Image: Sofía Jaimes Barreto
“We’re the press, don’t shoot!”
It was a Friday morning, July 26th, 2019. Several reporters were caught in the middle of a shootout between officers and criminals, all because the CICPC decided to disobey the rule about “peace zones” to go after El Coqui’s gang, ruler over one of these excluded zones in an enormous slum in South-Western Caracas.
A few minutes earlier, journalists covering crime were simply waiting, as any other day, at the Bello Monte morgue, when their phones started going crazy. Through several WhatsApp group chats, the news broke about an “irregular situation” at Guzmán Blanco Ave., known to Caraqueños as “Cota 905,” one of the most dangerous parts of town.
“A security operation at Cota 905?” asked a journalist. “Who dares to go in there?”
They all went to find out.
Peace, or War Zones
“Peace Zones” were born in 2013, when José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, then Interior, Justice and Peace vice-minister, sat down to negotiate with 280 gangs, to work on a disarmament process and social reinsertion for criminals from 80 of the most dangerous municipalities in Venezuela. He offered them jobs, education, construction materials and means to become productive; all the gangs asked back that the police didn’t go into their territories. This initiative remained as an oral deal, no official decision settled the arrangement.
Nicolás Maduro’s regime wanted to negotiate with gangs again, and erase the damage caused by the many OLP abuses.
Cota 905 wasn’t on the list of zones to be “pacified” in 2013, but with the many kidnappings, murders and stolen vehicles taken to the neighborhood, the CICPC held several security operations in 2015, to find the leader of its most powerful gang: Jesús Alberto Ramos Caldera, AKA El Chavo.
On June 22nd, 2015, a commission from the CICPC found him in San Bernardino, downtown Caracas, and killed him. He was 22. His role went to the next man in the chain of command: Carlos Luis Revete, AKA El Coqui, who made a pact with other gangs of El Valle, La Vega and El Cementerio, to reject any incursion in their territories by state security officials and take care of each other.
The success of this non-aggression pact among rival gangs made El Coqui the most wanted man on the OLP (Operación de Liberación del Pueblo) that took place in the area, in July 2015. Even though the massive raid left 15 dead and 252 arrested, according to an official report, the Cota 905 pran was one step ahead and ran away.
The many attempts to get rid of El Coqui, wanted for homicide, kidnapping, theft and extortion, kept going. His name made the rounds all over CICPC precincts in the Capital.
Between 2015 and 2017, the CICP got closer and closer to El Coqui’s territory, taking down several members of his gang, until they got an unexpected order: in August 2017, the Cota 905 was declared by the government as a “model area for relaunching peace zones.”
Nicolás Maduro’s regime wanted to negotiate with gangs again, and erase the damage caused by the many OLP abuses. The regime’s offer: officers would clear the area, but gangs had to stop stealing, kidnapping and killing.
In The Lion’s Den
Two years later, on July 26th, 2019, police officers broke the pact. After 8:00 a.m., a CICPC Vehicle Division commission entered the Cota 905 to find stolen vehicles because, according to security experts, the slum was a junkyard.
The officers, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying their service handguns, were surrounded by members of El Coqui’s gang wearing no protection and shooting from a higher ground with AR-15 and AK-47 rifles and grenades. These kinds of high-powered weapons in the hands of common criminals prove how effective the peace zone project really is.
When journalists knew about the battle, two cops were already wounded. Reporters reached the area and went uphill, as tin-roof houses, garbage and sewage grew thicker on the streets. A few neighbors held cold beers in their hands, even though it wasn’t 10:00 a.m. yet, and their faces didn’t show any sign of distress. The only thing out of the ordinary was a CICPC car speeding downhill. The reporters thought then that this would be as usual: the zone would be under control quickly.
“They’re freaking shooting at us!” yelled one from the group.
The gangsters apparently took them for cops.
Journalists in Venezuela are used to reporting about victims once a shootout is over, but now they were in the thick of it. Those in cars felt a little safer, but reporters on motorbikes thought about jumping off and hide wherever they could.
They all stopped halfway, in a curve where CICPC officers took cover, shooting back. The rain of bullets from above was overpowering.
The officers aimed then at the new intruders and one of the reportes, hands above his head and pale, yelled at the top of his lungs.
“If we’ve had spare bullets, some of you would be dead,” a cop told them minutes later. “We thought you were from the gang.”
The officers, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying their service handguns, were surrounded by members of El Coqui’s gang wearing no protection and shooting from a higher ground with AR-15 and AK-47 rifles and grenades.
The press teams took cover in a car shop with grey walls and a tin roof, already shot full of holes. Uncertainty took over. Gunshots stopped for a few seconds and then got worse, while the rest of the slum stood in absolute silence. The gangsters had the officers in sight, less than 20 mts. away from where the press was hidden. An officer was then shot in the hand, and officers asked the reporters to call for backup themselves, because they had no radio to contact their superiors and their phones’ batteries were dead.
“Be careful, because they might throw grenades in,” warned a cop. “They know we’re here.”
Their only shield were half broken cars and old spare parts. An hour went by. Two of the journalists were crying, one of them with an eight-month-old baby at home.
Two armored vehicles arrived, to rescue four injured cops and the journalists. Not even ten minutes later, the rest of the police force got out too. No one else was injured. Even the drivers could take their cars and motorbikes. It looked coordinated, like a truce.
The Cota 905 shootout ended a little after 11:30 a.m., when the CICPC withdrew from the area with “orders from above.” Detectives Greiber Solano, Moisés Hernández, Luis Boyer and commissioner Jesús Ramírez were injured, but go timely medical attention and are now safe. A rumor made the rounds on social media, saying that two criminals took over an outpatient clinic in Quinta Crespo, forcing the personnel to take care of their wounds.
But El Coqui and his men are still up there, with full control over his peace zone.