Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto.
One January morning, in 2019, shots were fired in the community of Guarero in the Venezuelan Guajira. Whistling bullets kept the neighbors in absolute terror and laying on the ground for over an hour.
It was a shootout between a local family and “La Zona,” a gang composed by indigenous Wayuus and Alijunas (the local name for people who aren’t indigenous), who settled in the territory in August 2018—with the blessing of former La Guajira mayor Hebert Chacón. Chacón himself has been using La Zona gang members as personal bodyguards, and it is said Zulian governor Omar Prieto knows about it.
That awful night, La Zona won. “They had a problem with a family who worked with them early on, but —as always— nothing good can come out of that business. They fought for control of an area, ending with guns blazing,” says Betulio, a young Wayuu journalist from Guarero who fled to Colombia weeks after the shooting, for fear of being murdered by La Zona.
The following day, they gave the families of the deceased 24 hours to leave their homes and take everything they could.
“There were casualties on both sides and the news obviously didn’t make it to the press,” he adds. “And what did La Zona do? Well, the following day, they gave the families of the deceased 24 hours to leave their homes and take everything they could. In other words, they forced the families out of there. I’ve contacted some of these people so they can share their stories but they’re scared to be further involved.”
At least 20 houses are abandoned because of forced displacement by this armed group. Something that has happened in other communities like Taparito, Calle Larga, Calié, and Caujarito, all in Zulia State (northwestern Venezuela).
People don’t just run away to save their lives, they’re also afraid of recruitment. In June 2019, Fe y Alegría Radio reported the story of a 19-year-old Wayuu who had to hide from La Zona after witnessing the murder of another young man.
“Many young men have died,” he said. “In Taparito, in Guarero, I had to hide in a cemetery. If they had found me, I’d probably be dead.”
He lived in a sector in Paraguachón and had to flee to Colombia, where he now works selling food and juice. “The scene plays over and over in my head every day.”
The former chavista mayor made a proposal to Prieto to form an armed group, allegedly to fight crime in La Guajira, even though the real reason was fighting his personal enemies.
The threat posed by this group of men under 30 years old who carry weapons and cover their faces, has been mentioned by the Colombian People’s Defense Office under Alert 039: warning about La Zona’s control over the irregular crossing point known as La 80, where they charge 10% of driver and smuggler profits.
The Origins of Terror
In September 2017, there was a murder at the Rey del Pollo restaurant in Maracaibo, Zulia. Every news outlet in the region covered it, and even some nationwide newspapers, because the murderer was recorded and the video leaked on social media.
According to our crime scene investigation force, CICPC, Climaco Segundo Uriana Uriana, the guajiro victim and alleged gas smuggler, was murdered by leaders of other organizations who considered him their enemy.
A source who knew about the case, and wished to remain anonymous, said that this was one of the events that allowed for the creation of La Zona, with the support of former mayor Hebert Chacón.
“Everything started with the murder at Rey del Pollo, in Maracaibo. Climaco Uriana controlled part of the border on the Venezuelan Guajira, he was the leader of several gangs that fought (for said control) against Chacón’s family. That’s when the murders started. They got paranoid and killed anyone who even looked at them funny.”
They’ve requested the assistance of Colombian guerrillas (part of the ELN) to fight La Zona, leading to massacres that have made it to the press more than once.
The Municipal Council fired Chacón from his post in 2017, after he had been re-elected twice. The reason was never clear, but some rumors in the Zulian press pointed at a voluntary step-down for fear of being killed. Then, the former chavista mayor proposed to Prieto to form an armed group with the excuse to fight crime in La Guajira. In reality, the real reason behind this was to fight his personal enemies. Historically, Chacón’s family has been fighting for that territory with armed groups for ages. That’s how La Zona was born. They are suspected to have killed over 50 people.
A few months later, the main members of La Zona stopped recognizing Chacón as their leader and they’ve now become a headache for security institutions that, according to testimonies, originally allowed the presence of this criminal gang in several areas of La Guajira—where they even built random checkpoints to extort drivers.
Guarero citizens are hit the hardest by this. They’ve requested the assistance of Colombian guerrillas (part of the ELN) to fight La Zona, leading to massacres that have made it to the press more than once. “We had guerrillas here before, but Guarero was calm. Now, La Zona asks where you’re going and what you’re doing,” said a victim whose brother was murdered by the gang.