Image: Sofía Jaimes Barreto
A mega-gang is formed when two or more criminal organizations unite into a single group of between fifty and a hundred thugs. In Caracas, these networks control places like Cota 905, El Cementerio, and El Valle. They get away with kidnapping, murder, extortion, car hijacking, and drug dealing thanks to their long-range weapons and their top-notch military equipment.
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 in jail.
Luis Cedeño, a sociologist and the director of NGO Paz Activa, says that in the early 2000s, those who belonged to prison gangs understood that they could use the same formula from jail once they were released. “Many gang leaders met their most trusted men in jail. After being released, they applied the same system, 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 managed 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, unionized former employees of interrupted railroad projects in Aragua and the Venezuelan plains formed their own gangs, and engaged in criminal activity. They purchased or stole weapons from the military or the police, and eventually turned into two of the most dangerous criminal organizations in the country: Tren de Aragua and Tren de los Llanos.
Luis Izquiel, an expert in citizen security, explains that as the years go by, and there is more crime, it is inevitable that these groups eventually get organized as they become more lucrative, stronger, and control larger territories. The result is these mega-gangs that “no one dares to mess with.”
Beneficiaries of Peace Zones
Nothing has helped mega-gangs in becoming what they are more than “peace zones,” according to Izquiel. In 2013, Internal Relations, Justice and Peace vice-minister José Vicente Rangel Ávalos sat down with 280 gangs (in 80 of the most violent municipalities of Venezuela) to coordinate their disarmament and social reinsertion. They came to an agreement in which they established certain “peace zones” where law enforcement agents couldn’t enter and criminals would abandon their activities willingly. The result was that organizations that controlled large areas had the opportunity to see each other face to face and 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 Venezuela’s scientific police (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 network of chop-shops. 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 high caliber assault rifles and grenades.
The shootout ended with an order to retreat that came form the top of the CICPC, as the officers were pinned down with four wounded men. 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, the infamous leader of the El Picure gang, 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 that came from the abandoned railroad works, which used the strategic location of the central plains to raid trucks on the highways and hide hostages. Some members of these criminal organizations have left the country, given the changes in criminal activities and profit, and have become another risk for the region derived from 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 the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (FAES), as well as by members of the CICPC, and even regular police officers. While their firepower has been reducing and their ranks have thinned, mega-gangs are still out there.
Luis Izquiel explains that firepower is key to their survival and, as evidenced in the Cota 905 incident, it’s stronger than what most Venezuelan security forces have at hand. He also suspects of government complacency, pointing at the gangs who control some of the mines at Bolívar State. “These gangs can’t be touched, not even with silk gloves,” he says, “and no one knows why.”