In the northern Venezuela state home to the city of Maracaibo, gangs are taking an extremely violent measure against business owners who refuse to pay extortion: attacking them with what appear to be grenades.
Seven attacks against businesses were reported within just 12 days in the state of Zulia, located on the border with Colombia, according to local press reports. All the business owners said they had received extortion threats from gangs.
The Saas pharmacy in Maracaibo was attacked with explosives on the night of October 31, El Pitazo reported. Witnesses said a motorcyclist passed in front of the store three times before throwing the device.
“The grenade fell some six meters from a vehicle in which a judge was traveling. The car received the impact of the shrapnel from the explosive and punctured the car tires. Sources reported that the official was in his car with his children,” according to the news organization.
The following day, in the early morning hours of November 1, an explosive device was discovered near the offices of Enne Supermarket. Later that night, a grenade exploded in the parking garage of a casino called Centro de Apuestas La Roca. The blast left one person injured, and a neighboring pastry shop was damaged.
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The Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Production (La Federación de Cámaras y Asociaciones de Comercio y Producción de Venezuela - Fedecámaras), with headquarters in the state of Zulia, issued a statement denouncing the attacks that have occurred over the last few weeks in Maracaibo, saying that "organized crime groups have started to attack both local businesses and the homes of well-known business owners with weapons and explosives."
Regional Government Secretary Lisandro Cabello claimed that in the majority of cases the weapons used were not grenades but other forms of explosives. Investigators said that El Tren del Norte -- a gang that formed in the Sabaneta prison and has ties to the megabanda El Tren de Aragua -- was likely behind the attacks.
Director of the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation Corps (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas - CICPC), Captain Douglas Rico, reported that a unit was sent from Caracas to investigate the bombings.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although there are no official crime statistics for Zulia state, it is likely safe to say that grenade attacks were not common until recently. In addition to the bombings, the state has seen a recent string of attacks aimed at government party leaders.
Investigators said that El Tren del Norte -- a gang that formed in the Sabaneta prison and has ties to the megabanda El Tren de Aragua -- was likely behind the bombings. The megabanda, a gang with over 100 members, is based in Zulia. A gang member who was shot dead by authorities on November 6 was said to be involved in the attacks with explosives.
Extortion has long plagued Zulia. Cattle ranchers with rural estates close to the Colombian border have been hit particularly hard. But the bombing of businesses where owners refused to pay extortion appears to be an escalation of violence by criminal groups in the region.
While Zulia is Venezuela’s main oil-producing state, it is currently one of the region's most affected by blackouts, as well as water and gasoline shortages, all of which has caused productivity there to plunge.
A businessman from Zulia who spoke to InSight Crime but asked to remain anonymous for security reasons said that bombings have shown business owners just how "vulnerable" they are to violent attacks.
"In Zulia, we suffer blackouts and lack of water, but we know how to handle it," he said. "However, when it comes to actions by organized crime, our hands are tied.”
Besides El Tren de Norte, Zulia is a stronghold for smaller gangs like Los Leal and Los Meleán. Cells from Colombia's National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) and dissidents with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) have also made incursions into the state. Paramilitary forces known as “colectivos” maintain a strong presence in the region, while corrupt police are also known to operate along the border.