Unsurprisingly, Caracas consumes more drugs than anywhere else in Venezuela. And despite a catastrophic economic crisis, a handful of gangs dominate the capital's microtrafficking, often because they can stay ahead of or make deals with security forces.
Control of microtrafficking has usually been the privilege of localized criminal groups operating across large neighborhoods but with few expansion opportunities. However, the situation has changed in the last two years as the government's tolerance for specific criminals has ebbed.
This year started with a bold move. In January, Carlos Luis Revete, alias "El Koki," Caracas' most dangerous gang boss, violently took over the neighborhood of La Vega, home to over 200,000 people. This was a significant gamble by El Koki, who had a deal with authorities to leave him alone if he stayed in his base, the district of Cota 905.
His invasion of La Vega changed Caracas' drug trafficking landscape. Authorities fought back and broke his control of Cota 905, forcing El Koki to flee.
In August, El Koki ally Leonardo José Polanco Angulo, alias "Loco Leo," was shot dead by security forces. Loco Leo was targeted as part of the crackdown against El Koki but was an influential gang leader in his own right, especially in the southern district of El Valle. His gang has survived without him.
Another gang leader also came up against authorities. Much like El Koki in 2021, Wilexis Alexander Acevedo Monasterios, alias “Wilexis,” fell afoul of President Nicolás Maduro in 2020. After security forces were linked to extrajudicial killings in Petare, in eastern Venezuela, Wilexis led a protest campaign that got a lot of attention.
Much like in Cota 905, troops soon came onto the streets of Petare, arresting dozens and killings members of Wilexis' gang. But now the government has moved onto a new target, Wilexis grew ambitious. He rapidly expanded in late 2021, gobbling up control of microtrafficking in several large parts of eastern Caracas. For now, that probably makes him the most influential drug lord in the city.
But for how long?
Here, InSight Crime breaks down the main gangs controlling Caracas' drug trade, what they sell and their areas of influence.
Which Drugs are Sold in Caracas?
Marijuana is the drug most commonly sold in Caracas, according to numerous InSight Crime interviews with residents, gang members and security forces. Cocaine also has a strong presence, especially in its coca paste form. As the country's economic crisis has plunged most of the population into poverty, crack consumption has rapidly risen, especially in poorer slums such as Libertador and Petare.
There is also a small yet steady demand for synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine and 2-CB, among the capital's wealthier residents.
Most of the drug trafficking happens in poorer areas. Until El Koki lost much of his power in 2021, his base of Cota 905 was the city's primary drug-trafficking hotspot. It was located close to poorer districts such as La Vega and El Cementerio and middle-class, residential areas such as El Paraíso, Montalbán and Las Acacias. The district also has direct access to central Caracas.
But as authorities moved into Cota 905, numerous dealers have fled, and microtrafficking has increased in various points of the city.
The Rebirth of Wilexis
As aforementioned, Wilexis had a rough 2020. This served as evidence that no criminal gang can operate without at least a degree of official approval in Caracas. In May 2020, Wilexis had to face repeated incursions into Petare by Venezuela's Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) after President Nicolás Maduro accused Wilexis of working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). These raids continued on and off for much of the year until Wilexis was injured in a shootout with FAES agents in November 2020.
The message had been sent: keep your head down or lose everything.
After that, Wilexis stayed quiet for almost a year, maintaining control of Petare but making no further moves. Revenues from microtrafficking, especially in the districts of José Félix Ribas and Unión, are crucial to his organization.
However, a FAES official interviewed by InSight Crime, who requested anonymity for security concerns, said that from early October 2021, members of Wilexis' gang had rapidly taken over neighboring districts such as San José de Petare, La Dolorita and 5 de Julio.
"Wilexis has gained a lot in strength," said the official, adding that this could bring a far greater number of drug-selling hotspots under Wilexis' control.
He is likely now the most powerful figure in Caracas' microtrafficking scene. It is uncertain how long he will be able to hold these gains. For now, the Maduro regime, so adept at focusing the blame on specific criminal enemies, has not made any significant moves to curb Wilexis' expansion. As InSight Crime has previously noted, having leaders like Wilexis in place helps keep the peace, as seen by the government making similar deals with other gangs in Caracas.
El Koki Loses the Crown
For over four years, El Koki was the undisputed microtrafficking king of Caracas, and his fiefdom of Cota 905 was the Venezuelan capital's prominent drug sales spot. His gang members did not just cater to the drug demand in that neighborhood but residents of other parts of the city, rich and poor, would come to Cota 905 to buy their supply. Otherwise, his gang would dispatch supplies to other traffickers across Caracas.
He achieved this control by enjoying near-total impunity after security forces barely stepping foot inside Cota 905 since it was declared a Peace Zone (Zona de Paz) in 2017. He even hosted government ministers on his territory who trusted him to keep the peace.
For most of that time, El Koki largely remained content with his sphere of influence, aside from a few clashes with security forces outside Cota 905.
But in late 2020, El Koki muscled in on the next-door neighborhood of La Vega, a sprawling area with hundreds of thousands of residents and with no gang large enough to oppose him. He even found one local ally, Yorfren Javier Guédez Bullones, alias “El Mayeya,” to help him cement that control.
In May 2021, one resident of La Vega told InSight Crime that they knew of at least 17 drug sales points across the neighborhood, at which El Koki's gang were selling crack and cripy marijuana, a potent strain of the drug with higher levels of THC.
In May, one former official from Venezuela's National Anti-Drug Office (Organización Nacional Antidrogas – ONA) told InSight Crime that El Koki's microtrafficking operations were highly organized. Shipments of drugs came to Cota 905 and La Vega by land and were then distributed to sellers there as well as in other working-class and middle-class neighborhoods of Caracas.
But he had one problem: La Vega was not a Peace Zone. And El Koki continued to push authorities too far. In July, after a member of Loco Leo's gang was injured by authorities, Revete allegedly sent gang members to open fire on three police installations in Caracas, injuring several officials.
Security forces counterattacked in La Vega and Cota 905 alike. Numerous gang members were killed or arrested. The house of one of El Koki's top lieutenants was ransacked. And El Koki vanished.
In late October, police officers and security officials told InSight Crime that they were firmly in control of La Vega and Cota 905 and that any microtrafficking had been "neutralized." Some reports indicate that El Koki may have taken refuge in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta; others indicate he may be hiding in Petare, Wilexis' territory. But months on, there has been no sign of him, and a return to power seems complicated.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela's Smaller Gangs Carve Out Local Criminal Fiefdoms
The Other Pretenders
Other police sources told InSight Crime that since Loco Leo's death, gangs had surfaced in Coche and Jardines del Valle, led by dealers known as alias "El Gocho" and "El Mulco de Coche." But they do not appear to operate on the same scale as Loco Leo's gang.
Several other gangs dominate smaller areas, especially the Conejo gang in central Caracas and the Junior Salinas gang in the northwestern neighborhoods of El Guarataro, El Observatorio, La Pastora and Pinto Salinas, according to police interviews.
The Role of the Colectivos
Traditional drug gangs are not the only players in Caracas' microtrafficking scene. In 23 de Enero, a popular neighborhood where loyalties to the Chavista regime run deep, colectivos control drug trafficking. Colectivos are paramilitary-style groups, usually operating in poorer parts of Venezuela, who act in defense of the interests of the Maduro regime. They have been connected to numerous extrajudicial killings and kidnappings.