The Dickensian Aspect

Photo: Sean Smith

Rory Carroll’s written a superlative article on Venezuela’s gangland violence for The Guardian, together with this arresting, difficult to watch short film and this photo gallery by Sean Smith.

What makes this corner of South America, once best known for oil and beauty queens, a Hobbesian lottery? The short answer is gangs. Young men with guns drop bodies as they battle over turf and drugs in winding, rubbish-strewn streets. The catch-all description for them is malandros, supposedly feral thugs and ne’er-do-wells perpetually at war with themselves and the rest of society. They inhabit, Venezuelans tell you, the land “up there”: hillside barrios. Malandros flit across television screens and newspapers as cadavers or hooded suspects paraded by police. Either way they are anonymous cyphers who do not speak, leaving their motivations, their world, incomprehensible to outsiders. A war over a piece of popcorn?

This is the story of one gang. Of its rise and fall and resurrection in a dusty, sun-baked slum, and of the reasons it does what it does. Some of the plots and characters make US crime dramas seem tame. There is the hitman who became a minister’s bodyguard. The straight-A student suspected of black magic because no one can kill him. The mugger who found love while dodging police. The prison cannibal who found God. And the aristocratic rum merchant who proved an unlikely saviour. The narrative tilts between decay and hope, corruption and redemption.

Personally, I’m a big fan of reporting on Venezuela that just omits the word “Chávez” altogether. Here, it’s beautifully done. This stuff is too raw, too real to be dragged down into the morass of quasi-reality that oozes out of our hyper-polarized politics.

Thing is, the Intertubes are so crammed full of interesting stuff, it’s easy to let genuinely remarkable material pass you by. And yes, I know you’re constantly getting harangued by one blog or another telling you not to miss this or that.

But this time, trust me: you have to read this. The film and the photos are impressive, but the article is really impressive.

[Hat tip: TSM.]

51 thoughts on “The Dickensian Aspect

  1. Makled singing like a canary:

    Highlights include:
    – Middle Eastern terror groups using the Venezuelan drugs trade to get income
    – Makled invited to set up his shop in Venezuela by Venezuelan ministers
    – 20 million Bs per week to secure his rights to export from Puerto Cabello
    – Another 80% of allegations to come… which of course he would say

    All strange ahead of his expected extradition. You’d have thought he wouldn’t want to upset the government prior to coming here. But perhaps it isn’t moving quickly enough!


    • Like I said, on the web there’s always a newer, shinier toy to distract your attention…Makled’s rant sure is shiny!


  2. Very strong video. Unfortunately the reality of life today in Venezuela.

    On top of this reality was Chavez’ personal survey team saying he still has the majority vote.

    It’s all very depressing for those of us still living here.


  3. Good article.

    “Belief in santería, a voodoo-tinged African-Caribbean import, is widespread, especially among gangsters who pray to santos malandros, holy thugs, for success and survival.”

    You see this same stuff in Mexico where there are drug gangs praying to the patron Saints of the drug underworld.

    “A crumbling home on a dusty hill in Venezuela, and a young life that must choose between two paths. One filled with danger, good money, prestige and the chance to “defend” the community. The other filled with long hours, a minimum wage and a lesser but still real chance of getting killed just because some kid flicked a possible piece of popcorn. Which would you choose?”

    What are people choosing when they get involved in Crime? Money and power.

    Unless there is a sense of the higher good and a strong faith in the force for good I see no possible motivation for many of these young people to stop their criminal activities.Education does not do it.Many educated people are criminals. Money will not do it,many rich people are criminals.The only factor I see deterring criminality other than strong punishment are morality and a higher form of Spirituality.These people believe in the other world, so maybe by believing in the higher form of the other world will give them a chance.

    What are people not choosing ? Morality and true spirituality.Instead there is an attempt to use the Gods in favor of crass materialism-But I have heard of conversions to Christianity as a powerful tool in many cases to stop crime.

    I remember Barabas in San Juan de los Morros, a serial murderer who was healed through Christian conversion.It would take a very strong force for someone to overcome such atrocious living,and for people who already believe in the other world this can be very powerful.

    Do i think ALL people need this to be moral? Of course not- but MANY do.I am not a Christian myself but I have seen the power it has over many people.


    • I do not buy your argument. After all, some of the most peaceful societies on Earth have lots of nonbelievers, while countries that are deeply religious are often very violent.


      • Guido,

        I am talking about Venezuela, and I am not saying that a society has to be religious to be peaceful.

        I am not religious, and I am not a criminal.

        Each country has to be seen as the unique entity it is.Venezuelans on the whole believe in the astral world of spirit, so that is what we have to work with.


        • Well, it has not worked so well after all these years. I do not see we need a religous education to solve the problem with resources from the state.
          I am not saying that religious people are criminal, so stop the straw man argument.


          • I am a religious person and I definitely agree with Guido. Religion should be taught at home. At school you have world history and there a part should be given to religions…perhaps in some class of “society and ethics” in a historical perspective. We need perhaps to have a class on thinking, on analytical thinking (against learning by heart)…although probably in Venezuela those classes would be like this:
            “and for next week you have to learn [by heart] what the book says about analytical thinking”.

            We need a society where people have jobs.
            We need to reduce birth rate (which is the third highest in South America after Bolivia and Paraguay, even though the situation there is not as dramatic due to, among other things, population distribution, wealth distribution, easy access to weapons from an utterly corrupt military, etc).


  4. I was reading through it, and saying sh*t, sh*t,sh*t all along. I have come to call the rest of the world, to friends and family, the “Normal World”, places you can work, rent housing, save money, exchange money, buy a car, eat out, travel. Also live, go out, walk at night, fear being just robbed. That, incidentally, includes Third World places with some normality about them.

    Then, there’s Venezuela at large, with Ciudad Juarez and other entrances to Hell on the face of Earth. Definitely NOT a part of the aforementioned group.

    Now, what is to be done with the Venezuelan culture that produces such people? It’s not that they are psychopathy cases, they are pretty rational, only the choices are heinous to a peaceable person. They were raised and educated for it (by their mothers???).

    A rational and peaceable person concerned with their own safety would put as much distance between them and such people as they can, like skip the country right now. A rational person overtly concerned with their own safety, having to meet them, would like to have some automatic weaponry at the ready.


    • You can see how democratic community councils would be by studying the neighbourly relationships depicted in this article.


      • The article answers the question, of WHAT goes under the name “community” in the El Consejo case. Los Pelucos, El Cementerio, etc.

        I was about to compare this situation to Mafia, Camorra and organized crime-controlled zones. But the worst of the Mafia and Camorra know that there are some limits to violence, have rules of engagement of a sort and ways to avoid confrontation. These people don’t know of any, it seems.


  5. Very very sad. I want to return to Venezuela, but I do no see when that is going to happen…

    The situation was very bad before Chavez, but people have learned how to be true criminals after watching the biggest ones running the country for 12 years.


    • Coño JAU que fachio! Justamente por eso decía que hay temas que uno sólo embadurna al mezclarlos con política…


      • perdon por embadurnarlo, pero en mi mente de antichavista radical es imposible verlo de otro modo…
        Por lo menos reconozco que soy antichavista radical!!


  6. What a sad thing to watch. However, let’s remember that gang violence is not new in Venezuela. What is new is the extent it has reached and the absolute negligence of the government that refuses to deal with it in any way.
    By coincidence I just finished reading Freakonomics and this article made me think of two of the topics covered in the book:
    1) How does a gang work, with the example of some gangs in Chicago, and the story is pretty similar. The biggest difference? The massive involvement of the police to help the gangs operate and prevent crime solving and the lack of a judiciary that can actually impart justice. We have talked here about the challenges a new government will face when confronting this issue.
    2) What really caused the crime drop in the 90’s including very dangerous cities in the US like Los Angeles and Chicago? Not the Bretton strategies as conventional wisdom often tells, neither the economic growth, but the legalization of abortion thanks to Roe vs Wade. A decision that had nothing to do with wanting to lower the crime rate and that only decades later would be acknowledged. Since I don’t think that anyone could sell such a controversial solution to our country, we will be left with the more “conventional” measures to deal with a problem so big and complex that it really makes you wonder if there is any hope.
    Only the nurses and doctors and the recovered gang member testimonial shed a tiny little bit of light against the darkness of violence.


  7. Anyone who imagines that the whole of Venezuela is like the video or Rory’s report needs their head examining. You could make a similar case for the gangs in Tabrini Green in Chicago, in Boston, detriot, LA, Guayaquil and so on….Or film gun shots victimns in any public hospital in the cities mentioned.

    Persoanl security is an issue in all these cities and the hysterical reaction to the report by firpigette and HalfEmpty prove that they have very sad lives and believe anything which colors their political views.

    If you can’t stand the heatr, get out of the kitchen! It’s that simple and stop whining for once.


    • It’s “Cabrini” Green, and if you knew anything you would know that most of it was razed years ago. [That’s enough of that -editor]


    • I don’t think that video or the article implied the whole country is like that, Chris, or Arturo, or whatever your name is this week.

      And rather than acknowledge there is a problem, and what might work to ameliorate it, you find the time to compare Caracas to Chicago, Boston or Guayaquil and tell us that “Hey, there’s crime there too!”

      Well, no shit, Sherlock!

      What is lacking in the aforementioned cities other than Caracas is:

      The 90% non solved rate of these murders and the total lack of political will to do anything about it. I’m pretty sure that if Mr. Chavez focused his energies on this instead of giving away cash to make himself look better, another story would probably be written.

      How anyone can think that the current police force (who shoot each other over a goddam hotdog no less!) are going to do anything about this needs THEIR head examined.


    • God, Arturo! [Now now -editor] At least here in the states there is a constant battle against the gangs. In Venezuela, the police seem to be worse than the gangs.

      Like Chiguire said, Cabrini Green was imploded. Thats right sometimes the cancer is so great you have to do surgery or the patient dies! To continue the metaphor, the patient is in ICU. Surgery is set for 2012. We had better get an excellent doctor and some great nurses because if we fail…Dr. Kevorkian will continue to be in charge.

      Like Guido said, I have walked Chicago late at night and do not feel for my safety. Hey, maybe someone would steal my wallet; but they would not should me or kidnap me.


    • And what should be “not hysterical”? Yeah, right we should not be whining… it’s just only the violent, bloody destruction of Venezuelan society in most areas and in most places, before our very eyes. Nothing more, nothing less. What, me worry? Call yourself Alfred E. Neuman from now on. Sure, if we don’t live there we should be safe, look at, say Chicago, if you don’t wander into such zones… wrong again, pal. Most of Venezuela is seriously unsafe for any outdoors activity, including commuting, even formerly quiet rural areas and wealthy areas with regular police patrols.

      If you think this is another attack on Huguito your Lord and Liege by those oppo whiners, it’s not. It’s a real situation even he should take rather seriously (along with others like economic instability and oil production) lest the country sink under his very feet and becomes a battleground, or a place of foreign (military) concern.


      • It’s a very bourgeois thing to live abroad or behind walled communities and say that there is no crime, while people in the barrios die day after day.


    • Chris,

      I want you to disappear, so I will ask a question you won’t answer.
      What was the murder rate (I know you don’t know what rate is, you must have stopped learning maths at age 8) in Venezuela (focus: Venezuela) in 1998?

      What is the murder rate now (focus: in Venezuela)?

      Now: what is the murder rate in Colombia, in Brazil, in the US, in Chile, etc NOW?

      He’s gone, Arturo’s gone…por ahora.


  8. “Anyone who imagines that the whole of Venezuela is like the video or Rory’s report needs their head examining. ”

    Really? This happened on my sister’s neighborhood (Dona Barbara, San felix, Edo. Bolivar). Last weekend, from the window of her apartment, she witnessed the murder of the third brother of what were 5 of them. All involved in drugs. Before, opening you mouth, look up the crime statitics for neighborhoods like UD-104, UD-106, Manoas, y Mendoza 13 years ago.


  9. The one thing I kept thinking when I saw the video yesterday was that the hospital where the accompanying video was shot is damn nice!

    A video from Maternidad Concepcion Palacios (where a friend found a premature baby abandoned in the staff showers to die) or from the Universitario (where friends have had to operate while being held at gunpoint and told that if the malandro on the table dies they go next) would tell an even scarier story. I’ve been in those during the night shifts and hot damn those places are scary.

    I hope the lovely looking nurse with the rabbit ears and the two English speaking doctors interviewed make it out of that hell hole. Freaking legends they are!


  10. Coma on María, there are drug related mirders worldwide not just in San Félix. And don’t talk BS about the Maternidad Concepcion Palacios – I have relatives who have been working there for 20 years and I have never heard to people killing babies in such as way.

    Whether anyone here wants to believe it the government is doing something about the problem. How come no one has mentioned the Magruganazo contra el hampa which goes on almost every night in the barrios in Caracas for the time being? Hundreds of gang members have been captured and arms decomissioned. God, even Ocariz is boasting about how his efforts have brought down the murder rate in Municipio Sucre by 30%. (Google it to find out more).

    The defunction of the PM will help the situation and most people I know at least seem satisfied with the efforts of the new PNB. However, there are murders at every socail strata as well as in the abrrios. Ex UCV rector doing time for killing one of his patients after abusing her sexually nfor years. The grandson of Raul Leoni in jail for having a hit carried out on his sister to claim the family fortune.

    If you want to believe that the whole of Venezuela is a hot bed of crime, that’s your problem. Enjoy living in a world of complete paranoia which will not improve your quality of life. I have even heard the argument that Chavez wants the situation so dangerous and unstable as in some way it benefits him and he wants people who oppose him to leave the country.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not denying that there is a problem but the emphasis being laid on this in everyone’s life, day in and day out, in the media, is gradually destroying the whole of the middle class psychologically and is the reason for the total emphasis on anecdotes which apparently apply to the whole country.


    • Dude, you sound like Susanita, the Quino character. Since it does not affect you, it does not exist. And, even assuming 30% less deaths 11K is still way too much, more than anything before Chávez, even after accounting for population growth.


    • Wow, with your talk of fighting crime and madrugones you sound like a neoliberal mano dura type. If you want to live in a dream world where “everywhere is unsafe, not only Venezuela” be my guest. You know why the middle class is being destroyed psychologically? Because it’s actually fucking scary out there. People get on with their lives but the only ones not actually living in fear are the malandros themselves and Arturo riding on his unicorn or whatever new fiction he’s created for himself this week.


    • So Arturo, you are perfectly calm walking about Caracas at night , you talk freely on your cellphone in the street and are in no way paranoid when you are stuck in a traffic jam and a Mototaxy is passing by.


    • While poverty is a probable contributing factor to mood disorders and substance abuse, the sometimes corollary of poor nutrition should not be omitted. And by ‘sometimes’, I mean that poor nutrition isn’t always a sine qua non of poverty, but poor nutrition is, from lay observation, a heavy contributor of (mental) health disorders. Which brings me to the current Venezuelan government, over the past 11 years, when oil has been at an all-time high.

      Where’s the beef … and the vegetables .. nutritional education … employment opportunities .. ? The list goes on. And on and on.


      • I think I just answered my own questions. For, if good nutrition is the hallmark of a productive and clear-thinking society, then it’s understandable that an autocracy, wanting to extend its reach, would need unproductive members who do not think clearly, in order to manipulate that society.


  11. “Richard has a fantasy that one day the father he has not seen in two years will drop by, share an empanada and take him out to a movie. ‘We’d just sit there, watching it, with a Coke.’ His thousand-watt smile lights at the thought. He knows it won’t happen.” Aye, there’s the rub.


  12. Well, this is really not much different from what you see everyday in Radar de Los Barrios, and what you listen from friends, honestly. Nothing new here


    • The city’s total translates into roughly 7.5 killings per 100,000 people and puts it in league with New York City and Phoenix as having among the lowest homicide rates among major U.S. cities.

      And, as Rory Carroll told us…

      Some estimate the rate in Caracas to be as high as 140 per 100,000, making it one of the world’s deadliest capitals.

      So, you’re roughly 19 times more likely to be killed in Caracas than in large U.S. cities. Nineteen times!

      …so, more or less the same, right?


  13. For several years now, I have been expressing my own opinion on the Venezuelan crime wave. My strong suspicion is that this entire crime wave has been engineered by the CIA smuggling massive quantities guns into Venezuela, in order to boost the crime rate and discredit President Chavez. They did something very similar against the Manley government of Jamaica back in the 1980s. I would not at all be suprised to learn that the opposition has been involved in this skulduggery, after all they have made it abundantly clear that they care little about the well being of society.

    I think it is very telling that Mr. Quico does not wish to engage with my hypothesis about the CIA engineering the Venezuelan crime wave. The truth hurts, eh?


    • OK, RBC, can you tell us how the guns are being smuggled in and distributed? Or at least how you think that happens?


    • Even if that’d be true, how come that Chávez instead of disarming people sets militias?
      How come you have no proof after 12 years?
      How come the rate of incarceration is so low?


    • Several years ago in some blog thread, when I brought up the issue of the tripling of the murder rate during the Chávez era, a PSF gave a reply that resembled RBC’s. This particular PSF claimed that the CIA had smuggled guns into Venezuela to foment a rebellion in the barrios, and that the increased murder rate reflected Chávez’s people killing off the rebels.

      Just one more example of CIA on the brain.


    • Yeah and they spiked Rafael Ramirez food so that he would mismanage the oil industry and bring it to the ground.


  14. So you went from “my own opinion” to “My strong suspicion” to “I would not at all be surprised” to “it is very telling” to “the truth”.

    If the truth hurts, I wonder how much it would pain you to use a little logic to process it.


  15. “A request to interview the police chief for Aragua state, which includes El Consejo, was declined on the grounds he did not know the Guardian’s “political leanings”.”

    That’s the root cause, right there.


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