Pais Portátil III: Re-thinking the State: Criminal Organizations and Militarized Violence in Venezuela

Apr 30, 2019, 4:30 pm4:30 pm
219 Burr Hall
Event Description

"From Carceral Punitivism to Systematic Slaughter: The Advance of Militarized Raids in the Post-Chávez Era"

Based on two qualitative studies developed in Caracas with Rebecca Hanson, in her presentation Verónica Zubillaga suggests that in order to understand the recent increase in violent deaths in Venezuela, specifically in Caracas, in the post-Chávez period we must place at the center of our analysis the discourses and practices of an extremely privileged actor, the state, in the context of the collapse of oil prices. It is proposed that this lethal violence, previously unheard of in the country, can be understood, within the historical process of militarization of citizen security, as the outcome of a carceral punitivism that with the passing of the years has begun clearing a path and juxtaposing itself to the practice of systematic extralegal slaughter seen in extreme police and military violence in focused military raids in poor sectors. This military advance forms part of the advance of necropolitics in the country in the time of the Post-Chávez Bolivarian Revolution.

Veronica Zubillaga (PhD, Catholic University of Louvain), is an associate professor at the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas. She is currently Visiting Fellow at The Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Notre Dame University. She specializes in the study of urban violence in Latin America. Her research focuses on youth gang violence in Caracas, gender, and public policy.

Zubillaga has combined academia with public impact throughout her career, promoting an arms control and disarmament public policy in her home country of Venezuela.  She previously received a Fulbright Scholarship and a grant from The Open Society Foundations for her research. She was Craig Cogut Visiting Professor of Latin American Studies at Brown University (2014-15) and the Santander Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University (2016).


"Mimicking a State: Lumpen Sovereignty, Peace Zones, and Carceral Order in Contemporary Venezuela"

“Creo tener fuerza moral para hacer un llamado a los jóvenes que incursionan en las bandas delictivas: Vengan a la Patria. Yo les hago un llamado a que dejen las armas y el crimen (…) A los grupos que se hacen llamar malandros: Vengan a la Patria. Sean buenandros” Hugo Chávez 28/7/2012

“One of the main means for the achievement of this aim [revolt], I am deeply convinced, must and should be our (…) innumerable saintly and not so saintly tramps (…) thieves and brigands (…) The tramping fraternity are the best and truest conductors of people’s revolution, promoters of general popular unrest, this precursor of popular revolt.” Bakunin, “Letter to Sergey Nechayev” (1870)

“The lumpenproletariat, this scum of the decaying elements of all classes, which establishes headquarters in all the big cities, is the worst of all possible allies. It is an absolutely venal, an absolutely brazen crew. Every leader of the workers who utilizes these gutter proletarians as guards or supports, proves himself by this action alone a traitor to the movement.” Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, p. 16. (1850)

In his introduction to The Mafia of a Sicilian Village (1860-1960), Charles Tilly explains that if one mafia network managed to extend its control over a large territory, forming coalitions, eliminating rivals, providing protection and extracting resources/rent, its actions would be described as “public” rather than “private.” It would be a government; it would resemble a State. Tilly’s observation suggests that the line between the State and the parapolitics that brew underground, at the margins of legality, is tenuous. Or, perhaps, that sometimes, the State is just the visible, the acceptable face of crime. This presentation teases such ideas for contemporary Venezuela. Drawing on ethnographic work and archival materials, I explore two instances in which criminal organizations carved spaces of action, developed a political rationality, and even deployed the features of a para-state within the context of the Bolivarian Revolution: the prison self-governance and the so-called “Peace Zones.”

The first part explores inmate rule and religious mediation inside a prison at the outskirts of Caracas. I argue that the State seemingly delegated, or relinquished the internal control of the facility to prisoners, and, in turn, gang leaders delegated certain regulatory or disciplinary functions to the Evangelical community. In this manner, the structural issues of Venezuelan penitentiaries intertwine with a very particular context in which, as I argue, a state-within-the-state instrumentalized religious structures to consolidate its power. In this particular case, the development and concentration of inmate power emulates the rise of a Modern State, with its secularizing and bureaucratic impulses and practices.

A second, somehow analogous case, are the so-called “Zonas de Paz” (Peace Zones). These are urban and rural areas where Venezuela’s security forces maintain(ed) no permanent presence. Vigilance by local residents was meant to replace policing as a response to the mistrust that some communities feel towards police. This short-lived experiment was akin to the recognition of a sovereignty of sorts that would soon confront the limits of the State. Since their implementation in January 2014, these “zones” saw an escalation of violence and crime. In Miranda state, which contains the Caracas metro area and the largest number of “peace zones,” the murder rate was 105 per 100,000 residents in 2014, compared to 67 per 100,000 residents, outside the zones. 

I conclude with a reflection on the so-called OLP, Operación Liberación del Pueblo, as the State’s response to their own failures to control a criminal violence or, perhaps, as a response to the challenges on its own monopoly of violence and sovereign power.

In a way, my reflection backtracks to Marx’s sentiment against the lumpenproletariat. The evidence suggests that, more than outsiders of the Capitalist order, they are often an integral part of the system.

Luis Duno-Gottberg is an Associate Professor at Rice University. He specializes in 19th., 20th. and 21st. Century Caribbean Culture, with emphasis on race and ethnicity, politics and violence, and visual culture. His current research, "Dangerous People: Non-Traditional Social Movements and Culture in Contemporary Venezuela", explores the relationship between popular mobilization, radical politics and culture. He is the author of La humanidad como mercancía. La esclavitud moderna en América (2014), Solventar las diferencias: La ideología del mestizaje en Cuba (2003). He is the editor of Carceral Communities: Troubling Prison Worlds in 21st. Century Latin America (with Chris Garces, Andres Antillano, Sacha Darke. University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming 2019). La política encarnada. Biopolítica y Cultura en la Venezuela Bolivariana (2015), Submerged. Sumergido. Alternative Cuban Cinema (2013), Haiti and the Americas (2013), Miradas al margen. Cine y Subalternidad en América Latina (2008), Imagen y Subalternidad. El Cine de Víctor Gaviria (2003).

Photo: Untitled by Osmar Romero