Grenades like those usually seen on battlefields have become common weapons in Venezuela's underworld, where criminal groups regularly use them in a wide range of illegal activities.
At least six grenade attacks have been reported so far in 2023, most recently on May 7, when eight people were injured in an explosion at a pool hall in Pedro María Ureña, a town in the border state of Táchira. Each of the six attacks took place in a different state, showcasing the widespread nature of this problem.
Since 2013, grenades have been used at least 138 times across Venezuela, in attacks on police stations, shops, and homes.
Below, InSight Crime explores the evolution of this criminal phenomenon that is unique in Latin America.
The Beginning of Grenade Attacks
Prior to 2013, Venezuela had seen scattered instances of grenades used by criminal gangs. But in January of that year, at least 63 people were killed and over 120 injured in a massacre at the Uribana prison in the northern state of Lara. A search of the prison turned up a colossal arsenal, including 106 firearms and 12 grenades, Prisons Minister Iris Varela told a press conference.
That same year, the regular use of grenades was popularized by José Antonio Tovar, alias "El Picure," a one-time army sergeant turned gang boss who equipped his men with heavy weaponry. In 2013, security operations aiming to bring down Tovar found that he possessed "great quantities of heavy weapons, grenades, and pistols" used by his men for "homicides and contract killings," according to a report by newspaper Diario Contraste.
Tovar was also the founder of one of Venezuela's first megabandas, gangs with plenty of manpower and enough financing to arm its members. Others soon emerged, including the El Koki gang in Caracas, which also made grenade attacks one of their regular tactics.
According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia - OVV), Venezuelan gangs began to use grenades to defend themselves during police operations and to kidnap people. In 2014, three people were killed in a grenade attack at the Uribana prison. In 2015, Tovar's gang lobbed grenades at a police station in the state of Aragua in an attempt to free three of his allies.
From 2013 to 2019, the vast majority of grenade attacks were directed at security forces, according to InSight Crime research, with 21 used by gangs to attack police facilities and 20 used by prisoners during escape attempts.
This increase also matches a rapid rise in Venezuela’s overall homicide numbers, which peaked at 26,616 murders in 2017.
The sites of grenade attacks have evolved over the years. From 2013 to 2015, some of Venezuela’s most notorious gang bosses, such as Carlos Capa and Carlos Luis Revete, alias “El Koki,” began using them in the capital, Caracas, and the surrounding states of Aragua and Miranda. After this, a rise in security operations around Caracas saw numerous gang members operating in and around the capital killed.
Others fled to different parts of Venezuela, taking their modus operandi -- including the use of grenades -- with them, according to Javier Mayorca, a Venezuelan crime investigator. As a result, since 2017, the use of grenades has mainly been registered in more remote states, such as Zulia, Bolívar, Táchira, and Lara.
From Army Stocks to Criminal Hands
In 2012, Venezuela banned the sale of all weapons and ammunition to the public. Since then, only the state-owned entity in charge of acquiring and developing weaponry and explosives, Compañía Anónima de Industrias Militares (CAVIM), can legally access grenades in Venezuela
"If there is a transfer of grenades to criminal groups, it would have to come from [the military] … I don’t see how anyone in Venezuela could buy a grenade from a store or a supplier. That doesn't exist," Luis Cedeño, director of the non-governmental organization, Paz Activa, which studies organized crime in Venezuela, told InSight Crime.
But soldiers in search of extra income have long been willing to sell their weapons to criminal groups in Venezuela.
Though the armed forces have been tightening surveillance around weapons depots for the last five years, according to Mayorca, this has not prevented boxes of grenades from being stolen during military exercises since explosives are not individually inventoried.
"They can tell you that there is a box with 50 grenades, but at the end of the exercise, you don't know if they used 20 or 30,” he said.
There are other ways for Venezuelan gangs to get grenades, like the international black market. Weapons from the former Yugoslavia, Israel, and the United States have all been seized inside Venezuela. Most were brought in across the Colombian border by transnational groups, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) or the ex-FARC mafia, dissident criminal structures that emerged during and after peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Since these groups dominate large parts of the Colombia-Venezuela border, they can smuggle weapons in with ease. "The corridors controlled by paramilitary groups and dissidents are not used for drugs [entering the country] but also for the trafficking of arms, ammunition, and explosive devices," Fermín Mármol, director of the faculty of criminal sciences at Santa Maria University in Caracas, told InSight Crime.
Increase in Grenade Attacks Since 2020
InSight Crime has identified that the number of grenade attacks by criminal gangs has accelerated since 2020. Between January 2020 and May 2023, there were 78 grenade explosions in 13 Venezuelan states: Anzoátegui, Aragua, Bolívar, Carabobo, Distrito Capital, Guárico, Lara, Miranda, Sucre, Táchira, Trujillo, Yaracuy, and Zulia.
This increase can be explained by extortionists seeking to capitalize on the increasing dollarization of the Venezuelan economy. As InSight Crime previously reported, the Venezuelan economic crisis had reached such depths in 2019 that many traditional criminal economies were simply no longer profitable. Armed robberies and kidnappings fell notably, as people simply didn't have enough valuables left.
In response, the US dollar began to displace the devalued bolívar. By October 2019, 35% of all transactions in the country were being carried out in foreign currency. The extortion business soon picked up as business owners, traders, and police officers all told InSight Crime that criminal gangs demanded to be paid in US dollars as the cash could not be traced.
This led to a rise in grenade attacks to secure extortion payments, especially in the western state of Zulia. Of the 78 grenade attacks between 2020 and 2023, 44 were in Zulia, and all of these were related to extortion.
"My sister is being extorted," a journalist based in Zulia told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. "They gave her a phone number and said that they would call her when it was her turn because they had many cases ahead of her. But in the end, they just threw a grenade at her business and fired at it.”
But in the southern state of Bolívar, the El Perú Syndicate, a mining gang, has used them to maintain its control over lucrative illegal gold mining, while in Caracas and Miranda, larger groups have used them in confrontations with law enforcement.