Venezuela's largest garbage dump has become a lawless territory where waste has become the raw material for a lucrative and growing criminal industry.
The La Bonanza landfill, near Caracas in the state of Miranda, is now the scene of a range of criminal activities, including extortion, vehicle theft, homicide, drug trafficking and kidnapping.
Stretching across 180 hectares, La Bonanza processes around four million kilograms of waste a day and recycles 800,000 kilograms of trash a month. But amid rotten food, cans, bags, aluminum pieces, paper, glass and plastic bottles and other debris, the powerful El Buitre mega-gang has turned the landfill into its operations center.
This gang, of around 70 members, thrives on criminal opportunities found at the trash site and has been accumulating wealth, according to police sources who spoke to InSight Crime in Valles de Tuy, in the state of Miranda.
Inside La Bonanza, the El Buitre gang has built a bunker with road protection barriers that keeps the police out. The location is also used to hide stolen vehicles and victims of kidnappings, being held for ransom, according to the police.
The "treasures" in this landfill, such as paper, cardboard, aluminum, copper and plastic are commodities that feed a rising criminal economy in Venezuela. Landfill employees are forced to work for El Buitre, and can be kicked out or even murdered if they refuse.
“We turn in a percentage of what we collect. When we find any objects of value, we must turn them in, because the gang’s members are watching closely. One time, I collected a large amount of copper and they wanted to give me 10 percent of its real value. I refused and they answered by shooting me in the leg and taking it away,” one trash collector told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
After recovering in bed for two months, the victim had no other means of income and had to beg the "pran" (gang leader) for forgiveness in order to return to La Bonanza. “Next time, you won’t live to tell the story,” he was warned.
The Recycling Gang
El Buitre's leaders live in popular areas of Valles del Tuy, and in other neighborhoods of Caracas, but use La Bonanza to plan their criminal actions.
The gang members are equipped with high-caliber weaponry, such as AK-47s, AR-15 rifles, sub-machine guns, fragmentation grenades and 9 mm caliber pistols.
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In 2017, authorities launched an operation for the gang's leader, known as "Buitre," and he was finally killed inside the landfill by the Bolivarian National Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana - PNB). Despite his death, the mega-gang survived under the leadership of alias "El Goyo," who appeared to stay off the authorities' radar.
El Goyo led criminal activities at La Bonanza for two years until he was himself killed by other members of the gang in February 2019. The El Buitre now has a new leader, who remains unidentified by the police.
Copper is collected for contraband and illegally sold overseas, its price being negotiated in dollars as it has become one of the most profitable economies for the gang. Copper and other types of waste represent such a profitable business that they keep the gang living lives of luxury, with a steady stream of women, alcohol and drugs.
While this type of "recycling" has long been a low-level criminal economy, the fact that La Bonanza has become such a profitable hub for El Buitre shows how Venezuelan criminal structures have been capable of reinventing themselves in order to survive the harsh crisis lived in the country.