In December 2021, residents of Tejerías, a small city in the northern state of Aragua, Venezuela, began noticing a series of strange events. A gang began organizing wild parties in public squares, but those attending were not locals. They spoke in Caracas accents and wore fancy clothes.
Despite the revelry, armed guards were in plain sight. The atmosphere was tense.
The reason for all this became clear two months later. In February, security forces raided the town, hunting the most wanted criminal in Venezuela. They finally got their man, killing Carlos Luis Revette, alias "El Koki."
El Koki's death put an end to one of the greatest manhunts in recent years, one that began in 2015 with police taking over Cota 905, a sprawling slum neighborhood in Caracas that Koki and his gang had turned into a criminal stronghold.
He held out there for years, brokering a deal with the government that made Cota 905 a Peace Zone in which security officials and soldiers could not enter. He used those quiet years to spread his control of drug trafficking in the capital, connecting with other gangs to secure a regular supply of drugs and either selling it to people inside Cota 905 or dispatching his men to deliver it to the rest of the city.
But after an overly confident invasion of another neighborhood in early 2021 and shooting up Caracas' main police headquarters, he was on the run. Purported sightings and reports of El Koki came in from seemingly everywhere, from Colombia to Peru. As it turned out, he was hiding just two hours from Caracas, under the protection of a local gang boss: Carlos Enrique Gómez Rodríguez, alias "Conejo," (Rabbit).
Before Koki's death, few knew of Conejo, who did not have the same level of infamy. But he was far from an average criminal.
For five years, he has ruled Tejerías, the capital of the Santos Michelena municipality, with an iron fist. Tejerías is a strategic area for drug trafficking due to its location and because it is home to Venezuela's third most important industrial zone, as highlighted by Crónica Uno.
Conejo's reasons for sheltering El Koki are unknown. But doing so has come at a price. Since El Koki died, Conejo has risen rapidly up Venezuela's list of priority targets.
Residents of Tejerías have known Conejo since he was a boy, as he was born in the area. For a while, he vanished, and the rumor was that he had been jailed.
But five years ago, after police took down the gang that previously ruled the area, he took over.
Conejo might have initially seemed small-time, only being dedicated to extorting small businesses and companies in Tejerías' industrial zone. But he has undoubtedly gathered influence and spread fear. In 2019, a factory belonging to Galletería Puig, a famous biscuit company, was burned to the ground by Conejo after they refused to pay, according to investigations by the country's forensic criminal entity (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas - CICPC).
Conejo has also sought to firm up his control of local society. It appears Conejo was once allied with Venezuela's largest homegrown criminal gang, Tren de Aragua, before breaking off from them. Yet he learned some valuable lessons. Tren de Aragua has created the Somos El Barrio JK Foundation to act as a pseudo-charitable wing, providing food and essentials to the poor and carrying out activities for children. Conejo has done this too, with his foundation named "Pies Descalzos" (Bare Feet).
Through his foundation, Conejo distributes bags of food from the government's Local Storage and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento Producción - CLAP) and provides medicine and organizes community meals for those in need. According to local residents, Conejo also carries out activities with children and teenagers, but allegedly uses these to convince them to join the gang.
Numerous locals interviewed by InSight Crime agreed that Conejo makes the rules in Tejerías. Any man found guilty of domestic violence could be beaten or killed. Robberies are reportedly low. Each house is required to have a light outside to illuminate the street, bushes must be kept trimmed, and the front of each residence must be painted. For those who disobey, "they knock on the door at 2 a.m. and beat them up," one local told InSight Crime.
However, Conejo's ambition has gone further. Two Tejerías residents told InSight Crime that gang members went house to house and demanded residents vote for the local mayor, Pedro Hernández, who was re-elected in November 2021. One of the interviewees, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out that each house the gang visited had a red sticker placed on its wall.
After Koki's death, information circulated of an arrest warrant had been issued against Hernández for his ties to the gang. However, it is uncertain if there is an ongoing investigation into the mayor and InSight Crime could not corroborate the link between the politician and Conejo. Hernández has categorically denied any such connection.
Conejo's father, however, was re-elected as a councilor of Santos Michelena, which was among the ten most violent municipalities in the country in 2021, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
Run, Rabbit, Run
These reported political connections may have helped Conejo keep out of trouble with authorities. But his friendship with El Koki may prove to be his undoing. On February 6, a clash between authorities and members of the Koki and Conejo gangs first revealed that El Koki had not fled as far as previously believed. El Koki fled into a mountainous area outside Tejerías, sparking a manhunt. Two days later, he was run down and killed by Venezuela’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC). Conejo was even erroneously reported as having been killed in the same operation.
To mark El Koki's death, Conejo and another of Venezuela's most-wanted gang leaders, Wilexis, led allegedly coordinated actions on February 18. In the mountains near Tejerías, around 40 members of Conejo's gang fired their guns into the air as a sign of respect, according to one Venezuelan journalist.
Since then, Conejo has reportedly not been seen around Tejerías. Police have arrested seven alleged members of his gang, as well as his girlfriend, who provided details on how the organization operates.
Given El Koki's example, his time may be running out.