Photo: Daniel Blanco

Praying for Wilexis

A gang-war that endangers over 500,000 people has just exploded in Petare, and the neighbors of the barrio pray for sunrise—and even for the criminals themselves

Ender’s nine-year-old sister was killed by a stray bullet in 2007, when he was only seven. This was thought stuck in his head while the gunshots were still ringing in his ears. Would he die the same way? Would criminals break into his home, or worse, would it be the FAES? Would he get out of this alive? 

He spent hours under the bed, in silence, trying to remain safe from the skirmish next doorthere was a shootout right next to his house. He placed a chair holding the door and placed three mattresses on top of his bed so he could hide underneath. None of these measures made him feel any safer. It felt as if they were shooting inside the house.

Turn off the lights, they’re here somewhere,” yelled a neighbor.

Close the door, they’re coming up the stairs,yelled another.

The neighbors were part of the clash, playing roles that seemed previously rehearsed by everyone except Ender (not his real name), who’s been living in Cañaveral alley, Zone 6 of José Félix Ribas, since January 2020. José Félix is Petare’s largest slum. It turned into a war zone on April 30th, when a gang tried to take the area controlled by Wuileisys Alexander Acevedo, AKA Wilexis, and his gang. 

Wilexis’ rival is a criminal who goes by the moniker of El Gusano (“The Worm”), who was said to control Zone 8 in—José Félix—years ago. According to neighbors, El Gusano left Tocorón prison to fight the “pran of Petare.” Pran is slang for gang leader.

A little over 30 years old, and wanted by Venezuelan police for kidnapping, extorsion, and murder, Wilexis is also referred to as the “guardian of Petare,” the slum’s “Robin Hood,” the “judge of peace of the Venezuelan revolution,” and the “pacifier of criminals.” He has as many names as the myths that surround him. 

For the last nine days, the country has been constantly breaking the unspoken rule among petareños about a criminal leader’s identity: inside Petare, neighbors don’t dare say his name, unless they’re defending him. Outside the community, however, the name is worn out already, and it’s associated with all kinds of information. 

Even Ender, who has a degree in Philosophy and is studying for his second one, will say that everyone at José Félix Ribas is safer with Wilexis—an opinion that even surprises himself. Although his sister died in that very slum, Ender went back as an adult to re-discover it, and when he walks home from work, he lets the music embrace him and is touched by the party vibe that survives in all the zones of this community. 

On May 2nd, a Saturday night, Ender was at a friend’s house in Palo Verde, right next to Petare, when he heard the first blast and decided to rush back home. The shots fired in the distance and the neighbors’ warnings, raised the alarm. 

A little over 30 years old, and wanted by Venezuelan police for kidnapping, extorsion, and murder, Wilexis is also referred to as the “guardian of Petare.”

He ran to his sector, but a neighbor recommended he didn’t spend the night alone. Ender couldn’t go that far anyway, as he didn’t have anywhere else to stay, so he walked towards Zone 7, where his grandmother lives, in an alley where only long-time residents live and watchmen from gangs don’t hide. He heard the gunfire that night with the sense of security that comes with company, and he figured the next day he’d go and stay home. 

Yet that day the entire country was shaken with news of high caliber weapons—and even grenades—fired in a popular area that houses from 550 thousand to 600 thousand neighbors, almost six times as many people that fit into Michigan stadium, the largest in the American continent. 

Ten consecutive hours of battle, screaming, cheering, mocking, gunfire, and unknown sounds that faded along the passageways. 

The following night, Sunday at 9:50 pm, the shooting resumed. Ender didn’t even look out the window. There were so many that it was impossible to determine where they came from, that’s why Ender did the same as everybody else: he turned off the lights and hid under the bed from the strays that could slice through the roof or walls.

It was a grand exhibition of power. The sound made its way to Lomas del Ávila, El Marqués, Mariche, La California and parts of La Carlota, areas that are up to 15 kms. away from the slum, and the smell of gunpowder spreaded all over José Félix Ribas, from Zone 1 to Zone 10.

Ender’s only shield (which also shielded other residents and even the criminals), were houses on the edges of stairs that are part of José Felix and generate at least ten passageways with surrounding sectors. A puzzle of hiding spots where you could only find scared families. 

The battle ended at 3:00 am. Ender doesn’t remember exactly when he fell asleep, but he knows that as soon as he woke up, he grabbed what he could and left the house. 

I thought they’d break in at any moment and kill me.”

Still traumatized by what he just went through, Ender is lucid enough to tell how people abide by Wilexis’ order to “keep living a normal life.” 

Bodegas are open, music blasts everywhere, and old people sit on their chairs outside their doors. Kids play on the streets and those who decided to stay home, despite the danger, sweep the bullet shells on the sidewalks. 

Every morning and every night he nods to show he’s friendly with one of Wilexis’ watchmen on the stairway to his home, a greeting known in the barrio as the “goat’s hello.”

Ten consecutive hours of battle, screaming, cheering, mocking, gunfire, and unknown sounds that faded along the passageways.

They stay there all day and all night, boys with guns and radios,he says unsurprised, and they’re friendly, that’s why you feel safe.” 

But after five days of battle, calm seemed to return along pot-banging in support for this Petareño warlord. 

Petare is Wilexis!” was the chant heard along with the pots and pans. 

On Wednesday, May 7th, Ender heard a group singing songs for peace and in support of Wilexis in his grandmother’s house. 

Peacekeeping actions take place at night, after long mornings of rumors: with WhatsApp audios where El Gusano says he’ll kill everyone who dares cross Zone 6, and Wilexis assuring he wasn’t hired by the DEA, as Maduro said, and that he’s fighting for the people’s moral views and dignity. 

But the war goes on and it now involves government security forces, called by Maduro himself to “attack with everything they’ve got.” An answer that comes six days late to a conflict that keeps over 500 thousand people in danger. 

On the early morning of May 8th, residents of José Félix Ribas were woken up by the sounds of helicopters patrolling the area and voices ordering them to open their doors for hooded men dressed in black. Their only question: Where’s Wilexis? 

Drones flew among zinc roofs, shots were fired, and armed, uniformed men pointing their guns at windows went up and down the hills in trucks, almost always with a foot over a corpse carried around in the back.

Ender felt death had come to get him too, when he found out that Brian Cedeño, his childhood friend, was killed in the hunt for Wilexis and his gang. 

Brian, a basketball player, was forced to kneel before being shot in front of his family and friends. Neighbors implored the authorities to spare the young man who was known for his good humor and who was always carrying a basketball with him. But it wasn’t enough to save his life.

The fight for power keeps going and is now holding neighbors hostage between police abuse and bullets aimed at the wrong people. At home, neighbors hide from the violence, and Ender’s grandmother prays for Wilexis, so no enemy fire or evil wishes from enemies in higher spheres fall upon him.