Venezuela’s November regional elections brought changes to many powerful offices in regions where criminal organizations wield significant political power, highlighting the significance of localized criminal dynamics and the consolidated grip of organized crime on local and regional government.
On a national level, the election results will strengthen the hand of President Nicolás Maduro and his family in several regions strategically important for criminal economies and armed groups with alleged ties to his government. Maduro allies will take over in several states, most notably in the border states of Apure and Táchira, and the mining heartland of Bolívar. Furthermore, Maduro’s main political rival within Chavismo, Diosdado Cabello, was weakened by the loss of his ally Omar Prieto in the northwestern state of Zulia and the departure of another key supporter, Ramón Carrizalez as the governor of Apure.
The main changes, however, will come on a local level. Below InSight Crime looks at the top criminal implications of the elections.
1. Opposition Victory in Zulia Weakens Megabanda Los Leal
In the state of Zulia, opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática – MUD) candidate Manuel Rosales defeated government candidate Omar Prieto with a vote share of 56.90 to 36.06 percent. Prieto’s loss will likely represent a setback for one of the region’s most notorious gangs, Los Leal, which has benefited from Prieto’s rule.
There is a substantial evidence pointing to a close relationship between the now-former governor and Los Leal. Prieto is the cousin of two of Los Leal’s founding members, Daniel Leal Prieto, alias “Danielito,” and Jorge Leal. After allegedly killing gang leader and former boss Antonio Meleán in 2008 – an event that would trigger the creation of Los Leal, Danielito reportedly sought refuge in Prieto’s office, who was then mayor of San Francisco.
Prieto would go on to direct the police to target the Los Meleán gang while Los Leal was able to expand significantly beyond its core municipality of San Francisco with apparent impunity.
The line between the security forces and criminal actors was also blurred under his leadership. He was sanctioned in 2019 by the United States Department of Treasury for the alleged participation of many police officers in drug and arms trafficking under his watch, among other reasons.
Despite losing the governorship, Prieto’s close relationship with the security forces means that he could continue to undermine new governor Rosales.
The defeat of Prieto is also a significant blow to Diosdado Cabello, who had helped secure Prieto the nomination to run for governor and who is widely considered to be his mentor
2. FARC Dissidents Lose an Ally in Carrizalez
PSUV candidate Eduardo Piñate won the governorship in Apure, located along Venezuela’s border with Colombia, by a surprisingly narrow margin against his MUD opponent. He will replace former PSUV governor, Ramón Carrizalez.
Carrizalez’s departure from the governorship means the loss of a political ally for the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). According to a PSUV leader in Apure speaking to Infobae in August, Carrizalez “has a long relationship with the FARC.” Several residents and social leaders in Apure, who spoke to InSight Crime anonymously for security reasons, noted that the former governor allowed the dissidents to set up operations in the state, and helped their drug trafficking efforts avoid state scrutiny.
In 2021, Apure has been the scene of a bitter conflict between rival ex-FARC factions, the Second Marquetalia and the 10th Front, with the military intervening by targeting the 10th Front. The aftermath saw a purge of state actors linked to the 10th Front, although it is not clear whether Carrizalez’s removal is connected to the conflict.
The big potential winners from the election in Apure are the Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Patrióticas de Liberación Nacional – FPLN), also known as the Bolivarian Forces of Liberation (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación – FBL) a leftist guerrilla group with close ties to the Venezuelan government. Local political leaders and analysts, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, alleged the guerrillas maintain close ties to Piñate and aided him in his campaign.
A loyalist to Maduro, Piñate’s victory will also strengthen the position of the president and his allies while weakening Diosdado Cabello, of whom Carrizalez was a supporter.
3. Falcón Election Brings Uncertain Future for the Paraguaná Cartel
PSUV candidate Victor Clark was re-elected governor in the Caribbean region of Falcón with a comfortable 10-point margin, signaling there is unlikey to be any respite for the beleaguered drug trafficking network the Paraguaná Cartel.
Clark previously had alleged ties to cartel chief Emilio Enrique Martínez, alias “Chiche Smith”, but any political protection has clearly been withdrawn as the cartel’s operations have been repeatedly targeted over the last year, culminating in in the arrest of the Martínez in April 2021.
The group also lost a key ally in Alcides Goitia, who was defeated in the mayoral election in the municipality of Carirubana. The group and the mayor had coordinated community events together and Goita had been filmed with Chiche Smith’s brother.
4. Freddy Bernal’s Victory in Táchira Solidifies Criminal Influence in State Politics
Freddy Bernal, who had been serving as the Maduro-appointed “Protector of the State” in Táchira, won the governorship in the western border state, defeating opposition candidate Laidy Gómez.
Bernal is an open advocate of the pro-regime armed groups known as colectivos, most prominently the Border Security Colectivo (Colectivo de Seguridad Fronteriza – CSF). The CSF has been largely inactive for some time, but previously played a central role in controlling cross-border smuggling routes. While this function is now less crucial with the reopening of the Colombian border, the CSF could still be reactivated to exert control in the key border municipalities where the opposition claimed victory.
Bernal has also been accused in the past of being the political link between the ELN and the Maduro regime. During his time as “Protector of Táchira,” he allegedly hosted a 2019 meeting that featured ELN leadership and high-ranking PSUV officials. His election likely means greater influence for the Colombian group.
5. Illicit Gold Miners Continue to Dominate Politics in Bolívar
The victor in the mining state of Bolívar’s gubernatorial race was PSUV candidate Ángel Marcano, a key ally of Maduro whose victory will expand the president’s base of support.
Marcano’s campaign was also championed by former Governor Francisco Rangel Gómez, who allegedly facilitated the expansion of the mining gangs known as sindicatos (unions) that have come to dominate illicit gold in Bolívar. Marcano replaces Justo Noguera Pietri, whose time in office saw the state struggle to bring the sindicatos under control through security forces operations, at times in apparent collusion with the ELN guerrillas.
In the municipality of Sifontes, Daniel Romero, a mayoral candidate for the Communist Party of Venezuela (Partido Comunista de Venezuela – PCV) with links to the region’s most powerful sindicato, the R Organization (Organización R – OR), was barred from running by the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral – CNE). The decision denied the group the possibility of gaining political influence to complement its armed power and social legitimacy. Meanwhile, in the municipality of El Callao, opposition candidate Coromoto Lugo returns to power in the mining hub, where the dominant sindicato is locked in a bitter struggle with the security forces.