Chronicles of a concerned citizen: when the face of terror is yours
A reflection on the wave of lynchings in Venezuela.
I hear shouting and hubbub in the street. When I look out the window of my ten-story-high apartment, I just make out the shifting turmoil in one corner of the neighborhood where I live. From a distance, it has the appearance of a group of residents moving back and forth between outbursts I can't quite understand. There is something disturbing about the scene amid normal traffic that crosses the avenue and the brightness of hazy sun in a city covered by a yellowish haze.
“They're lynching someone!” my neighbor shouts from her window. “It's a fucking pickpocket for sure!”
I feel a shiver run down my spine. The word “lynching” smothers me, makes me feel strangely weak and frightened. The crowd moves a few meters and I begin to understand the insults and accusations being uttered. “Thief!” “Thug son of a bitch!” The shouting becomes unbearable and transforms into an almost painful cacophony. Suddenly, I distinguish the crowd's target, the figure of a man curled up on the ground covering his head with his arms in a gesture of protection. My throat goes dry with pure fear.
The screams can be heard now from the buildings along the street. Someone bangs pots and pans and some euphoric person even calls out political slogans as the crowd continues to pummel the unknown man. Most disturbing is that as it happens, the world around him seems to stop: the traffic goes up and down the street and long lines at the surrounding businesses continue to move, as if nothing had happened. The whole scene has a horrid air, like an urban nightmare that unsettles me more than any other detail.
Finally, down the street a pair of officials from the National Guard appear, and they move towards the crowd at a slow and almost bored pace. A few meters away, there's what's called “a mobile checkpoint” which is no more than a tarp canopy where some armed troops monitor — without much success — the daily happenings. I watch them intervene almost reluctantly, push a couple of offenders who still insist on hitting the fallen man and finally confront the bulk of the people who continue shouting and shaking their fists in the air. From my window, I can't hear what they say but their body language is unequivocal: one raises his service weapon and shakes it in a threatening gesture.
The crowd retreats and some move away from the group, still yelling out and angrily waving their arms. But a few minutes later, the only ones remaining are the man lying on the ground and two military officials by his side. One of them takes his arm and forces him to get up. Pushing him, they guide him to the nearby checkpoint, where the rest of the soldiers witnessed the incident without intervening. Only then do I realize that with all certainty, the group witnessed the violence that occurred a few steps from the tent…and did not intervene. They observed everything that happened with a nearly crass passivity.
“They should have let them kill him!” shouts one of my neighbors from a nearby window. When I turn to look at him, I recognize him immediately: a high school teacher, a father of two. “Those shits are beyond repair!”
I close the window and I am left alone, listening to the echo of the street, so everyday, so familiar. The same thing I’ve heard since I was a teenager. But fear now tinges everything; it overflows into a kind of blind nightmare that's hard for me to understand, much less cope. Suddenly, it’s not just street violence — that I've suffered and feared for as long as I remember — but something more twisted and dangerous. A situation that I doubt a broken and depressed country is prepared to face.
Yesterday, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz reported that according to her department's statistics, 20 people have been killed by lynching from 2015 until early this year. I read the figure, distrustful and incredulous. Especially after I witnessed what just happened on the street where I live, which interests no one. It does not appear reported in the media and shows up in just a couple of tweets that make mention in passing — an event among many in a overwhelmed country — what could be a murder committed by an angry populace.
Immediately, the idea of lynching — falsely called social justice — takes another turn, a new dimension altogether. It’s happening everywhere and with disconcerting frequency, I say to myself as I continue reading the news about the prosecutor's statements. She insists that the “Venezuelan government takes these allegations seriously” and for now 26 investigations remain open, all relating to deaths and injuries that occurred amid the wave of collective revenge that spans the country.
However, that public servant seems to forget — or conveniently ignore — the stifling climate of violence that burdens a country overwhelmed by fear. That it is not a group of figures that try to mask the core of what's happening, much more serious and explosive than imagined by the cursory glance that the state dedicates to the problem. But instead, it's a reaction of collective and anonymous violence that gradually seems to reach uncontrollable levels.
“In los Ruices, there is at least one daily lynching,” my friend R., an administrator and lawyer, tells me when I visited her a few days ago. “No one says anything; it's no longer news. But it happens. And what causes more fear is that it's already an everyday thing. No one dares intervene.”
The street where R. works is one of the busiest in the city. It crosses two avenues leading to an industrial area of considerable size and one of the highway off-ramps. A crowd of pedestrians walks up and down the street every day. When I look at the street with its vulgar and urban appearance, I can't imagine an angry crowd there, in a kind of wild and primitive reaction that surprises me for being so simply accepted, for so easily occurring. Or at least that’s what the evidence seems to suggest.
“It just happens: someone yells, pointing to a 'thief' and suddenly, people emerge from where you least expect with boards and stones in their hands. It seems almost cartoonish until you realize they want to kill,” my friend tells me. “It’s not just a threat, but a catharsis. And nobody cares. Nobody is going to stop an angry mob and much less if they tacitly support it.”
The thought horrifies me. Not only for the tidy and civilized fear that can produce violence but the awareness that in Venezuela, we are reaching a limit where street justice — that ancient and terrible tool which occurred at different times in history — is assumed to be the only way to get justice. To face the inequality of impunity, the judicial oversight that has made us the most dangerous city in the world and in Venezuela, in the country with the third largest number of homicides in the world without being at war. There is a perception of the danger as it transforms into rage, into a weapon that transforms the citizen into a murderer.
For sociologist Roberto Briceño León, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, lynchings are an expression of the population's frustration with the climate of impunity and helplessness suffered due to the weakness of rule of law, but in no way a plausible solution to the critical situation the country is experiencing. Rather, the wave of lynchings only intensifies the recognition of aggression and impunity as a method of social defense. “[Lynching] does not contribute to the pacification of society, but fails in doing so because of the failure of the government and the state in its obligations,” said the expert in a recent interview published by the newspaper Correo del Caroni.
In addition, Briceño insists that lynchings are an immediate consequence of the feeling of orphanhood that Venezuelans are suffering, overwhelmed by the very high rates of violence and lack of solutions and approaches by the government. For Briceño, escalating aggression and threats by citizens are due to a certain fact: “Venezuelan society feels it has no protection and that there's no punishment for criminals. Those two elements are key to building peace and rule of law.”
According to the researcher, in recent years the options for tackling the public security crisis have failed to solve the very serious problem that affects all citizens in much the same way, causing a reaction based on violence reacting against violence “that is the great rule of prosperity and social improvement. If in the answer we seek more violence, it's not going in the right direction, so measures should be taken in another direction. It is very difficult to explain it to people, even more so when there is no policing that provides protection, society does not feel that the police are on their side, and when this happens, society begins to say I'll do it on my own,” Briceño concludes.
A few hours later, one can still sense a charged and frenetic atmosphere on the street where I live. The long lines that cross the avenue seem to merge to create a single discontented and angry crowd. When I approach I hear conversations that nobody bothers to hide.
“Those cockroaches deserve for us to fuck them up, without any remorse on our part,” says a woman holding hands with a little boy about eight years old. “We defend ourselves and we fuck them over, you’ll see, they’ll learn how to stop robbing us after that.”
In chorus, murmurs of approval surround the woman. The boy next to her turns his head to look at the place where a few hours ago, a man received a beating from an anonymous crowd. I wonder what the child thinks, as he comes to terms with what's happening, if it's what he's doing in some way. I'm terrified by his curious look — he’s just a kid, after all—that he casts on the place. The look he gives to his mother, who continues commenting aloud about what just happened; to where there are still remnants of trash and stones thrown at the supposed criminal who was lynched. And I feel fear. Paralyzing, dry. A jarring sensation overwhelms me to process it all but it increasingly overwhelms me in this stark and arid city.
For more than 10 years, 24 security plans have been implemented in Venezuela, without any noticeable results. The last one, called Operation Liberation of the People (PLO) seems to have made the fight against crime into a pitched battle where police officers — poorly armed and even more poorly trained — bear the brunt. Crime rates in the city have not only not decreased but also, Caracas itself seems to have become a fragmented map controlled by mega-gangs and criminal groups. It's a landscape destroyed by impunity and an ineffective government.
The line in front of the supermarket two blocks from my house stretches almost a kilometer. As I walk next to it, I still hear comments about the lynching that occurred so close by. There is a general sense of satisfaction that no one conceals, an obvious gratification that makes it clear that all consider violence necessary and even essential given the situation we're facing. It's as if citizens had finally figured out how to deal with the impotence and harassment of threats. A weapon to wield against the growing vision of Venezuela shattered by impunity.
“Look, I tell you: if you have to kick those motherfuckers to death, it will be done. When they see that they no longer have anywhere to escape and that the answer is to get killed, this is all going to end,” someone says loudly enough for everyone to hear. I stop to look at him. He's a young man, about my age. He has a clean and neat appearance, although tired by what I guess is the long wait in line to buy food. He's someone who could be my friend. Someone who could be me. I gulp. What we have become?
On Wednesday, April 5, Roberto Josué Fuentes died of pulmonary edema at Pérez Carreño Hospital. He experienced complications after suffering burns on over 70 percent of his body. Two days ago, an anonymous crowd beat him and burned him in broad daylight after he was accused of mugging a man a few minutes before.
Roberto couldn't defend himself. He was cornered and thrown to the ground, where he suffered a beating at the hands of nearly a hundred passersby who took justice into their own hands. The crime was recorded on cell phones and immediately went viral. When someone shared the video on my timeline, I was terrified not only the scene—daunting and horrific as it was — but by the comments celebrating “that motherfucker's death.” Again and again, the big conversation on social networks seemed to reflect the general mood celebrating the “justice” the victim had suffered. Everything happened at 9:00 a.m. on the morning of Monday, April 4, in the middle of the main street in los Ruices.
Later it would become known that Robert wasn't a thief: he'd been working as a chef at a restaurant nearby and according to witnesses, he was trying to help an old man who'd been mugged minutes before. He was the father of four young children, and less than a week earlier, he'd started working at the restaurant a few meters from where he died.
I think about Roberto Josué Fuentes as the conversations around me overwhelm me, like the hum of social rage that's increasingly less contained and is accepted more easily. Who could dare face an angry crowd? Who dares to be the voice of reason in the midst of an increasingly chaotic situation? I remind myself, standing at the window in my home, watching the mob hitting and attacking, caught between surprise and caution. I'm a witness but I'm also complicit. I am part of the climate of violence. And amid the fury turned into a nameless weapon, I am also part of the problem. Perhaps I'm just one more piece in the dreadful gears of pure violence engendered by government neglect.
A few days ago, I read an interview with psychologist Leoncio Barrios, who analyzed the immediate effect of lynchings. “This situation is a warning sign because lynchings are becoming ‘socially acceptable’ in the sense that there is an agreement among peers in a community to act like this, tired of police inefficiency and feeling vulnerable to criminals,” he explains. And I remember his words just now, as the street where I live — this ordinary fragment of the city — seems inflamed and emboldened, convinced that aggression and murder in cold blood is a form of justice. That anger can become a weapon of irrational and primitive justice.
Perhaps for that reason, what terrifies me most is that whenever I stumble upon a story about lynchings or someone tells me about the wave of lynchings in Venezuela, they add the phrase “people are tired.” Or they justify it, insisting that “the situation provoked them.” Even worse, they shrug and assure that “something will happen and better it be against a worthless thief.” We’re not just talking about physical retaliation against a stranger, pressured by the climate of impunity that we endure, but something much more dangerous: aggression that turns into legitimized revenge.
Yes, I know the climate of violence suffered in Venezuela. I’ve been mugged three times and one time, the mugger almost shot me in the face. On another occasion, I was thrown on the ground and they kicked me to snatch a cheap phone. I know exactly what we mean when we talk about the suffocating climate of impunity that Venezuelans must endure every day, but that does not justify lynching, not only for any private moral consideration but because it puts us as a group on the verge of an unimaginable situation. An attack by the masses overwhelmed by hatred, reveling in popular support and above all, assuming that the anonymous aggression is “necessary” and can trigger an uncontrollable situation that no one, much less an inept government cemented into chaos, can control. A spiral of violence and aggression that no longer tries to deal with crime, but to become an armed confrontation on the streets.
I stop in the middle of my street and look around. “What have we become?” I ask myself again. I see housewives in line to buy food or carrying just a few bags hung on their arms. I see tired and stern-looking men walking, dejected. We are all victims in this tragedy of a country. But I can't help wondering what will happen when “the enemies” are lynched? When armed groups strike, assault and attack “criminals” of a crime that can't be proven?
This is the country of informants, “cooperating patriots,” and gratuitous accusations. I can't stop imagining an angry populace obeying gossip, a gratuitous accusation in order to attack. What will happen when the practice becomes more regular, when they burn cars and homes? What will happen when they murder the first person for being “disloyal”? For being a “cheater”? What will happen when they're no longer “little thieves” but mortal enemies? Are we aware that street justice makes us all victims and also murderers?
I am scared. As always, when I walk the streets of my city. But this time something worse overcomes me. A feeling of overwhelming sadness not to recognize the place where I was born and raised. Being well aware that every Venezuelan has a bullet with his name on it amid a growing climate of violence. And also, now, perhaps we expect a beating. To become a scapegoat of the blind and anonymous violence that becomes inevitable every day.
An open door to the unthinkable.
Translated by Rachel Glickhouse