Image: Sofía Jaimes Barreto
A mega-gang is the union of two, three, or more criminal organizations into a greater army of between fifty and a hundred thugs. In Caracas, areas like Cota 905, El Cementerio and El Valle are under the control of these networks that kidnap, murder, extort, hijack cars and deal drugs, thanks to their long-range weapons, handguns, grenades, and communications.
Experts in security explain that these mega-gangs have been operating in Venezuela for the last fifteen years and that they exist thanks to a government decision and a scheme of operations that their leaders learned during jail time.
Luis Cedeño, a sociologist and the director of NGO Paz Activa, says that in the early 2000s, those who belonged to prison gangs understood, once they were released, that they could use the same formula from jail in their new communities. “Many gang leaders met their most trusted men in jail. After being released, the same system was applied, with the same leader heading the operation and a group of lieutenants, known as ‘luceros’ or ‘gariteros’, serving as watchmen. In fact, many of these gangs, such as the Tren de Aragua, are run from inside a penitentiary.”
In the early 2000s, those who belonged to prison gangs understood, once they were released, that they could use the same formula from jail in their new communities.
The dissolution of the Policía Metropolitana in Caracas had a role in the development of these mega-gangs, says Cedeño. Between 2004 and 2006, some officers who belonged to this severely discredited force, who were already involved in homicides and corruption, found themselves unemployed and joined the so-called colectivos created by former President Hugo Chávez to defend the revolution. Meanwhile, former employees of the interrupted train construction projects, where workers unions had soon morphed into mafias, engaged in heavier criminal activities by getting weapons from the police or the military—by purchase or by force—and created the gangs now known as Tren de Aragua or Tren de los Llanos.
As the years went by, they became mega-gangs that “no one dares to mess with.”
Luis Izquiel, an expert in citizen security, believes that mega-gangs were created because, when crime starts to grow, they get organized, achieving more muscle, more lucrative heists, and control of bigger territories.
Beneficiaries of Peace Zones
Nothing has helped mega-gangs in becoming what they are more than peace zones, according to Izquiel. In 2013, the Internal Relations, Justice and Peace vice-minister, José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, led a pact: he sat down with 280 gangs to coordinate a disarmament and social reinsertion in the 80 most violent municipalities of Venezuela. “Peace zones” where law enforcement agents couldn’t enter and criminals would abandon their activities willingly were then established. In reality, organizations that currently occupy large portions of land and make their living through violence joined forces.
The Bloque de Búsqueda y Captura (a police scheme to locate and apprehend suspects), up until September 30th, 2019, identified 113 gangs and criminal organizations operating across Venezuela. An officer from the detective body Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalisticas (CICPC), who asked to remain anonymous, says that most of these criminals have automatic weapons and hand grenades.
Although they’re not all mega-gangs, the list includes infamous organizations like “El Coqui’s” gang and “Los 70 del Valle” in Caracas; the “Tren de Aragua” in the state of Aragua; “El Picure” and “El Maloy” in Guárico; “El Wilexis”, “Los Piratas de la Panamericana”, “Eduardo Delicias” y “El Oreja” in Miranda; “Los Urabeños” in Táchira; “San Juan de las Galdonas” in Sucre; “El Tren del Norte” and “El Peluche” in Zulia; “Los Sabaneros” in Barinas; “Los Fusileros” and “Los Guajiros de Guayana” in Bolívar. According to the authorities, some gangs have a broader geographical reach, because they team up with smaller, local gangs, exchanging logistics and protection.
One of these mega-gangs recently proved what union and coordination can do: a squad from the CICPC’s Vehicle Division went up to Cota 905, in Caracas, on July 26th, 2019, searching for stolen cars, since the area was allegedly used as a chop-shop. Officers wearing bulletproof vests and their regulation firearms (9mm guns) were then surrounded by members of the “El Coqui” gang, shooting down from the top of the slums with very high caliber assault rifles and grenades.
Word is, the shootout ended with an order from the top of the CICPC, asking officers, pinned down and with four men hit, to retreat. No new raids have been held in Cota 905.
Not Quite Gone
On July 13th, 2015, a special police deployment was announced in response to the increase of violence and the high homicide rates in Venezuela: Operación de Liberación del Pueblo (OLP). A year later, José Tovar Colina, infamous leader of the gang “El Picure”, operating in the states of Guárico and Aragua, terrifying people with extortion, kidnapping and drug dealing, was killed.
Some members of these criminal organizations have left the country, given the changes in criminal activities and profits, and have started to pose another risk for the region.
El Picure was the leader of one of those mega-gangs born in the train works, which used the strategic location of the central plains to assault trucks on the highways and hide hostages. Some members of these criminal organizations have left the country, given the changes in criminal activities and profits, and have started to pose another risk for the region of the Venezuelan collapse: it is known that members of Tren de Aragua were detained on a frustrated bank robbery in Lima, another nail in the coffin of xenophobia against Venezuelans in Peru.
Locals say that with the death of José Tovar, “El Picure gang is history.” However, experts give credibility to complaints of ongoing extrajudicial executions by hands of tactical squad officers from Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (FAES), as well as by members of the CICPC, and even those wearing cop uniforms. While the mega-bands’ fire power has decreased and their ranks are thinned, they’re still there.
Luis Izquiel explains their survival through their firepower, bigger than most law enforcement institutions’ as evidenced in the Cota 905 incident. The expert also mentions how some of them seem to have support from Nicolás Maduro’s regime, pointing at the gangs who completely control some of the Bolívar State mines. “These gangs can’t be touched, not even with silk gloves,” he says, “and no one knows why.”
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