Venezuelan forces have in recent days fought running gun battles on the streets of Caracas with members of the capital’s strongest gang in an apparent attempt to finally unseat its leader, El Koki.
By July 13, a quiet calm appeared to have returned to the capital city's western neighborhood of Cota 905 after being shaken by regular gunfire between July 8 and 12, as the army and police launched an operation targeting the powerful gang leader.
The operation aimed to find Carlos Luis Revete, alias “El Koki” and his top lieutenants. At least 800 security personnel entered Cota 905 and began house-to-house searches, where they were reportedly met with fierce opposition from gang members. They took over observation posts that El Koki’s gang had built overlooking the neighborhood, burned down a known nightclub where the gang gathered and reportedly seized the house of El Vampi, Revete’s closest lieutenant.
Venezuela’s Minister for Justice and Peace, Carmen Meléndez, called the operation a success, with 22 criminals killed and 38 more arrested.
But what caused this strong response remains unclear. Throughout 2021,
Revete has consolidated his power as the leader of the strongest gang in the Venezuelan capital, successfully invading the neighborhood of La Vega.
There have been sporadic raids by authorities, including one in February that killed at least 23 people. Before this, Revete was largely left alone, as Cota 905 was declared a Peace Zone in 2017, or a place where authorities were not allowed to enter if the gang kept the peace.
But on July 7, Revete may have miscalculated. That day, members of El Koki’s gang opened fire on El Helicoide, a vast building in central Caracas that acts as a headquarters for police and intelligence services and contains numerous jail cells. At least two intelligence officials were wounded. The gang then went on to fire at two other police facilities in Caracas.
According to a police commander in Caracas interviewed by InSight Crime, these brazen attacks came after an ally of Revete, Leonardo José Polanco Angulo, alias el “Loco Leo,” was injured in a shootout with police.
The next day, Cota 905 was breached.
InSight Crime Analysis
While shootouts between El Koki’s gang and authorities are nothing new, the size of this latest clash may indicate an important shift in the tolerance shown to Revete.
In April, Douglas Rico, the head of Venezuela's criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas - CICPC), said he was willing to sit down with Revete to begin a disarmament process. Any such attempts at appeasement were highly unlikely to succeed. Since then, El Koki and his allies have only grown in strength, first in their continued takeover of La Vega and then in daring to shoot at El Helicoide, the police headquarters in Caracas.
This latest anti-gang operation certainly dwarfed those of the past. Where previous raids saw officers retreat if they were fired upon or secure only a few arrests, seemingly at random, this appeared to be a concerted attempt to find Revete, as well as his lieutenants.
The fallout is unclear. Neither Revete nor his top aides have been arrested, allowing them to lay low and resurface once authorities have retreated. And despite a few dozen arrests, it does not appear that El Koki’s hold over Cota 905 or La Vega has weakened.
This campaign may also have been intended to send El Koki a message not to overstep his boundaries. There is precedent for this. For a few weeks in early 2020, another Caracas gang boss similar to Revete, Wilexis Alexander Acevedo, alias "Wilexis," was public enemy number one. Even President Nicolás Maduro accused him of being a pawn of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The raids that followed in the slum of José Félix Ribas, which Wilexis controls, were very similar to those seen in Cota 905. Hundreds of officers tore apart houses, and a few gang members were killed or arrested. But Wilexis survived. Since then, his profile has lowered, and no other raids have occurred.
It remains to be seen if Revete will follow this example or remain defiant. But even if he falls, El Koki’s gang has grown to such a size in Caracas that another leader may simply rise to take his place.
Should they find themselves leaderless, one well-known crime reporter in Caracas, Román Camacho, recently suggested that a gang from outside Caracas might be tempted to try and take over El Koki’s territory and men.