Elements of the Venezuelan underworld, whether drug cartels, street gangs or illegal mining groups, have hit upon a unique way of establishing social control: creating "foundations" to act as quasi-charitable arms, helping to improve relations with the population and strike deals with political backers.
Venezuela's economic crisis, corruption, declining oil prices and sanctions by the US government have forced the administration of President Nicolás Maduro to slash funding for social projects.
Criminal organizations operating in poorer parts of the country, mainly in central and eastern regions, have stepped into the breach. Their community organizations help to establish popular support through regular donations, the organization of soup kitchens as well as educational and health activities.
However, while they do make a difference, these foundations also help criminal organizations preserve their power. To maintain this control, they punish as well as reward. Provisions of food and basic goods can be withdrawn from those not obeying the rules, and violators can also be forced to leave, or worse, be mutilated or even killed.
Here, InSight Crime lays out how four prominent criminal groups that have created these community organizations and how they use them.
Tren de Aragua
The Tren de Aragua is Venezuela's most successful homegrown gang, spreading out from their base in the northern state of Aragua to set up a presence in half a dozen South American countries. But while it has exploited Venezuelan migrants across the region to cash in on human smuggling and sex trafficking, Tren de Aragua maintains a tight grip on its home turf via the Fundación Somos el Barrio JK.
Residents in the town of San Vicente in Aragua, where the gang was created, have told InSight Crime that the foundation works as a parallel government. According to interviews with locals, the foundation's staff distribute government-subsidized food, develop rotas for volunteers to clean and beautify the town, have security patrols on the streets and manage at least five community dining rooms.
SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua Profile
In an interview with the newspaper El Siglo, the foundation’s president, Irene Hernández, stated that Somos El Barrio JK counts on the financial and political support of the local mayor and the governor of Aragua. Federal support has also been forthcoming. In 2018, then-prisons minister Iris Varela visited San Vicente on several occasions and met with representatives from the foundation to discuss security and youth initiatives.
However, behind this aid lies a parallel justice system that has harshly cracked down on violators of rules imposed by Tren de Aragua.
According to InSight Crime fieldwork and interviews with a range of residents, these rules regulate broad swathes of daily life. Some could be seen as positive, such as harshly cracking down on thieves and domestic violence. But others mandate that every homeowner should keep their house painted and tidy, children are not allowed to use cell phones at school and teachers are forbidden from talking about politics. There have been examples of transgressors being forced to attend trials led by the foundation, forced to leave the town, or gunned down and killed.
The town of Tejerías, also in Aragua, made headlines last February when authorities discovered it had become the final hiding place of Venezuela's most-wanted man, Carlos Luis Revette, alias "El Koki." The runaway gang leader had holed up in Tejerías with an ally of his, local gang leader Carlos Enrique Gómez, alias “Conejo." This did not last long. El Koki was soon hunted down and killed while Conejo went on the run.
This brought a lot of attention to the Conejo gang, a criminal group which, while powerful locally, had not shown ambitions of expanding beyond Tejerías. It didn't need to. The group's control there was virtually absolute.
Through its foundation, Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet), Conejo's gang distributed government-subsidized food bags and solidarity lunches to those in need. The role of the foundation in helping Conejo maintain his governance was confirmed by his girlfriend after she was detained by Venezuelan security forces in mid-February. She was photographed wearing a Pies Descalzos T-shirt and allegedly told authorities that the gang kept "weapons, money and drugs" in storage spaces belonging to the foundation, according to El Periodiquito, a local newspaper in Aragua.
Additionally, one resident of Tejerías, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, said the gang used sports and cultural activities organized by its foundation to try and recruit young people into the gang.
The R Organization
The R Organization (Organización R – OR) has become a real thorn in the side of the Venezuelan government. Part criminal group, part community organizers, the organization seeks to defend its control of illegal gold mining interests in the southern state of Bolívar, especially in the municipality of Tumeremo.
Its strategy is simple. It positions itself as securing the best interests of miners and nearby communities by standing up to the government and preventing it from taking over these illegal mining spots, according to InSight Crime investigations. A key tool to achieve this is its efficient community organization wing, the 3R Foundation
In 2021, one OR member interviewed by InSight Crime on condition of anonymity said that "everything the town needs, we make it appear through the foundation."
The 3R Foundation has run the gamut from food deliveries, soup kitchens and toys for children, in addition to organizing sporting events and activities for local youths. The foundation even built a school "from scratch" in January 2022, according to the 3R Twitter account.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of the 3R Foundation became even more important. It organized disinfection days in Tumeremo, in addition to carrying out health checks and vaccination days.
And while the OR has clashed with the Maduro government, the 3R Foundation has had some ties with the Movement for Peace and Life, a federal community development initiative. The Movement has opened sports venues and health programs in Tumeremo alongside 3R Foundation representatives.
The new year started with a bang in the town of Barrancas del Orinoco, in the northeastern state of Monagas. Unidentified gunmen attacked the town with assault weapons and grenades, running up against barricades installed by a local gang known as the Barrancas Syndicate (Sindicato de Barrancas). By February, the leaders of the Barrancas Syndicate were on the run.
The group's control of the town and important drug trafficking routes up this stretch of the Orinoco River appeared to have dissolved. But for two years prior, the Syndicate controlled much of daily life in the town through its Fundación Hermanos Álvarez Quirós.
Neighborhood residents told InSight Crime the foundation had helped the Syndicate gain local control by providing regular medicine and food to the elderly, children and others in need. It was all coordinated by the sister of the Syndicate's top leader, Glendys Álvarez, according to local interviews.