A complex game of cat-and-mouse has unfolded over the last two weeks in one of Caracas’s most infamous neighborhoods, revealing how the Maduro regime tries to manipulate gang rivalries to maintain its authority in key areas.

An attempt at such manipulation appears to have taken place over two weeks in April and May 2020. Gang boss Wilexis Alexander Acevedo, alias “Wilexis,” has become the de-facto authority in a vast slum near Caracas and has allegedly been linked to the opposition. To rein him in, the regime seems to have released a potential rival from prison, René Tovar Uribe, alias “El Gusano,” and sent him to pick a fight with Wilexis. 

Since 2017, the slum of José Félix Ribas in the town of Petare, outside Caracas, has largely been in the control of Wilexis. Media reports describe Acevedo as having essentially replaced the government in the neighborhood, imparting justice, controlling the delivery of key services, enforcing the coronavirus lockdown and even protecting locals from abuses by security forces.

On several occasions last year, protests sprung up in response to actions by the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) inside Petare, blaming them for a staggering number of extrajudicial killings. According to the Victim’s Monitor (Monitor de Víctimas), the FAES were responsible for 43 deaths in Petare between January and September 2019. Wilexis was instrumental in organizing these protests, with residents of José Félix Ribas receiving messages by WhatsApp summoning them to the streets, according to El Pitazo.

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But in recent weeks, efforts targeted at finding Wilexis gained traction. In late April, a new threat arrived in José Félix Ribas and reportedly formed alliances with smaller gangs in the area.

According to sources consulted by InSight Crime with knowledge of the matter, there are conflicting stories over whether “El Gusano” (The Worm) was released from prison under the government’s scheme to reduce overcrowding due to the coronavirus or if he was personally freed by Prisons Minister Iris Varela, who is known to have freed specific prisoners in the past.

Shootouts ramped up in the first days of May between the gangs of El Gusano and Wilexis in José Félix Ribas. There were no reports of the FAES or other security forces entering the neighborhood during those clashes.

On May 6, the situation changed. President Nicolás Maduro directly accused Wilexis of working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and linked him to the failed operation in which a small group, including former US soldiers, landed in Venezuela in late April to capture Maduro.

Wilexis denied these claims. In an audio message sent to NTN24, a news organization, a man believed to be Wilexis stated that “nobody here has contact with the DEA.”

“We do not need to be against Maduro, we are not political,” he continued.

His denials fell on deaf ears. On May 8, the FAES entered José Félix Ribas to find Wilexis. By May 13, at least 13 people had been killed in extrajudicial executions, according to Zair Mundaray, a former top prosecutor in Venezuela, writing on Twitter.

On May 14, another twist as El Gusano was reportedly gunned down by security forces, with the government soon claiming they were looking for someone else and killed the wrong man.

Since then, the situation in José Félix Ribas has remained uncertain. There have been no major incursions by security forces although other members of Wilexis’ gang have allegedly been captured outside Caracas.

But Wilexis still remains at large.

InSight Crime Analysis

Criminal gangs have played a crucial role in the Venezuelan government’s ability to consolidate power. But in this case, it appears that the government manufactured conflict with Wilexis, who had not been playing by their rules. El Gusano appears to have been a pawn in the government’s efforts to take down Wilexis or force him back in line.

The Maduro government may have good reason to be concerned about Wilexis’ control. He has proven his ability to mobilize residents, seen by the scale of anti-government protests which took place in Petare last year.

While Venezuelan media have reported that El Gusano was intentionally released by Iris Varela, InSight Crime was not able to independently confirm this. But Varela has been known to secure the release of powerful prisoners when it suits her. In 2016, she provided a signed letter to a known gang boss, Wilmer Brizuela, alias “Wilmito,” allowing him to leave the Vista Hermosa prison as he wished, Efecto Cocuyo reported. It seems likely that El Gusano was only the latest beneficiary of this scheme.

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There has also been speculation about how El Gusano was able to mobilize an armed gang so quickly after leaving jail. Police and government sources reported to InSight Crime that a number of prisoners were released from the infamous Tocorón prison and sent to strengthen El Gusano. Residents of José Félix Ribas also told InSight Crime that most of the gang members who fought against Wilexis were not recognized as being from Petare.

But what remains unclear is what the government’s strategy and end goal were here. Maduro announced the raids on May 6, two days before they happened, giving ample time for Wilexis to flee.

Ultimately, this looks like it may have been an attempt to intimidate Wilexis rather than kill him. Having him keep the peace in José Félix Ribas is useful and the government has maintained similar arrangements with other gangs in Caracas, as long as they do not overstep the line.

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