The Venezuelan government and security forces have spent the last few months building up a criminal known as Santanita and his gang as one of their major targets, while other dangerous groups continue to act with near impunity.
This paradox is the product of a security structure designed for the mutual benefit of the government and specific criminal allies.
Josúe Ángel Santana Peña, alias "Santanita," is a wanted man. His gang, mostly dedicated to extortion in the populous northern state of Lara, has been a major focus for the government in recent months. He caught the attention of authorities and the media when his gang reportedly began detonating explosives at car dealerships in the state capital of Barquisimeto. And in video messages on social media, Santanita's members threatened dealership owners to pay up before suffering similar consequences. The gang has even been closely tied to Tren de Aragua, Venezuela's largest homegrown criminal group.
La banda "El Santanita" continúa grabando videos extorsionando a comerciantes en Barquisimeto, aparecen portando armas y artefactos explosivos. Josué Angel Santana Peña (24) es uno de los delincuentes más buscados en Lara. pic.twitter.com/Kqcglr3vUu
— Junior Parra (@JuniorParra19) September 13, 2020
The response from law enforcement was swift. Security forces have ramped up operations against the gang since May, reportedly managing to capture more than 20 alleged members and killing at least 28 more. Santanita himself remains at large.
There is little doubt that Santanita poses a very real criminal threat. But the clamor around his operations is familiar.
Carefully Chosen Targets
Shortly before Santanita began to dominate headlines, another gang leader was under a similar spotlight, Wilexis Alexander Acevedo, alias "Wilexis."
Earlier this year, Wilexis, who has dominated the slum of José Félix Ribas in the town of Petare, outside Caracas, since 2017, became one of the most wanted men in the country. This followed a number of instances when residents in José Félix Ribas rioted in response to violence from Venezuela's Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES), blamed for 43 deaths in Petare between January and September 2019. According to El Pitazo, Wilexis was one of the key organizers, sending WhatsApp messages to local residents telling them to support the protests.
In early May, President Nicolás Maduro got personally involved. He accused Wilexis of working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and of having started clashes in order to distract security forces from the failed Operation Gideon in April, when a group of men, including former US soldiers, landed in Venezuela ostensibly to capture Maduro. Venezuela's interior and justice ministers were ordered to capture Wilexis. But five months on, only a handful of arrests have been made. Wilexis remains free and no longer appears to be a priority target.
Wilexis and Santanita are only the latest in a list of criminals to temporarily top the government's priority list. Some have been arrested, some have never been caught and some have been accused of crimes they may never have committed.
One example was that of Wilfredo Torres Gómez, alías “Necoclí," former leader of Los Rastrojos in Venezuela's border state of Táchira. Torres Gómez was already a wanted man in Colombia for drug trafficking, contraband and weapons trafficking. But when Venezuelan law enforcement captured him in March 2019, Maduro suddenly linked him to opposition parties and accused him of planning "terrorist acts." No evidence for such charges was ever made public.
But attacks on Los Rastrojos, who had established control of a range of criminal economies along the Colombia-Venezuela border, have continued ever since. Freddy Bernal, a Maduro favorite named the "Protector of Táchira," has posted regularly on Twitter about operations against the group, and he has called them "terrorists." Los Rastrojos have also been fighting a losing battle against the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), which has been gaining steady control over the border. The guerrilla group, however, has not faced similar resistance from Venezuelan forces. Karim Vera, an opposition party member in Táchira, accused Bernal of hiring ELN members to fight against Los Rastrojos.
There has long been speculation about an alliance between the ELN and the Venezuelan government. In its 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism, the United States stated that "Maduro and his associates use criminal activities to help maintain their illegitimate hold on power, fostering a permissive environment for...the ELN." InSight Crime has previously reported on the ELN paying off Venezuelan armed forces to protect their interests, including illegal mining and fuel smuggling.
Permission to Exercise Control and Violence
Police forces moved quickly against Santanita. But other gangs, working in similar criminal economies and on a comparable scale to Santanita, have often been left alone. One example is the gang led by Carlos Luis Revete, alias "El Koki," operating in the poor Caracas neighborhood known as Cota 905. In 2015, Cota 905 was named a "Peace Zone," part of a national security program that kept police out of certain areas as long as gangs there kept the peace. The measure allowed for the evolution of "megabandas," large gangs with over 100 members, and the consolidation of their control over local communities. After this status was revoked, there were unconfirmed reports that Revete personally met inside Cota 905 in August 2017 with Delcy Rodríguez, then the president of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly and current Vice President, to restore the Peace Zone.
While there have been occasional clashes between El Koki's gang members and security forces since then, a recent event showed why Revete is believed to enjoy near-complete impunity.
On August 25, members of the group allegedly attempted to seize control of a shooting range at municipal police headquarters in Caracas, when they were confronted by security forces. A shootout ensued, in which a FAES member was killed and two police officers were wounded. Not a single member of the gang was captured, according to media reports. Further allegations that security forces were ordered to pull out were denied by FAES officials.
The director of the FAES, José Miguel Domínguez, promised a robust response, but no operations targeting the El Koki gang were reported in the following weeks. This was but the latest example of Revete seemingly being above the law. In July 2019, members of the criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC) were fired upon inside Cota 905 and then ordered to leave the area.
One breakout of violence between FAES and El Koki's gang did occur on September 22, 2020. Two gang members were allegedly killed, according to press reports, but there has been no official confirmation on the matter or the circumstances surrounding it.
El Koki and Wilexis exercise similar levels of control in troubled neighborhoods and appear to command significant degrees of loyalty. In Petare, Wilexis has been described as a “Robin Hood,” providing residents with food and defending them in the face of abuses by the FAES. The same comparisons have been made of El Koki.
One could argue that Venezuela's security forces simply lack the resources to dismantle organized criminal groups as entrenched as those of El Koki or Wilexis. But the effectiveness of other operations against different groups, such as the prolonged campaign against Los Rastrojos, shows this capacity does exist.
In mid-September, a gang known as El Sindicato del Perú issued a plea for peace. Known for illegal gold mining activities around El Callao in the state of Bolívar, the gang released a video appealing "to the national government...as we are in a senseless war to defend our human rights."
This small, local gang has been on the back foot for much of 2020 after repeated clashes with armed forces that have left a number of its members dead. Opposition deputy Americo de Grazia posted on Twitter that, similar to Los Rastrojos, security forces were pushing out El Sindicato del Perú to let the ELN take over El Callao.
The plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Less than a week after the video, the government pressed its advantage against the group, arresting several members and seizing weapons and grenades.