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Why did Venezuela's Peace Zones Backfire So Badly?

EL KOKI / 25 JAN 2022 BY VENEZUELA INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EN

Venezuela’s Peace Zones were arguably some of the strongest evidence showcasing the odd, fluctuating relationship between organized crime and the government.

Designed in 2013 as a response to spiraling homicides and violence, the Peace Zones were supposed to suspend police operations and provide aid to gangs in violent neighborhoods, as long as these laid down their weapons, helped maintain peace and ceased any illegal activities. This came off the back of 19 security plans, which had tried and failed to curb murders across Venezuela.

The first peace zone was located in the state of Miranda, before others were created in Aragua, Guárico and Caracas.

This new pacifist approach didn’t work either. The lack of police intervention gave the gangs carte blanche to increase their criminal governance, dominate the local population, recruit more members and make their profits soar. Remarkably, the gangs managed to get away with crimes committed outside the Peace Zones since police chasing them would often turn back as soon as they got near the border. If security forces did venture inside the Peace Zones in search of suspects, they were frequently called back by their superiors.

In 2021, this policy was comprehensively abandoned when Carlos Luis Revete, alias “El Koki,” expanded from his home neighborhood of Cota 905 to take over the district of La Vega in Caracas. The regime responded swiftly and, after weeks of fighting, managed to push El Koki out of La Vega and his Cota 905 fortress.

Today, the gangs that thrived under the Peace Zones are now among the most dangerous in Venezuela, including Tren de Aragua, the Koki gang and the Carlos Capa gang.

Here, InSight Crime reviews the consequences of the Peace Zones that brought anything but peace.

SEE ALSO: General's Murder Hints at Complete Impunity for Venezuela Megabandas

Cota 905, Caracas

It was one of the most talked-about news events of early 2021. El Koki had left Cota 905.

Since August 2017, when Cota 905 was selected as the place to relaunch the Peace Zones initiative, its gang boss, Carlos Luis Revete, alias “El Koki," had maintained his sphere of control, mostly to his assigned neighborhood. True, he did not so much maintain peace in Cota 905 as turn it into Caracas's drug trafficking hub, with consumers driving in from across the city or his own envoys delivering packages to wealthier neighborhoods. The zone became his own fiefdom, in which he and his men could operate freely.

He allied himself with the Loco Leo gang which gave El Koki de facto control over the nearby districts of El Cementerio and El Valle. But he did largely do so without violently expanding into neighboring controls.

He appeared to have changed his mind in late 2020 when El Koki launched a takeover of La Vega, a vast community of 150,000 people. He may have hoped that the impunity granted him inside his Peace Zone would be automatically extended.

It was not and security forces fought back in La Vega and Cota 905 in early January 2021. At first, El Koki maintained control but fighting went on for months and caused dozens of deaths. In July 2021, he appears to have overstepped. After Loco Leo was injured in a police shootout, El Koki sent allies to open 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.

This triggered a large-scale armed response in both neighborhoods which ultimately El Koki and his allies driven out and Loco Leo was killed.

Reports have varied since, placing El Koki in Colombia, Peru or in other parts of Venezuela but, to date, he appears to still be at large. And according to interviews carried out by InSight Crime with Cota 905 residents, members of the Koki gang may be quietly returning to the area.

SEE ALSO: El Koki or Wilexis – Who Runs Caracas’ Most Powerful Drug Gang?

San Vicente and Las Tejerías, Aragua.

In Aragua, the communities selected for the peace zones included Las Tejerías and San Vicente. Of these, San Vicente was the first to fall under criminal control.

Located in the municipality of Girardot, San Vicente is the main base for Venezuela's principal homegrown criminal threat, Tren de Aragua. Starting during the Peace Zone period, the gang leader, Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero," began imposing his rules on San Vicente, a number of officials and residents living there confirmed to InSight Crime. The neighborhood is also home to Somos El Barrio JK, a foundation started by Tren de Aragua which it uses to access state resources for charitable purposes but which instead go to support the gang.

According to San Vicente residents, the foundation offers bags of food and supplies to locals but only if they meet certain conditions. These rules can seem arbitrary such as every house needing to have a light and a plant outside or the food is not received. Tren de Aragua members also decide minor details, such as the color of paint to be used on walls, or which ornaments can be used for Christmas decorations. Schoolchildren are also reportedly prohibited to bring cellphones into school. One resident, who lives in San Vicente, and wanted to remain anonymous, stated that rulebreakers were often forced to move away from the neighborhood.

Despite Tren de Aragua's governance over San Vicente, the regime seems uninterested in intervening. Mostly, because Tren de Aragua regularly targets opposition candidates, including stopping them from campaigning in San Vicente.

A similar agreement has likely resulted in the Conejo gang growing stronger in the former Peace Zone of Las Tejerías. The gang, led by Carlos Enrique Gómez Rodríguez, alias “Conejo," has been linked to drug trafficking, extortion and homicides. While it has on occasion clashed with security forces, the gang has grown in confidence in the past two years, forging links to El Koki in Cota 905 and making threats of broader violence.

Barlovento and Valles del Tuy, Miranda.

The state of Miranda, just to the east of Caracas, saw the start of the Peace Zones plan in 2013, in the communities of Valles del Tuy and Barlovento.

The initial agreement in Valles del Tuy was to essentially banish police from six municipalities that make up the region: Paz Castillo, Cristóbal Rojas, Simón Bolívar, Urdaneta, Tomás Lander and Guaicaipuro. The result was a mixed bag.

The full Peace Zone setup was only ever implemented in one part of the Tomás Lander municipality. However, a continued police presence did not prevent several gangs from dominating this part of Miranda. By far the strongest is the Carlos Capa gang, which has the membership, weaponry and local knowledge needed to resist repeated police interventions. Unusually for this list, the Carlos Capa gang maintains a rural power base in Valles del Tuy, also helping it to operate outside the reach of security forces, one police official in Miranda told InSight Crime.

In Barlovento, also in Miranda state, the Peace Zone was implemented in communities along Troncal 9, a major highway heading east from Caracas. This proved an unwise maneuver as an absence of police saw a number of gangs target passenger and cargo vehicles along this thoroughfare. Extortion attempts, kidnappings and homicides all rose.

One group that saw success there in recent years, known as the Eduardo Delicias gang, was weakened when its leader was killed in December 2021 after he murdered a high-ranking police official. Again, this shows that gangs can be targeted for retribution if they go too far in targeting security forces.

However, another group present in Barlovento, known as the 300, has gone from strength to strength. According to a report by El Pitazo, the gang now has an estimated 150 members and has close contacts with local security forces, guaranteeing their impunity.

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