Nearly two years ago, sociologist Verónica Zubillaga began collecting the stories of the women of La Caracaola – a shantytown of shabby cinderblock houses stacked precariously on the steep hillsides of Caracas, Venezuela.
When she visited the slum, she noticed that all of its homes were padlocked – to keep the police out, the women told her. When she walked through its narrow, snaking paths, their children showed her bullet marks on the walls and spots where police had shot young men.
“The road was paved with stories of killings,” said Zubillaga, who studies urban violence in Latin America.
Now, as a visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, she’s studying the responses of women in two disparate Caracas barrios– La Caracaola and Carache – to gang violence and the often-lethal police militarization intended to counteract it. The names of both areas have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed by Zubillaga.
Her project seeks to create a narrative of women’s suffering under intense government security, but also their capacity to oppose chronic violence.
“Women are usually portrayed as passive actors suffering under violence, but here you can see very active women able to coordinate, to shout, to respond,” explained Zubillaga, a native of Caracas and an associate professor at Universidad Simón Bolívar. “Their experiences are very painful, but the aim is to show the complexity of their lives. They suffer, but at the same time they actively resist.”
The Corridors of Death
Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and parts of the country are wracked by violence linked to drug trafficking and gangs.
That includes La Caracaola. The barrio is part of what police and journalists call Los Corredores de la Muerte, or the Corridors of Death. The chain of densely-populated urban villages is controlled by gangs that watch for police from mountainside lookouts and hide stolen cars and kidnapping victims in tangled passageways.
In 2015, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro launched a nationwide police-military operation to combat crime in neighborhoods like La Caracaola.
Critics viewed the crackdown – similar to the mano dura, or iron fist, policies used in some Latin American countries – as a justification of excessive police force. In La Caracaola, hooded officers raided the neighborhood three days a week, forcing their way into homes and harassing and sometimes stealing items like food and cell phones from female residents.
Police killed indiscriminately during the incursions, according to residents.
The heightened police presence created a virtual state of war between the police and gang members, many of whom had family members in La Caracaola, and left the neighborhood women living what Zubillaga described as a “besieged coexistence.”
Meanwhile, the police operation did little to stop the gangs, and the women remained frightened by the presence of guns and hand grenades belonging to the criminals.
“Again and again, when I mentioned any episode with guns, they were terrified,” Zubillaga shared.
That palpable sense of fear was missing in Carache, an area that, despite its drug trafficking and gang activity, has experienced far less violence than La Caracaola in recent years. That was partly due to police, who, instead of conducting military-style raids against criminals, protected and stabilized Carache's flourishing drug market in exchange for kickbacks.
It was also due to the neighborhood's strong network of activists and community organizations. That culture of activism led to a 2007 cease-fire agreement between the women of Carache and gangs from surrounding neighborhoods. The deal was initiated by a mother who lost her second son to gang violence and brought together other area women who had also lost their sons.
The pact remains in place to this day and, Zubillaga said, shows how a traditional role like motherhood can become “a strategic tool that can be employed to resist patriarchal structures, such as the violence in the barrio.”
Today, the women continue to maintain leverage over the younger gang members with a powerful tool – gossip.
“If a youth has a bad reputation – he attacks or steals from his neighborhood – he can be denounced to the police or taken by a gang and beaten,” Zubillaga explained. “Through the circulation of information, the women can manage the young men. Their gossip has real consequences.”
She said differences between the two barrios show the importance of social networks. In Carache, where women had stronger and more diverse social and institutional networks, they were more empowered to confront armed actors.
Their stories also highlight a new way of thinking about gender: “A comparative perspective shows that gender is not an essential script, but you have to think about gender in situated contexts,” she said.
‘A Darker Face’
When Zubillaga goes home to Venezuela this summer, she’ll return to a country spiraling deeper into a humanitarian and political crisis as Maduro’s authoritarian government struggles to maintain power against opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is backed by the US and more than 40 other countries.
Shortages of food and medicine, along with power failures and lack of running water, are increasingly commonplace. Violence against dissidents is rising and a number of journalists have been expelled from the country.
“We are in a different moment where we have a more authoritarian government that for the first time is feeling vulnerable, so it is showing a darker face,” Zubillaga.
During her fellowship, Zubillaga has spoken at universities across the US about Venezuela, including at a February panel at the Kellogg Institute and a policy-oriented panel at the Keough School’s Washington, DC, office in April.
She’s afraid recent economic sanctions will hurt the lives of ordinary Venezuelans without affecting Maduro’s inner circle. But she said the US has acted in a “prudent” manner so far, and encouraged Washington to act in coordination with other Latin American countries working to resolve the crisis.
Zubillaga is one of several hundred Venezuelan academics who recently signed a manifesto that calls for a peaceful, democratic, and electorally-driven solution to the country’s political crisis.
While she’s becoming more pessimistic about the possibility of peace, she hopes for a nonviolent transfer of power to Guaidó without a US military intervention. That, she said, would worsen the already abysmal conditions in Venezuela.
“We know from historical experiences that US military interventions can be very, very harmful and be very complicated, and can take a decade or so to resolve,” she added.