CARACAS, Venezuela — It didn’t matter to officer Kevin Valera that his new love, Jenniree, already had a daughter, he had always wanted to have children. So he treated little Ashley like his own and to her he simply was daddy. Then Kevin and Jenniree had a baby boy in February this year.
On Sept. 17, after going out for groceries, the couple came home to El Cementerio, an ominously named slum in the western part of Caracas. Jenniree had little Kevin Alexander in her arms. The couple paid no attention to the strange quiet of the street as they entered their house.
The malandros were waiting for them, seven or eight strong, Jenniree isn’t sure. Two of the gang members pointed their guns at her and took her into the bedroom while the others talked to Kevin. “I couldn’t make out what they were saying to him,” she recalls. “All I heard was him yelling: ‘Take whatever you want and leave.’”
Then Jenniree heard the gunshots, too many to count, and realized he was gone. For a moment she thought the malandros were going to kill her, too, so she pointed at her baby and begged them for his sake to let her live. It worked. The gang members ran off, grabbing Kevin’s service pistol as they left. When Jenniree entered the living room she saw him lying on the floor, shot 24 times, six in the face. She covered her husband up with a sheet and fled the house with baby Kevin clutched to her chest.
In the police station of El Hatillo, one of the five municipalities that make up the Venezuelan capital, Subcomandante Marcos Rodríguez Moncada recalls that fateful night. “When we got the call, we grabbed everybody we could spare and rushed to El Cementerio,” says Moncada. Local police had also gathered at the entrance of the slum, together with a large detachment from the CICPC, the national criminal investigations police. All in all there were close to a 120 officers at the scene, but even that show of force was no guarantee for safety.
Moncada realized all they had time for was to recover Kevin’s body and then get out of the slum as fast as they could. “When we were in the Valera home, we saw movement on the rooftops,” he recalls. “We knew we’d be in trouble if we lingered. We only have pistols, the malandros have assault rifles and grenades.”
Such is the deadly day-to-day reality of being a police officer in Caracas. Outnumbered and outgunned, cops often find themselves the target of robberies, kidnapping, and murder. So far this year, more than 120 police men and women have been slain in the capital alone, adding up to more than a thousand over the past five years in the whole country.
Shockingly underpaid—the average police man or woman makes between 15 and 25 dollars a month—the officers are forced to live in the barrios, the slums, where they have to keep a low profile or risk being targeted by gangs.
Such was the case with Kevin and Jenniree, both cops, They lived in El Cementerio because their salary didn’t allow them to move to the more affluent El Hatillo neighborhood where they worked.
Criminologist Fermín Mármol has no doubt who is to blame for the astronomic rise in cop-killings or for the wider murder epidemic that grips his country. NGOs and crime reporters from both independent and pro-government newspapers estimate that by the end of this year at least 27,000 Venezuelans will have fallen victim to homicide, which gives the country the second-highest per capita murder rate in the world after Honduras. Embarrassed by such high numbers, Venezuela’s socialist government stopped sharing statistics on crime altogether back in 2006.
“Under this government, our entire justice system has been dismantled,” says Mármol. “We have become the opposite of a meritocracy: capable, experienced prosecutors and judges have been replaced by incompetent ones whose sole qualification is their loyalty to the régime.”
Mármol hopes that the upcoming Dec. 6 parliamentary elections, in which the socialist government is predicted to lose to a coalition of opposition parties, will be the first sign of change. Especially when it comes to what he calls “the climate of total impunity” that reigns since the late president Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in 1999.
The violence has spilled over into the election campaign. Last month masked men dressed in red shirts (the ruling socialist party’s signature clothing) opened fire during an opposition rally in Caracas, and last week opposition activist Luis Manuel Diaz was shot and killed during a rally in Guarico state.
Where the government remains in denial about the extent and severity of Venezuela’s crime wave, opposition mayors like Voluntad Popular’s David Smolansky are trying to fight it with what limited resources they have. Smolansky points out that of the 72 opposition mayors in the country, 33—including himself—have criminal proceedings running against them. And it’s not just the central government that’s obstructing his attempts to fight crime, says Smolansky: “Despite the fact that we’re heavily understaffed due to budget shortages, I’ve had to fire one-fourth of my police force because of abuse of power, corruption, or outright criminal activity.”
In spite (or possibly because) of this, El Hatillo has managed to lower the number of kidnappings, a crime particularly favored by malandros in the area, by 62 percent, says Smolansky.
Javier Mayorca is a crime reporter at El Nacional, Venezuela’s last independent national newspaper (just like all TV stations, the others have been nationalized or bought by investors acting as fronts for the government). According to his estimate, 20 percent of all crimes in the country are committed by members of the law enforcement community.
“When the police go out to face the gangs, it is frequently more to get rid of the competition than to actually make our society safer,” says Mayorca. Impunity has reached staggering levels, according to Mayorca, which has led to a wave of vigilante “justice”: “Between January and September there have been 46 recorded lynchings of alleged criminals.”
On the receiving end of all these statistics lies Domingo Luciani Hospital on the edge of Petare, Caracas’s biggest barrio and one the largest slums in Latin America. The ER is very soberly equipped, but the doctors know what they’re doing, Dr. Pablo Ottolino says proudly. “When it comes to traumatology, who is going to teach us anything?”
Ottolino has a point. He literally wrote the book on new procedures for triage and treatment of gunshot victims. On the weekends the ER at Domingo Luciani Hospital resembles a butcher shop. During last Saturday’s 24-hour shift no less than nine patients with gunshot wounds had to be operated on; from a 15-year-old boy who had been shot twice before (the first time when he was only 12) to a 38-year-old male who had just done eight years in Yare prison for robbery and homicide. Many more were rushed in with gunshot wounds that didn’t need emergency surgery or had suffered knife and machete attacks.
It is a heroic, albeit uphill struggle for the young resident doctors at Domingo Luciani, most of whom don’t get paid more than the average police officer. Pablo Ottolino’s enthusiasm goes a long way to make up for this, but the sheer volume and severity of the cases can be overwhelming. So are incidents like the one that happened the first week of October, when bodyguards of Venezuela’s most wanted gang leader, José Antonio Covar Colina aka El Picure (the fugitive), shut down the ER for hours so their boss’s wounds from a shootout could be attended to. All this despite the presence at the hospital of multiple members of the paramilitary Guardia Nacional and the police, several doctors at Domingo Luciani confirmed to me.
Outside the city morgue in Caracas’s suburban district of Bello Monte journalists like Ultimas Noticias’s Eligio Rojas try to get information from grieving family members. It may look a bit like ambulance chasing, but the information Rojas and his colleagues gather is a vital piece to put the puzzle of crime together since the government stays tight-lipped and basically acts as if violence it not an issue.
Rojas has counted 18 violent deaths in Caracas alone between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Inside the morgue, the circumstances can only be described as medieval. The murder victims aren’t neatly stacked in drawers like we are used to seeing on crime shows. Instead, the corpses are piled up on the floor. An eyewitness tells me what it’s like inside the morgue: “When family members come in to identify a body, the corpses are just pulled from the huge pile by their arms or legs. If it’s not the right one they just throw it back and pull out another one.”
The crime reporters outside the morgue share what information they have with each other. One case stands out this particular morning. The day before, four police officers were ambushed, kidnapped, and taken to Cota 905, one of Caracas’ most notorious slums. After their family members—not the police department—paid a ransom of $4,000, two watches and three bottles of whisky, the policemen were released. It is another example of how law enforcement officers have increasingly become the target of gangs, especially since officers of the CICPC killed the pran de los pranes Jhonny Enrique Aponte Castillo, aka “Mini Joe.”
“Pran” is the Venezuelan word for crime boss, outside or inside prison. The gangs are for a large part run by incarcerated bosses, who are the undisputed rulers of the prison system. The circumstances inside Venezuela’s jails defy belief.
On the one hand, NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have denounced overpopulation and violence as amongst the worst in Latin America. On the other, for the pranes and their henchmen on the inside, virtually nothing is beyond their reach. Drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, luxury goods, and weapons are easily obtainable for the inmates.
Guards at Yare-1 prison outside Caracas recently discovered a 30-caliber heavy machine gun. The nation was shocked when the pran paid a gossip magazine to publish pictures of his luxurious wedding inside Barinas prison. In Venezuela’s largest institution, Tocorón prison in Aragua state, inmates run a nightclub frequented by locals. The discoteca markets itself as being safer than similar establishments on the outside.
A high-ranking official of the Ministry of Prisons confirms these seemingly wild tales and points out that on average guards make 12,000 Bolivares, roughly $15 a month, while wardens make about twice that amount. The pranes live by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s principle of plata o plomo (money or lead). “Corruption is the rule, not the exception. A career as prison warden is a way to become a millionaire,” says the official, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Back at police headquarters in El Hatillo, perched on a hill overlooking the municipality, Subcomandante Marcos Moncada has just received word that the murderer of Kevin Valera was gunned down by the CICPC while carrying the slain police officer’s service weapon.
Even though Kevin’s colleagues at the station rejoice at the news, it doesn’t really comfort his widow, Jenniree. “This only puts my kids and myself in more danger if the malandros want to take revenge,” she says, “Besides, what good will it do? It doesn’t bring back my husband, or Ashley’s and little Kevin’s daddy.”