For decades, the Meleán crime family was one of the most powerful criminal groups in Venezuela. Established by Antonio Jesús Meleán Vergel, alias “Antonito,” the clan controlled large swathes of the northwestern state of Zulia from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Under Antonito’s command, the Meleán built a diverse criminal profile that included car theft, robberies, and extortion of Zulia’s major businesses.
Following the murder of its patriarch in 2008, a new, more violent generation took over, and the group became embroiled in costly blood feuds. Over the years that followed, the group struggled to retain its position at the apex of an increasingly fragmented and chaotic underworld in Zulia, and much of the family left Venezuela. Today, the Meleán no longer exists as a criminal armed group, though some Meleán family members maintain criminal interests and sources in the region say they can still carry out operations through intact criminal networks.
The Meleán family was first linked to organized crime in 1976, when its dispute with another prominent rancher family – the Semprún Cedeños – turned violent, leaving at least 15 dead. the Meleán emerged victorious and began forging their criminal empire.
Over the next two decades, Antonito propelled his family to the top of Zulia’s criminal underworld through extortion. Under his leadership, the Meleán began charging vacunas, or extortion “vaccines” paid by businesses for protection under threat of violence.
As the criminal family grew into one of the most powerful armed groups in Zulia, it drew ever more attention, putting pressure on government forces to act. By the late 2000s, they could no longer ignore the Meleán, despite the gang infiltrating and buying off the police.
In October 2008, the assassination of student leader Julio Soto drew widespread condemnation, and Maracaibo’s then-mayor accused the Meleán of carrying out the attack. He urged authorities to investigate Antonito, whom he publicly labeled a “mafioso” and accused of various crimes both within Zulia and beyond.
But less than two months later, before authorities took any concrete action, Antonito was shot and killed outside a barber shop.
Antonito’s murder was a devastating blow to the Meleán, especially as it appears to have been an inside job. Antonito’s bodyguard and close confidant, Daniel “Danielito” Leal Prieto, allegedly carried out the hit on the orders of Antonito’s business partner, José Luis Leal Rangel. Danielito was arrested and, though he reportedly sought protection from then-mayor of the municipality of San Francisco Omar Prieto, was murdered in his prison cell at El Marite Penitentiary Center.
Though the Meleán survived Antonito’s death, they never fully recovered. After the attack, the gang fragmented, with those loyal to José Luis Leal Rangel forming their own group – the Leal – and starting a bloody rivalry.
After Antonito’s death, his son Tirso Antonio Meleán, alias “Tirsito,” took over operations. Under Tirsito, the group became more violent and reckless, even using social media to publicize their assassinations.
Tirsito’s reign coincided with a period of economic and social turmoil in Venezuela. The collapse of the oil industry drove up unemployment, transforming Zulia’s criminal landscape as gang recruitment surged and a more violent generation took the reins.
As the situation in Zulia deteriorated, members of the Meleán family began moving abroad to Colombia and the United States. In 2018, Texas authorities arrested Tirsito for arms trafficking. In 2021, he was deported back to Venezuela after he had completed his sentence.
With Tirsito in jail, his cousin, Bernardino Meleán Frontado, alias “Willy,” took over running the Meleán. His reign was short-lived, however, and Colombian authorities killed Willy in a shootout on November 7, 2020.
The Meleán’s structure crumbled after Willy’s death, but many in Zulia believe the family retains criminal interests and can use connections with other groups to carry out operations, even though it no longer has centralized command over armed members nor control of territory.
Leadership of the Meléan has always been based on family ties. Antonio Jesús Meleán Vergel, alias “Antonito,” was the clan’s patriarch and led their rise as a criminal organization. He developed a reputation as a “gentleman mafioso” – one who demanded loyalty and silence from his organization’s members but also practiced restraint.
Under his command, the Meleán only extorted the largest businesses and landowners. It also refrained from violence against civilians, especially women and children, who were considered untouchable under Antonito’s leadership. Moreover, Antonito served as a mediator between gangs, working to settle complaints and avoid violent clashes.
After Antonito’s murder in 2008, his son, Tirsito, took over, ushering in a less restrained generation. Tirsito maintained control of the group until his 2018 arrest in the United States, leading to the brief reign of Willy Meléan, which was brought to a bloody end by Colombian police in 2020.
Today, it is unclear who controls what remains of the Meleán family’s operations and interests. According to one former high-ranking security official with experience confronting the group, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, Tirsito continues to coordinate the Meleán family’s operations from within prison.
It’s likely that the Meleán first started operating in Antonito’s home municipality of Santa Rita, in the Venezuelan state of Zulia. Publicly though, the gang became known while fighting for control of Colón Municipality, which lies on the other side of the state at the southern coast of Lake Maracaibo.
As the family gained power, it spread throughout Zulia, establishing a presence in Cabimas, Maracaibo, Miranda, La Cañada de Urdaneta, and other municipalities.
Under Willy’s leadership, the Meleán attempted to make inroads into Colombia. They carried out assassinations and tried to set up criminal operations in the departments of Cundinamarca, Magdalena, Guajira, and Santander, according to Venezuelan authorities and Colombian military intelligence documents cited in national news media.
However, there is no evidence that the group is a significant player in these areas today, suggesting that they failed to put down roots in an already saturated criminal market.
Today, the Meleán control no territory, but sources in Zulia say that the group benefits from continued influence within security forces and contracts local gangs to carry out operations.
Allies and Enemies
The Meleán’s most infamous rivalry was with the splinter group the Leal – whose leadership orchestrated the death of Antonito before forming their own gang.
Throughout the early 2010s, Zulia was marked by violent clashes between the two groups. In 2013, Zulian police told local news media that the Leal-Meleán rivalry was responsible for the majority of the state’s homicides. Since then, however, both groups have faded into the background.
Today, one of the most powerful criminals with links to the Meleán is Erick Alberto Parra Mendoza, alias “Yeico Masacre,” who allegedly worked as a contract killer for Tirsito until the the Meleán leader’s arrest.
But since then, the relationship seems to have soured, with Colombian news media reporting that Masacre tried and failed to take control of the gang in the wake of Tirsito’s arrest. In 2020, armed men claiming to be members of Yeico Masacre’s gang posted a video threatening Willy and anyone associated with him.
The Meleán family began losing much of its structure after Antonito’s death. Following the arrest or death of many of his descendants, the group has ceased operating as a traditional mafia.
Zulia, meanwhile, has changed dramatically since the peak of the Meleán’s power. The state’s criminal landscape is more violent, and the large, powerful, but orderly gangs of the past are gone, replaced by many small, chaotically violent groups competing for a share of the extortion market.
As such, though the Meleán name continues to carry weight in Zulia, they are unlikely to make a full comeback in the state’s harsher criminal environment.