Criminal Gangs Find Shelter in Venezuelan “Peace Zones”
EspañolA massacre on April 26 at a party in the Lomas de Guadalupe II urban complex in the city of Ocumare del Tuy, one hour away from Caracas, could have been dismissed as another grisly symptom of the widespread crime ravaging the entire country. Yet this multiple homicide took place in a huge apartment block built by state housing program Misión Vivienda, located within a so-called peace zone — highlighting the ugly truth of how the Venezuelan government is using criminal groups to terrorize residents of these areas.
The 10 victims, six of them from the same family, were separated from the rest of the party attendees and massacred without mercy, in a hail of bullets that lasted for 20 minutes. The complex, which housed 60 families, remained practically empty after the shooting, as residents fled in fear of the criminal bands operating in the area.
The following day, a soldier of the Bolivarian National Guard was killed in a grenade explosion while searching another Misión Vivienda housing complex, known as Betania II, to try and find those responsible for the massacre.
“Criminal Training Camps”
In September, the government of President Nicolás Maduro began to install its now-notorious peace zones in the neighborhoods with the highest crime rates in Miranda State, central Venezuela, as part of its “Movement for Peace and Life.” The authorities’ stated aim was to demobilize the criminal groups of the area, incorporating them into society through community work and voluntary disarmament.
The government has since backtracked, trying now to claim that the zones never existed. Yet during the last 18 months, Vice Minister for Interior Policy and Security José Vicente Rangel Ávalos has spoken on repeated occasions about the supposed work that his department is carrying out in these areas.
A report published at the end of 2014 by the National Guard’s Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Group warned that peace zones in the Barlovento area, Miranda State, had become “criminal training camps” due to the constant restrictions imposed on state security services from carrying out investigations in these areas, nominally under the control of the Interior Relations Ministry.
The report indicated that at least six criminal groups were dedicated to extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and contract killing in this area, under 100 kilometers from the Venezuelan capital.
The Scientific Criminal Investigations Body (CICPC), Venezuela’s principal crime investigations unit, also received direct orders to not carry out operations in peace zones. A communique issued to officers instructs them to report any irregularity in the protected areas to their superiors.
These instructions followed the events of January 2014, when a group of criminals know as Los Orejones seized the town of Ocumare del Tuy and threatened to attack its CICPC headquarters, after three of the gang’s members were hurt during a raid by the unit. The group closed off the entry to the town, menaced the residents of the area with high-caliber weapons, took children out of school, and threatened to attack the security forces.
“This is getting worse and worse; the methods that the government is using to control the criminals are nothing but a smokescreen, because underneath they’re supporting crime. The peace zones are genuine refuges for wrongdoers, and have only served to increase crime,” says Father Alejandro Moreno, a psychologist with over 30 years experience working in the barrios of Caracas.
“All of the police officers in these areas and the people who live here can testify to this. It’s proof of the protection of crime by the state,” Moreno adds.
The principle behind the peace zones, the doctor in social sciences explains, was to avoid confrontations behind criminal gangs, a pact of non-aggression designed to reduce the number of homicides in an area.
However, in prohibiting police units from operating in these areas, the criminal groups stopped fighting among one another but continued to sow terror among their communities.
“The government thought by talking of love and peace they were going to pacify the violence? What they did was to create spaces to support more criminals. These peace zones are nothing more than a refuge for criminals without any access to the police,” argues Javier Gorriño, a former official with the now-defunct Technical Judicial Police.
Both Gorriño and other experts have suggested that the government uses criminal groups to prevent the population from protesting. Jesús Torrealba, secretary of the the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable, argues that “the collectives [pro-government paramilitary groups] support the government when they’re called up, and when they’re off duty, they rob and kill the population with the weapons the government gave them.”
Paying to Breathe
The wave of violence seen in peace zones is regularly replicated within Misión Vivienda locales. The lack of effective control and supervision within these communities has led to the proliferation of an identical structure to that which dominates Venezuelan prisons, where a pran (gang leader) installs themselves, backed up by an armed group, and controls the inhabitants of the buildings.
“The criminal structure of the jails is passing to society. It all seems to be a government plan, where they’re giving power to these prans, who are normally linked in some way to the government, so they control the people. They’re doing nothing to eliminate them: instead, they’re organizing them,” Moreno laments.
It’s no coincidence that in October 2014, government congressman Robert Serra met his brutal end in a Misión Vivienda urban complex in western Caracas, killed by his own bodyguard Edwin Torres, contracted by a criminal group.
In these very buildings (with some 500 apartments in each, in the biggest complexes in Caracas), known as Rodeo I and Rodeo II in allusion to two prisons in Miranda State, multiple homicides, kidnappings, raids, and armed confrontations took place between the gangs operating within them throughout 2013.
According to Venezuelan daily El Nacional, during the first four months of 2015 alone, 19 homicides have occurred in multiple Misión Vivienda complexes in the Caracas Metropolitan Area. Such happenings have become commonplace in the monolithic tower blocks built under Maduro and the late Hugo Chávez, where homicides, drug trafficking, and battles for the control of apartments have become everyday affairs for the residents.
“There was no kind of control over the people that were going to live in these apartments. They handed them to anyone, and little by little they filled up with criminals. Here, in Misión Vivienda, there are people who aren’t happy with this, who are completely controlled by the gangs, that have to pay them for security: the same as in the prisons of the country, where prisoners have to pay to keep breathing,” Gorriño explains.
The expert indicates that a prohibition on police entering the government-built complexes is similar to the pact that the Ministry of Penitentiary Services maintains with the pranes that run Venezuela’s jails.
“As long as they maintain ‘the peace’ within the jails, no one admits that the pranes exist. The same happens in Misión Vivienda, while these hooligans are in charge of keeping the people under control, no authority is going to enter these buildings to look for them,” he complains.
In the wake of the grisly multiple homicide at Ocumare del Tuy, Maduro gave the order to “take out from the apartments of the Misión Vivienda complexes all those people who are implicated in the commission of any crime.” As yet, no police units are to enter any building, and the criminals likely remain within.