This article was originally published in El Libertario #58, March-April 2010. Although originally based on the actual experiences of Venezuela’s social struggles, it deals with situations and facts of interest to
For some time now the Venezuelan government has made systematic advances in the reorganization of the national police intelligence system, with the intention of discovering and neutralizing autonomous social movements that appear in the country. The Intelligence and Counterintelligence Law (temporarily suspended) and the new Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) in Spanish) are but two examples of this.
In order to promote the necessary knowledge on this issue among activists, we give an informative recap of the different tactics used by the State to break up the antagonistic social fabric and criminalize its followers.
The State’s intelligence tactics
These tricks were developed and/or systematized by the COINTELPRO program of espionage, provocation and information the FBI used to destroy dissident political groups in the United States. They have been used by most of the world’s States and Venezuela is no exception. Here are some examples:
Surveillance: Intelligence and security organizations use the existing
technologies to conduct exhaustive surveillance of activists to prepare
the corresponding judicial files. To that end they use the existing
surveillance technologies. Photographing, filming, following in vehicles,
reading email and correspondence are some of the many tactics used against social militants.
In general, cell phones and frequently visited places are infiltrated by
the police to eavesdrop in conversations and do what’s called “information
sharing” to combine different pieces of information. Let’s not forget that
in Venezuela CANTV (State enterprise that monopolizes telephone land
lines) and most private communications enterprises lend themselves to such manipulation by the State.
Infiltration: The State usually places undercover agents in popular
demonstrations or inside the assemblies with a dual intent: first, to take
note of the persons gathered and the information discussed in the
assemblies, second, to promote discord among the attendants in order to
trivialize the issues. Not many people go to a gathering without previous
interest in the conflict or knowledge of some of the people involved.
Since the intelligence services normally use dumb or rookie police for
this task, a simple conversation with them usually uncovers who is a plant
and who isn’t.
A usual trick is the use of informers. These are people close to the group
who, for money, favors or the resolution of judicial problems give
information about the group to the intelligence agencies. They are hard to
detect and more than once activists have been falsely accused of being
informants. This has been used successfully against armed groups
particularly in the previous century. Because of this, action groups today
tend to be smaller and based on extreme affinity and even family ties.
Another form of infiltration is people who attend a reunion or assembly
for the first time and push for extreme or violent acts regardless of the
issue being discussed. They stand out because of their subversive rants
and their proposals for crazy ideas or plans rarely in tune with reality.
Rumors: The use of informers and infiltrators contributes to the spread of
rumors that tend to divide a social front or collective. These baseless
rumors seek to discredit the organization and its activists.
False communiqués: Intelligence organizations usually write misleading
stuff to create confusion among activists and their kindred organizations.
The idea is to find a contradiction within the group that will cause its
implosion. For example, in Chile the District Attorney created a group
named Frente Anarquista Revolucionario (FAR) [Revolutionary Anarchist
Front] that in a provocative fashion claimed responsibility for false
actions and stirred polemics with the informal Chilean groups in order to
Media disinformation: Certain media work in tight cooperation with
intelligence organizations. In general they try to create a preconceived
opinion about demonstrators and activists, accusing them of sabotage, of
being “enemy agents”, “out of control”, or “maladjusted”. An example is
the Venezuelan TV program “La Hojilla” whose anchor –a well known and
decorated police informant- plays prosecutor, judge and executioner of
dissidents against the current government. The media also serves to
broadcast wrong information about groups and initiatives or to publish
manipulated information about some activist, attempting to discredit
his/her commitment with whatever causes he or she upholds.
For this reason the use of counter information is a fundamental tool. In
Venezuela – a country where the majority of the radio-electronic media is
in the hands of the current government- the use of blogs, Myspace, Twitter
or other communication networks is a necessary tool today and will become even more so in the future.
Harassment: In many countries, intelligence organisms use pressure such as telling the boss an employee is a “radical” or inserting information among his/her acquaintances to make him/her feel uncomfortable or persecuted in their trusted milieu. Accusations such as “homosexual”, “rapist”, “drug addict” are common. Another form of harassment is when the State determines the identity of an activist and decides to arrest or
interrogate him/her under any pretext. In many cases the arrest is used to
“plant” drugs or other things considered illegal (Molotov cocktails,
explosives etc). The goal is to make them quit their activism.
Sabotage: Police organizations (or people connected to them) do sabotage
against the meeting places of activists as well as theft of materials.
They try to sow fear and discouragement among the sympathizers.
Paramilitary: Intelligence organisms form paramilitary organizations which
they equip with weapons and train them to perform the “dirty work” that is
not convenient to do under “constitutional legality”. In Venezuela this is
formed by the evil “combat corps” or the diverse “popular collectives”
that police the poor neighborhoods.
Lethal force: When somebody in a social movement achieves notoriety and
other means of control or cooptation by the institutional powers fail,
they resort to assassinate the dissident either by thugs (masquerading as
common criminals) or in supposed confrontations that are usually uncovered
if there is an objective investigation.
Some measures to avoid infiltration
1) Turn off your cell phone before a gathering: It has been proven that
cell phones can transmit information even when they are off. Put them in a
place removed from the discussion area or put them in the refrigerator
[TN: better yet, remove the battery]. Black Berrys use GPS (Ground
Position System) that gives the exact location where you are. Cell phones
are use for data sharing and to establish a dissident’s social network.
2) Before entering the gathering location, try to walk around and
reconnoiter the outside area and try to identify suspicious activity that
could imply undercover police, usually recognizable by their physique,
their way of talking or because they look out of place. Rarely will they
look you in the eye and they many times stumble with their explanations.
3) When doing mass email use blind carbon copy (bcc) for the addresses, in
case your email falls in the wrong hands you will not expose other people.
4) Send your communications from a cyber café or similar service to
prevent the intelligence organizations from obtaining your IP (your
computer ID code)
5) Affinity and mutual trust among activists in any campaign are the best
antidotes against infiltration and repression. Better a few but secure
than many and insecure.
6) Do not contribute to the prevailing disinformation, don’t gossip or
circulate ill-intentioned information.
7) Be alert – without becoming paranoid- of infiltrators and provocateurs.
8) If you feel you’re under surveillance let your comrades know about it.
9) Never talk to the police. The National Constitution guarantees your
right to remain silent. Don’t collaborate with them. Unlike in the United
States, in Venezuela collaboration with the district attorney doesn’t
exonerate you and only symbolically diminishes your sentence.
How to secure your computer
Today computers are the place where activists keep most of their writings
and communiqués. In most raids the first things the security forces
confiscate are the computers so we recommend the following:
1) Download and update firewalls such as AVG (www.grisoft.com) or
ZoneAlarm (www.zonealarm.com) which are free to download and work with Windows.
2) Install a spyware detector such as Ad-ware in your computer. They can
be downloaded free at www.lavasoft.de
3) Deleting documents from your computer doesn’t mean they’re no longer in
the hard drive. There is a program called Clean Disk that totally erases
them, download it here www.clean-disk-security.softonic.com
4) Encrypt all your sensitive documents. There’s a program called PGP
(www.pgp.com) that has been successfully used by activists in many
5) Regularly change your email password, it is recommended to use a 16
digit code containing letters and numbers. A short password is easy to
detect. Don’t use birth dates, or the names of family members or pets.
6) There is a free internet provider, Riseup (www.riseup.net) that gives
free and secure email addresses to activists.
Some activists become paranoid, which completely immobilizes them,
abandoning the struggle and becoming passive members of society. Therefore
it is important to think about what was said above so we can act with
prior knowledge and diminish risks and weaknesses. We must be conscious of
the fact that any struggle for the collective is the potential target of
police surveillance and that is part of the social dynamics. The armed
organizations of control and repression have been created to counter any
type of dissidence therefore by being activists we become their target;
however, we have better values than they do: our convictions we uphold for
a positive social change. Don’t let fatigue and fear stop you!