For more than 40 years, the Meleán gang has ranked among the leading criminal groups within the criminal landscape of Zulia, a state in western Venezuela.
The group’s criminal heyday was presided over by its long-time leader, Antonio Meleán, who fronted as a successful businessman for several decades in order to cover up the group’s clandestine business dealings.
After his death in 2008, the criminal hegemony that characterized the group for many years was disputed by several local gangs looking for criminal revenue streams in the region. In some cases, the sheer magnitude of these violent disputes has reached such an extent, that neighboring Colombia is starting to feel the side effects.
Reminiscent of the Sicilian Mafia, the Meleán built a criminal enterprise in the state of Zulia, with family roots that have remained in force for more than four decades. Homicides, revenge, corruption and illicit business dealings, are just a few examples on a long list of events that marked the before and after of organized crime in western Venezuela.
The group's criminal prestige is rooted in the “Santa Barbara Massacre” of the 1970s in Zulia. The murder of Rodolfo Meleán, the brother of Jesús “Chucho” Hernández Meleán, a well-known rancher from Santa Barbará, located in the municipality of Colón, marked the beginning of a family rivalry and vendettas between the Meleán and the Semprún Cedeño family.
The Meleán managed to take ownership of various territories and resources, which gave rise to the consolidation of a criminal structure responsible for numerous cases of extortion and murder across Zulia. Behind this criminal ascent was Antonio Jesús Meleán Vergel, also known as “Antonito” or “El Viejo,” an agricultural producer who became untouchable because of his close relationships with important political figures. His power was such that, in the 1980s and 90s, the governors and local officials needed his approval in order to carry out certain police operations.
Antonio Meleán’s life came to an end in 2008. On December 27 of that year, a day after his birthday, a group of hitmen confronted him in front of a barber’s shop. The local authorities and the Meleán blamed Daniel David Leal Prieto, alias “Danielito,” who was his bodyguard and who Antonito was close to.
The death of the leader of the Meleán represented the emergence of a new organization led by Antonito’s former business partner, José Luis Leal Rangel. Leal decided to articulate a new criminal structure under his command and challenged the Melean's power in Zulia. This led to a wave of violence in the municipalities of La Cañada de Urdaneta, Santa Rita, Cabimas, San Francisco and Maracaibo, located in the area surrounding Maracaibo Lake, which continues to this day and has weakened the Meleán considerably.
After Antonito's death, Nelson, his younger brother, would head the Meleán clan’s business operations. However, his leadership was complicated by an intense confrontation with José Luis Leal, who managed to track him down and kill him in March 2012 in the Colombian city of Santa Marta.
Nelson Melean’s murder in Colombia, paved the way for a new generation to take the helm of the family mafia. Tirso Antonio Meleán Castellanos, alias “Tirsito,” Antonito’s son, was chosen as the heir to take the reigns of what was Zulia’s most-well known criminal clan at the time. His assumption of power represented a substantial shift in the Meleán’s criminal legacy, in which it needs to fight for its survival.
The bulk of the clan’s structure lost men in its dispute with the Leal, leading to the arrival of new lieutenants that were not part of the immediate family, but that would serve as key pieces in ensuring the strength of the organization. The story of Helí Heberto Fernández Chamut, alias “El Chamut,” a former member of Zulia’s regional police force, is among the most memorable. Fernández joined the ranks of the Meleán as the head of the clan’s hitmen.
Subsequently, his brother, Bernardino Meleán Frontado, known as “Willy Meleán,” assumed leadership. “Willy Meleán” had led the group's operations on the East Coast of Lake Maracaibo for a period of time and had gained popularity by using social media to intimidate his victims and adversaries. Nevertheless, Willy Meleán was shot dead by Colombian authorities on November 6, 2020 in the municipality of Sabana Torres, in the department of Santander.
The head of the Meleán clan during the 1980s and the first decade of the 21st century was Antonito Meleán, who was largely responsible for the infamous status given to the family’s surname and the clan’s reputation in Venezuela. His death not only represented the organization’s most significant loss, but it has also brought about a generational change in which the clan does not enjoy the criminal supremacy of the previous generation.
After the death of their father, Tirso Meleán and his brother, Willy Meleán, assumed leadership of the criminal organization. However, Tirsito has been jailed in the United States since 2018 and Willy was killed by authorities in Colombia in 2020.
The current leader of the organization is Jefferson José Nava Jiménez, known as “Y. Nava” or “Jet Nava,” a former lieutenant of Willy Meleán. He served as a hitman in the past under Albis Saúl Cepeda Casanova, alias “El Puchungo,” a former hitman for the Meleán. Jet Nava frequently appears on social media, showing off his weapons and money, and is now the man at the top of the organization’s pyramid structure.
Zulia state is the flagship territory where the Meleán have historically operated and where its reputation has transcended time. The beginnings of this organization are related to a family dispute in Santa Bárbara, in the Colón municipality, where the Meleán exercised control for several years. Nevertheless, their territorial hegemony was truncated by the expropriation policies of former president Hugo Chávez Frías, which forced them to move their center of operations to another part of the state.
Over time, the municipality of Santa Rita, located along the eastern coast of the Maracaibo Lake (Costa Oriental de Lago de Maracaibo - COL), consolidated as an operational stronghold. The Meleán also have a presence within this same region in the municipalities of Miranda, Cabimas and Simón Bolívar. Additionally, there are important armed cells operating in the capital, Maracaibo, and in the municipality bordering Colombia, Jesús Enrique Lossada.
The clan’s presence within the border region, guarantees the group the use of illegal corridors that not only serve for the movement of group members, but also for criminal activities on Colombian soil. Colombian authorities have identified criminal activities attributed to the organization in several parts of the country, including Bogotá, Ibagué, Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Cartagena, where the presence of the Meleán is linked to extortion, vendettas, prostitution and microtrafficking.
Allies and Enemies
The balance between alliances and blood feuds maintained by the Meleán over the course of the past few decades leans more towards rivalries than alliances.
The group has maintained its greatest number of feuds with the Leal megabanda against whom they are currently disputing control of revenue streams and strategic areas within several municipalities located in the area surrounding Lake Maracaibo.
Evidence of this rivalry is the ongoing conflict with Erick Alberto Parra Mendoza, alias "Yeico Masacre," an ally of the Leal with a presence in the municipalities of Santa Rita and Cabimas. Said rivalry has expanded into several territories within Colombia, including Barranquilla, Ibagué, Santa Marta and Bogotá, where authorities have reported at least 12 armed clashes between the two groups.
Additionally, local and national authorities have become enemies of the Meleán. Omar Prieto, elected governor of Zulia state in 2017, has employed the help of regional security forces to directly pursue members of the organization, in a scenario that has directly involved Prieto and the Leal.
The Tren del Norte gang is also considered to be one of the Meleán’s criminal rivals. The 2020 murder of Hugo Enrique González Rico, alias Kike, the third leader of the Tren del Norte, in Puerto Colombia, Barranquilla, was the result of an attack orchestrated by the Meleán. Both organizations have been linked to the control of micro-trafficking plazas in Colombia and Venezuela.
The group’s ability to maneuver between the worlds of legality and illegality, which guaranteed the group favorability with local authorities for several decades, was one of the main characteristics of the Meleán family clan under the leadership of Antonito.
However, since his death, this relationship has been turned on its head and the clan has become a primary security objective for local authorities.
While the scenario facing the Meleán is not the most favorable, it is important to remember that the infamous surname and the group’s criminal reputation continues to inflict fear and anxiety among residents of western Venezuela. The extortions, robberies and targeting killings in a large part of the area along the eastern coast of Maracaibo Lake depend on the signoff of the criminal organization, which has endured for several decades in Venezuela.
As the gang was amid a leadership reshuffle following the assassination of Willy Meleán en Colombia, Tirso Meleán was deported to Venezuela in August 2021 after completing his sentence in the United States. While Tirso must still answer to criminal charges in Venezuela, the country's track record on corruption and impunity may allow him to return to his former leadership position within the Meleán.
However, the criminal scenario awaiting Tirso in Zulia is very different from when he left three years ago. Having been weakened by the losses of several leaders, the Meleán are not in the dominant position they once held in the state.