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 looks 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 II examines the recent 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–uch 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 U.S. $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.
Andrés Antillano is a social psychologist and criminology professor at the Institute of Criminal Sciences in Caracas’ Central University of Venezuela (UCV). He investigates violence and the conditions that favor it, examining these issues from a class perspective.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.