors, there was a greater availability of youths who could not find work elsewhere, and they found economic opportunity in the gang: youths from the base level of the gang could earn $50-100 a week [compared to $2.50 a month in a public sector workplace or roughly $50-90 a month in some private-sector jobs]. There is no unskilled job in Venezuela that can get this pay.
In other words, on the one hand, the gang achieved political legitimacy and on the other, it managed to grow economically. This occurred as [the gang] raised the price of drugs first by cutting supply, and then, once supply was restored, it had the cunning to accommodate the market to such an extent that people could go to buy drugs without much of a security risk. They even set up private parties that attracted wealthy people and became very attractive in the middle of the pandemic.
In short, the economy grew and what happens to any company when it grows in terms of capital, especially if it is an armed company? It has to expand. But in doing so, confrontations with the state became more and more common, breaking this precarious implicit or explicit agreement that existed with institutional actors.
At the same time, by becoming economically successful, sections of the police started to try to meddle in the gang’s sales, cracking down on these illegal activities. That is how [state force] attacks on the people of the Cota 905 and their allies became more frequent, generating increasingly violent responses until what happened a few weeks ago.
(1) Assaults, disorders, and domestic violence are examples of expressive crime. Instrumental crime, on the other hand, involves behavior that has a specific tangible goal, such as the acquisition of property. Predatory crimes, such as theft, burglary, and robbery, are examples of instrumental crime.
(2) OLPs were police operations in which early morning raids on barrios were carried out with a “shoot first ask later” logic. Since their start in 2015, they were largely criticized for violating people’s human rights until authorities fazed them out.
Adriana Gregson (AG): What triggered such a large-scale police operation in the center of the city?
Andrés Antillano (AA): The trigger for the episode was a police attack on one of the Cota 905 gang’s major allies in which they were badly wounded. But the development of the confrontation was a repeat of previous episodes that had already happened on many occasions: the gang overestimated their firepower and underestimated the response of the state. Gang leaders were trying to get away with more and more, including chasing down a police commission on the highway recently. They thought that the state wasn’t going to react.
On the other hand, the Cota 905 gang (or one of its bosses) had begun to develop an idea about not only functioning like a company but also as a social movement. It was looking to bring together all the gangs in Caracas to pressure the government to negotiate certain conditions, a kind of criminal syndicate, a union of the outlaws of Caracas.
This idea had nothing to do with business or profitability, which, in fact, are contradictory objectives… Perhaps that’s what caused the gang to fail [in its confrontation with the police]. Maybe the Cota 905 gang expected a response from their allies and believed that the government wouldn’t dare to do what it did. The increasingly virulent episodes from the gang may have also been a way to put pressure on the government and to show strength to its allies. That’s my hypothesis.
AG: Why had the government not acted before?
AA: I think there are several reasons. The government has shown a complete inability to develop effective responses to the issue of crime. Two responses have been observed from the government: excessive and counterproductive violence, or nothing.
Let us recall that People’s Liberation Operations (OLP) (1) were inaugurated in the Cota 905 in June 2015. I think there were 4 or 5 OLP incursions in total, all equally ineffective.
In parallel, the government tried to favor peaceful agreements that would allow it to abstain from [forcibly] taking over the territory until the last moment. The July operation was very serious in terms of human cost, occurring in the middle of densely populated neighborhoods and with an armed structure with great firepower. I was very surprised at the cleanliness of the police’s operation.
AG: A clean operation?
AA: It was relatively clean. We are not talking about the police’s dignified and humane treatment of people, but this was a very complicated area to take and control. The armed group was using around 200 armed youths in an intricate and highly inclined area. It was very complex and there was a risk of a massacre.
The operation was very clean in military terms. The police took the higher ground and of course, in doing so, they made the resistance of the band untenable.
Venezuela’s police forces use a wartime logic of extermination and which favors excessive or lethal violence. But in this case, although there were episodes of looting and illegal arrests and deaths, I have no evidence to say that there was a massacre. I expected it to be more dramatic, especially because there were precedents such as in [the Caracas barrio of] La Vega, where there were summary executions during several police raids this year.
But I am convinced that police control of the sector is going to be untenable, as it has been on other occasions. The gang is rearming itself, and the most likely thing to occur is that small armed bands will start to appear again, pitted against each other. This, in turn, will bring an increase in violence and opportunistic crime in the area.
AG: What kind of security policies could the government implement in this case?
AA: First of all, an effective and targeted social policy is needed. One of the problems is that the gang has strong legitimacy because it provided real opportunities for the neighborhood youths.
The problem is complicated in recessionary contexts such as the one the country is experiencing. The state must be able to offer something to youths, not only as a preventive measure so the gang is not rearmed or so that bands do not re-appear, but because it is the state’s obligation to guarantee social and economic opportunities to the less favored communities. A strong social policy is needed.
But that’s not enough. The police presence must be different from occupation models that are marked by profound illegitimacy. If we ask anyone from the Cota 905 they will say that they preferred it when the police weren’t there. I’ve asked a lot of people. The police’s practice is abusive and includes extortion or systematic violence. These abuses come in addition to a precarious presence, because police do not occupy permanently, but rather make incursions as if it were enemy territory.
One could use the ‘sacrificed zones’ terminology which is typically used in the debate on the relationship between territory and ecology. Many neighborhoods in our cities are sacrificed zones: the state has abandoned its responsibilities, both in regulating conflicts and violence as well as in terms of the social investment needed to reduce wealth gaps and urban inequalities. It is in these sacrificed zones that organizations like gangs emerge, taking advantage of the vacuum left. In these zones, one can also see security forces using practices not tolerated elsewhere, such as taking for granted that some citizens are second-class, disposable bodies who have no rights or guarantees.
So this has to be reversed. It is not only a question of re-establishing the presence of the state, which is of course necessary, but also of re-establishing the rule of law, restoring and protecting the rights of the population (violated by the gang, by crime, but also by structural conditions and by the security forces). Equally, the welfare state, as defined by the constitution, which guarantees access to conditions for a dignified life.
A permanent police presence that has a different relationship with the community, that guarantees security and that is not a further source of harm or damage is required. There are models that have been used, models of proximity or community policing that can be developed, but it certainly involves a transformation of the security forces.
On the other hand, there are different strategies of working with gangs, different policies that can be developed to reach agreements or prevent an escalation of violent activities. It is possible to reach agreements with gangs, especially when they’re small. There are very interesting experiences even of gang transformation, because these are spaces for the socialization of youths that can be taken advantage of by reducing the more criminal or violent activities.
Every day we all commit crimes or small infractions like running a red light, smoking a joint, urinating in the street because we cannot get to a toilet on time, parking out of place. We all commit infractions and the police handle crimes differentially, with a very marked class bias. In the same way, one can bet on a model that manages crimes in a focused way, as has happened in the experiences of Boston or Pernambuco, where any crime that involves violence or the threat of violence is relentlessly pursued.
One strategy is a policy focused on those most dangerous activities, such as armed robbery or gunfights with neighboring gangs, while other illicit activities that are less violent, such as the sale of drugs on a small scale, are tolerated to some degree.
But what happens in Venezuela is just the opposite. Here, the police love to chase down marihuana users because if they arrest a smoker with three grams of crack the arresting officer looks good and might get a promotion. Likewise, if a middle-class citizen is arrested, then the officer might be able to squeeze some money off them. So, sometimes heavy-handedness equates to a bunch of imprisoned marihuana users.
It is necessary to focus on more serious crimes. How to deal with drug crime is a long debate, but everyone agrees that a small-scale drug dealer is less dangerous than a guy with a gun killing or threatening people.
There are also other formulas for integration, such as disarmament programs that can be effective. In other words, there is a constellation of affective responses that may prevent gangs from being reintroduced in this area, as will surely happen [in the Cota 905] because the exclusion and poverty remain intact.
But heavy-handed policies mean that you go from doing nothing to excessive and unnecessary violence, permanently going from one extreme to the other. A police force that kills people is not an effective force, quite the contrary. It is ineffective, because unlike in war where lethal force is the objective, in terms of security a police force that kills people is not capable of controlling the territory, reverting to military incursions after facing levels of violent responses that it did not know how to control in time. This is a cyclical dynamic.
The other thing is that the government or the state has been restoring certain capabilities and trying to recover spaces where it has lost control. That happens on the [Colombian] border, in the mines, and it’s also happening in the case of the Caracas barrios of Cota 905 or José Felix Ribas. Sometimes this is achieved through the state’s own strength, but sometimes by forging alliances or taking sides with criminal groups, as I’m told is happening in mining areas.
I generally avoid the issue of the government and state, because often the problem just involves a sergeant who has a personal deal with someone or a police commissioner who’s looking for some extra cash, it’s not the minister or the president. Our state, like every state, is fractured, it’s an archipelago. There is an author who speaks of the fetish of the state, and just as money or merchandise is a fetish, the state is likewise because there is no single large coherent leviathan that moves at a single pace. Rather, it is made up of archipelagos, autonomous groups. Above all, a state like ours has high levels of deinstitutionalization like any rentier state.
AG: Finally, what do you think of the official line [of collaboration between gang leaders and opposition regime-change actors] concerning the Gran Cacique Indio Guacaipuro Operation?
AA: Well, I’m a social researcher not a police investigator. I think that there were people in the Cota 905 gang who had relationships with different political actors, because they had a social movement logic, a more interesting and dangerous phenomenon. A logic of linking up, of meeting with people runs alongside an economic, big business logic of accumulation.
So, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have some kind of communication with the opposition, I don’t know, it’s possible, but I don’t think it was decisive. I don’t think they worked for the opposition because we’re talking about a very profitable business of US $50,000 profit per week. One would not risk that to get into a conspiratorial plan, it would be foolish.
But I do not rule it out, it is possible, anything is possible. But I have no elements to support the idea. I think the gang acted like this because one of the leaders was hurt. If anything, I think that saying that the events of the Cota 905 are a direct consequence of a conspiratorial opposition-led plan is an uncomfortable narrative for several reasons.
First, it excuses or renders invisible the real causes (the persistent social problems) and even deepens them. It also ignores the failure of heavy-handed police policies and the possibility of bands such as these being re-articulated.
Another possible scenario is that some other gangs take over this gigantic space that is left empty, which is not that of the Cota 905 district but of the Caracas drug market. In fact, the main competition is in the hands of groups that may become the emerging market, such as the Aragua Train gang which also has a complex and sophisticated organization. But this narrative hides the causes, trivializes the phenomenon, and also ends up having a paradoxical effect of eulogizing the opposition’s paramilitarism.
This narrative is a persistent government narrative, and it’s interesting to wonder where it comes from. It is a kind of conspiracy theory that is very typical of the left, but which also connects with something that I find unacceptable, which is veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) xenophobia. According to this line, all the country’s problems are the fault of the Colombian people, not even of the government, of the Colombians themselves. For example, there was a man who said that Koki [Cota 905 gang leader] was the son of a Colombian. That was the explanation: being the son of a Colombian makes you suspicious. Had [Venezuela and Colombia’s liberator] Simón Bolívar had his way, we would all be Colombians!
But there is an even more sinister element to this narrative: paramilitarism. Firstly a clarification: paramilitarism is not a phenomenon which is exclusive to Colombia. Perhaps the best-known example was the British Crown’s extermination groups in Northern Ireland. The concept refers to armed groups acting outside the law with explicit or implicit government support. They are groups controlled by de facto powers close to the state. Paramilitarism here would be more typical of those groups that act as pseudo-policemen, arresting people and setting up checkpoints.
Where does this narrative come from? How is it strengthened (especially since 2014)? How does it play out in the explanation of the problems of gangs and crime in Caracas?
It comes from a very paradoxical and dangerous twist that occurred after September 11, 2001 in the US’ narrative concerning counterinsurgency. This shift started associating criminal groups with terrorism. Different US right-wing think tanks tried to translate that to Latin America, and the appearance of this imperialist discourse in Venezuela comes about in special interest communities and through actors linked to the Interior and Justice Ministry who begin to have access to texts from these think tanks.
Imperialist rhetoric is not positioned through ambassadors. It comes through much more hidden mechanisms. It was interior ministers who came from the world of intelligence (a community with certain knowledge and technologies generally promoted by the great centers of world power, such as the US) who introduced this narrative in Venezuela, alleging for the first time that criminal groups were associated terrorism and political actors. Similar narratives associating criminal groups with terrorist organizations and political groups were also used in Central America, Colombia and Brazil, for example.
But this narrative paradoxically ends up legitimizing both terrorism and its actors in different sectors. To illustrate this point, I wish to share a conversation I had in 2015 with the gang leader of an area where I do fieldwork. I asked him what he thought of the government pigeonholing them as paramilitaries and he replied that “Of course we are, because look at this -and he shows me his weapon-, if the military comes, we’re going to stop them with this! Let’s be the ‘para-military’!” He had no idea what he was talking about!
What I can tell you is that the Cota 905 was the great drug market of Caracas, and, therefore, was in direct contact with Colombia. Colombia’s drug trafficking is closely linked to groups connected to the insurgency or the dissidents of the insurgency, such as FARC factions and paramilitary groups. In the world of crime, the ‘business is business’ maxim applies and ideological differences are of no interest, only money matters.
However, what is more worrying about this conspiratorial narrative is that it glorifies the opposition and paramilitaries. It associates them with a gang that has great prestige among youths who are excluded from the popular sectors of the city. This may end up having the rather paradoxical effect of eulogizing these groups.
(1) OLPs were police operations in which early morning raids on barrios were carried out with a “shoot first ask later” logic. Since their start in 2015, they were largely criticized for violating people’s human rights until authorities fazed them out.
Andrés Antillano is a social psychologist and criminology professor at the Institute of Criminal Sciences of Caracas’ Central University of Venezuela’s (UCV). He investigates violence and the conditions that favor it, examining these issues from a class perspective.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.
Author: Internationalist 360
Internationalist 360 provides a forum for authors to publish posts regarding current events in nations around the world, especially in South American, Middle Eastern and African nations.