Bronze Smuggling Leaves Venezuela’s Cemeteries Without Headstones

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A recent investigation into the theft and smuggling of bronze in Venezuela has revealed the existence of an organized crime network, dismantling Venezuelan artistic heritage in order to send bronze contraband to Caribbean islands. Plaques identifying tombs in Venezuelan cemeteries as well as hundreds of bronze sculptures have disappeared in at least 12 states. An investigation carried out over two years by a team from Institutional Assets and Monuments of Venezuela (IAM Venezuela) determined that 6,812 pieces, equivalent to 297 tons of bronze, have been systematically stolen and sold to Colombia, the Caribbean and even Asia. According to this study, Venezuelan bronze trafficking represents profits of millions of dollars for the criminal groups involved. The illicit trafficking of bronze verified by IAM Venezuela showed that the west of the country is the most affected region, both due to being rich in monuments and located close to the Colombian border. “Those who traffic illicitly in metals prefer the bustling Colombian city of Cúcuta, where they sell a kilogram of molten bronze at around $6,” according to Anderson Jaimes, director of research at the San Cristóbal Museum in Táchira state. The work details that the criminals send the bronze from Venezuela to Colombia at the border, to the Dutch territories Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao from the state of Falcón, and to Trinidad and Tobago from the eastern and southern regions of Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago.

InSight Crime Analysis

Organized crime groups have regularly explored new criminal markets in Venezuela. The smuggling of bronze has consolidated itself into a transnational economy, which Venezuelan authorities have seemingly no interest in stopping. The researchers from IAM Venezuela, consulted by InSight Crime, do not rule out complicity from authorities in allowing the theft and looting of bronze from cemeteries and beyond, as well as its subsequent sale. One case, the theft of two bronze doors weighing around 1,000 kilograms from a bank in Zulia state, stood out to them as not having been doable without security agencies having allowed it.

SEE ALSO: 7 Reasons for Describing Venezuela as a ‘Mafia State’

Milagros González, one of the coordinators of the investigation, also warns that while their findings all indicated the involvement of organized mafia behind bronze theft, security agencies provided no official data for the report. “IAM Venezuela has documented bronze theft for the last two years, and has kept highly detailed records for the last year. We hope this research will help curb this crime…as it is destroying Venezuela’s symbols,” González explained to InSight Crime. Another IAM Venezuela investigator, journalist Nilda Silva, said that “the lack of a proper cultural protection policy has led to impunity.” “We have denounced the theft of plaques and busts in states such as Mérida and Barinas but there has never been any government action. The number of thefts has risen…but there are no open investigations, nor are there any detainees. Venezuela has become an open bronze mine,” she told InSight Crime. Bronze is only the latest product to be added to the long list of various items smuggled out of Venezuela by organized crime organizations acting with virtual impunity. It joins other merchandise such as gold, copper, coltan, fuel, cattle and weapons, which organized crime networks draw from Venezuelan territory and sell to Colombia, the Caribbean and abroad.

The Armed Groups Propping Up Venezuela’s Government

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Reports from Venezuela are shocking the world with images of “colectivos,” police and military using excessive force — even opening fire — on unarmed civilians attempting to bring humanitarian aid into the country through its borders with Colombia and Brazil. The latest incidents occurred on February 23 and left at least four dead and more than 285 injured. The alleged perpetrators belong to three main government-backed groups: – the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB); – the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) of the national police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana – PNB); – and what are known as “colectivos,” groups that supported former President Hugo Chávez that over the years have grown increasingly armed and prone to engage in criminal activities. The victims of the events on February 23 include several dozen people from the indigenous Pemón community who had to seek refuge in Brazil as well as journalists who were pursued, robbed and threatened by the armed groups. Mass media and civilian witnesses alike released video footage of men on motorcycles dressed in black and armed with long guns and 9mm pistols. They gathered in packs and clashed with demonstrators who rejected the government of Nicolás Maduro. The border cities of Ureña in the state of Táchira and Santa Elena de Uairén in Bolívar have also reported uniformed GNB soldiers driving tanks and military vehicles through town and shooting up homes and businesses in an effort to force suspected members of the anti-Maduro resistance out into the open to better confront them. Who are these groups? Why do they continue to so vehemently defend Maduro’s now rapidly failing regime? How strong is their loyalty to a government that has been rejected by over 50 nations and is reported to have links to organized crime? Are Maduro’s “armies” prepared to face a potential armed intervention in Venezuela? The following InSight Crime analysis will attempt to answer these questions.

Corrupt Military Leadership in the FANB

It is no secret that the Venezuelan National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana – FANB) are the Maduro government’s main prop, but just how strong is their support? And what is the basis for their loyalty? Militarism has characterized the past 20 years of Chavista rule in Venezuela. Both Chávez and Maduro have fanned the flames of the FANB’s loyalty by placing military officials in virtually all government institutions and militarizing public security forces. But they even went beyond those measures by granting the military new functions and — perhaps most importantly — new sources of income in their creation of financial institutions, mining companies and other structures for them to run.

SEE ALSO: Drug Trafficking Within the Venezuelan Regime: The ‘Cartel of the Suns’

But despite what the government’s creation of so many state-owned companies may imply, the Venezuelan military’s desire to maintain the status quo has more to do with lucrative businesses linked to organized crime, whose profits come from drug trafficking, illegal mining, smuggling, extortion and other illegal activities. The fact that military officials — many of whom hold leadership positions and simultaneously belong to the Cartel of the Suns criminal structure — have illegally amassed this kind of economic power is likely why they continue to support Maduro. The problem is that it is a major obstacle for a peaceful transition of power in the country. It is a different story for those lower in the hierarchy. While mid- to low-ranking officials and troops may participate in criminal activities and human rights violations, they do not have the power nor the income of their superiors and are often exposed to the country’s widespread lack of food and medicine. Amid the most recent wave of unrest, discontent within the military has come to the fore with a mutiny at a military base on January 21. Meanwhile, 411 members of the military have now deserted, seeking the amnesty self-declared interim President Juan Guaidó has offered them. It has been said that many of those who fled their military positions did so because they were forced to work with the colectivos. Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano estimates that the four arms of the FANB (army, national guard, air force and navy) currently number between 136,000 and 140,000 troops.

The FAES and the SEBIN: Police and Torturers

The FAES is an elite unit that Maduro created during the 2017 protests specifically to defend the Chavista revolution. Since then, it has morphed into little more than an extermination group, according to Venezuelan and international human rights organizations like PROVEA. The police unit has been involved in the alleged extrajudicial executions of more than 675 people from working-class neighborhoods, sometimes under accusations that they were criminals. The FAES now stands at approximately 1,600 strong, an Interior Ministry official told InSight Crime, and has worked to brutally oppress the newest wave of Venezuela’s anti-government protests since January. “This is one of the few police groups that could remain loyal to Maduro because they have been indoctrinated and have received special training to act according to political objectives. They were created to handle political situations like the one going on right now in Venezuela. They’re prepared to kill,” the official told InSight Crime from Caracas. He added that another reason why some of the FAES could remain loyal to Maduro is that many of them started out in the colectivos, groups that have always been sympathetic to the Chavez and Maduro governments and have become increasingly armed and violent. Maduro likely recruited so many FAES members from the colectivos for their callousness and bloodthirstiness, which has been confirmed by PNB and FAES officials who recently abandoned the police force as well as by colectivo leaders, all of whom spoke to InSight Crime from Venezuela. But the FAES’s ferocity may belie a general hum of discontent within many other branches of the PNB, including the national intelligence service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN) and the criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC). Officers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied due to the worsening humanitarian crisis but are not speaking up for fear of being labeled traitors and consequently persecuted, according to police officials who spoke to InSight Crime. Discontent in the SEBIN, however, became more apparent amid the contradicting orders regarding the January 13 arrest of Guaidó and the subsequent imprisonment of the 12 officers who carried it out. Unlike with the military, the current number of security forces in Venezuela is unknown.

Colectivos Terrorizing the Border

Colectivos have played a major role in this year’s newest bout of political tension. The groups rallied around Maduro as soon as he took office for his disputed second term. Now, they have begun to expand their presence to the country’s borders and give even stronger demonstrations of their support than before. As InSight Crime reported, government officials in Táchira state on the border with Colombia created a “border security colectivo” in 2018. And this one includes members of the ELN and the FARC dissidence. The group put on a show of force on January 23, when it opened fire to prevent humanitarian aid from being brought into Venezuela. They shot at journalists, volunteers and civilian members of the opposition in San Antonio del Táchira, on the Simón Bolívar International Bridge and in Santa Elena de Uairén.

SEE ALSO: The Devolution of State Power: The ‘Colectivos’

Moreover, Humberto Prado, director of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP), accused the Maduro government of releasing prison inmates to fill the colectivos’ ranks in their repression efforts. Not only have the colectivos been expanding their reach in Venezuela — they now have presence in 16 states — but they have also become almost unrecognizable from the groups that Chávez originally created. To stymie anti-Maduro sentiment, they now operate more like paramilitary shock troops of armed civilians and receive support from security forces. They participated in the government’s repression of the protests in 2014 and 2017 as well as in a government initiative called “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo – OLP), which has been tied to human rights abuses and criminal acts. Beyond their political oppression activities, the colectivos have gotten a foothold in Venezuela’s underworld, engaging in such criminal activities as extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder for hire. In general, the colectivos have supported Maduro as they did Chávez. In an effort to advocate for their survival, one member of a sort of colectivo federation called the Revolutionary Secretariat of Venezuela (Secretariado Revolucionario de Venezuela) told InSight Crime that “if something happens, we’ll have to go out and defend the government, because those who come will be coming for us.” But some are beginning to waver in their allegiance to the government because they have not been receiving the economic benefits they once did, and the country’s crisis has been affecting them. At the same time, they fear persecution should they abandon the government’s revolution. As a colectivo leader in the 23 de Enero neighborhood of Caracas put it, “everyone is afraid here, but the people have shown that they want change, and the same thing is happening with the social organizations … If something happens, most will run away. If something happens, only those willing to die will stay here.”

The FARC Dissidence and the ELN: Trained and Armed

With the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) in the middle of Venezuelan territory and dissident factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) regrouping at the border, Colombian guerrilla groups are contributing their fair share to the country’s organized crime activity and driving instability levels up. They now operate in 13 of Venezuela’s 24 states, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). During and after the peace process between Colombia and the FARC, several groups of guerrillas dissented and chose to continue trafficking drugs. Meanwhile, the ELN has continued to operate and is now Colombia’s number one enemy with the FARC demobilized. Both groups have been eying Venezuela as a means to shield themselves from the Colombian authorities in a country that has been generally tolerant and accommodating towards them for the past 20 years. Colombian guerrilla groups have even gone so far as to assume various state functions. The ELN now runs the country’s mining region. And while both they and area FARC dissidents had already established themselves along the border to control the drug trafficking routes between Colombia and Venezuela, this year’s unrest has seen them take their support of the current administration to another level. Case in point, ELN Central Command leader Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” told British newspaper The Telegraph that, in the event of military intervention in Venezuela, they “would be on the front lines and would not hesitate” to defend the Maduro government. It is unknown precisely how many people belong to the Colombian guerrilla groups operating in Venezuela and at the border, but ICG estimates an army of roughly 2,000 in the ELN alone. This makes the group’s formidable criminal allies of the Maduro regime should an armed confrontation occur. Photo Source: AP Images.

Op-Ed: Venezuela – Latin America’s Iraq?

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Is it just me or does Nicolas Maduro look a lot like Saddam Hussein? After US intervention in Iraq we saw a nation that descended into civil war, mass displacement and unimaginable suffering. Could Venezuela go the same way? First, let’s engage in a little positive thinking, a scenario where Maduro realizes that his position is untenable and calls for full and free elections for Venezuela to determine the future, allowing for national reconciliation and rebuilding to start. With such elections, sanctions are lifted, international aid and investment pours in, while Colombia and Venezuela restore full and fruitful diplomatic and trade relations. Many Venezuelans, driven from their homeland, return to rebuild their battered nation.

*This article was originally published by Semana and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

Now, let us move to the other end of the scale and look at some of the worst-case scenarios. Few serious analysts of the Venezuela situation believe that US military action in Venezuela would have anything other than negative effects. Venezuela is not Panama, and the successful 1989 US military action there cannot be replicated in Venezuela, a country more than 12 times as big, with a veritable plethora of armed and anti-American armed groups. For the last two decades, the Chavista propaganda machine has been churning out warnings that the ‘Yankees’, working with right-wing Venezuelan oligarchs, are planning military action to take over the country’s oil deposits. It would be a shame to finally prove them right.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

The Maduro regime is not without foreign allies, and US intervention could have international repercussions, including for Colombia. It could be the one thing that actually unites disparate Venezuelan elements under Maduro. Russia has also proven itself quite determined in standing by allies despite overwhelming odds, as in the case of Syria. China has financial interests in Venezuela of up to $60 billion. As always the international chess board has complex and competing players. There has already been political violence with hundreds of protestors killed. The risk of further political violence is very high. The Venezuelan armed forces long ago ceded the monopoly on the use of arms. Among a wide array of armed groups are prison gangs led by ‘pranes,’ ‘megabandas’ and ‘colectivos,’ while the militia, National Guard and Armed Forces have highly criminalized and corrupt elements prepared to use violence to achieve their ends and protect their interests. Add to these the presence of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), dissident elements of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and illegal groups like the Rastrojos. With five decades of insurgent experience and presence in up to half of Venezuela’s 24 states, the Colombian groups alone could make any invader bleed. The question is how many of the armed groups listed would be ready to either defend the Maduro regime to the bitter end, or engage in armed resistance against a new US-backed government. Some violence is almost inevitable and indeed the current levels of homicides in Venezuela already rival many nations engaged in civil conflict. Organized crime has penetrated the very highest echelons of the Maduro regime. This government has increasingly turned to illegal streams of income to feed its diminishing cash flow, gold, and cocaine among them. Unable to ransack state coffers, previously their principal criminal activity, the ruling ‘boligarchia’ have had to look at other illegal streams of income. Thanks to steady gold prices and record levels of cocaine production in Colombia, these are readily available.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?

The Maduro regime was struggling to pay its bills before the latest raft of sanctions on its oil industry hit. This strangling of funds to the current government, combined with international diplomatic pressure, will force its fall. It may take some time, but that may be what is needed to find a peaceful transition. Cracks are already showing and for all but the most diehard fanatics, there must be a dawning realization that that status quo cannot continue. The suffering of the Venezuelan people will continue in the meantime, but even if the best case scenario above comes to pass, Venezuela will take years to recover a position where the government is able to protect, educate and treat its citizens. A civil conflict must be avoided at all costs, and to do so, the organized crime interests currently propping up Maduro must be dealt with and neutralized.

*This article was originally published by Semana and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

Pacific Drug Routes From South America More Popular Than Atlantic

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With a well-known route through the Southern Cone decimated and authorities combing the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, drug traffickers are turning to the Pacific Ocean to ship their illicit wares to North America. According to Mexican government reports, between January 2018 and February 2019, the Mexican navy seized 10.7 metric tons of cocaine, almost two-thirds of the total seized in the previous six years. While there have been regular seizures on both coasts, the Pacific seems to be gaining in popularity among drug traffickers as they move their products north. Trafficking routes to Caribbean nations are still effective for reaching European and North American markets. However, the crisis in Venezuela is affecting its neighboring countries and could be placing the coasts and ports of South America’s northeast under the microscope, as well as any vessel departing from them.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Organized crime groups could be looking to the Pacific to avoid the noise in the Caribbean, even though moving operations to the west brings its own set of risks. Groups operating in Colombia, for example, have increased their illicit crop farming in the country’s coastal areas along the Pacific. Between 2014 and 2017, the departments of Cauca and Nariño tripled their number of coca crops. Such shifts have unleashed a domino effect on both national and international criminal structures as they maneuver to better position themselves.

InSight Crime Analysis

This shift in drug trafficking routes could be eliciting changes both in the modus operandi of organized crime groups throughout Latin America and in the amount of traffic on what can be called the Pacific drug trafficking highway. At the same time, anti-narcotics authorities are also stepping up their efforts in the northern regions of South America. Traffickers have taken to sending some of their shipments up the Pacific with escorts — often from the cartels they do business with — to protect them from “tumbadores,” people who rob drug traffickers of their goods. The escorts have even been used to distract authorities when they pursue illegal shipments. High-tech elements are also increasingly used along the Pacific route. Drug traffickers, for a few years, have relied on buoys with satellite location devices on them, which allows for more maneuverability. One group leaves the drugs out at sea with the buoy switched on, and the frequency is shared with their partners who can pick up the drugs at their convenience. This lessens the risk of a patrol stumbling unto them. And even if authorities develop successful countermeasures against the new strategies employed by drug traffickers, they still must contend with ongoing corruption. A long-time constant in the international trafficking landscape, corruption has facilitated maritime trafficking for years and is likely at least partly to blame for its 190 percent increase since 2014. International authorities are increasing efforts to monitor the Pacific and prevent the arrival of cocaine to northern shores. However, Central America continues to be a chink in the armor, not only due to its well-known struggles with corruption, but also because it lacks the resources necessary to keep up with new shipping methods. For now, only Mexico and the United States seem to be keeping up with the dynamic situation, but their efforts alone may not be enough.

Key Criminal Revelations From Former Venezuela Intelligence Chief

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The former head of Venezuela’s military intelligence service has revealed some key details that confirm longstanding links between several officials in the regime of President Nicolás Maduro with organized crime and terrorist groups. Speaking to The New York Times in a February 21 interview shortly after he endorsed Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, General Hugo Carvajal Barrios, alias “El Pollo,” provided the most important revelations by a former Maduro official to date. Carvajal, who is under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking links, is distancing himself from Maduro just as the Venezuelan government is undergoing one of its toughest challenges. Maduro has recently refused to let in foreign aid from Colombia and Brazil, and has denied that he will stand down despite growing international pressure and warnings of a potential military strike from Washington.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

Senior Venezuelan officials involved in these revelations include Interior and Justice Minister Néstor Reverol and former Vice President Tareck El Aissami, as well as drug dealer Walid Makled, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the terrorist group Hezbollah, and President Maduro himself. However, Carvajal did not reveal or elaborate on all the privileged information he may have gained about organized crime efforts entrenched within the Venezuelan state after spending more than a decade at the head of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence. InSight Crime has reviewed his claims below.

Drug Traffickers Within the Cabinet

“Drug trafficking and corruption were commonplace, managed by top figures such as Néstor Reverol,” said Carvajal, adding that the minister allowed planes carrying drugs to land in Venezuela when he was head of the National Anti-Drug Office (Oficina Nacional Antidrogas – ONA) in 2008. In December 2015, the United States indicted Reverol on drug trafficking charges. The next day, Maduro named him as minister. In July 2017, the US further accused Reverol of having drug trafficking links and included him on a list of 13 sanctioned officials. At the time, InSight Crime reported that Reverol was thought to have received bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for helping them ship cocaine to the United States. Reverol’s involvement in drug trafficking is not new as he (alongwith Carvajal, the man now blaming him) is part of the Cartel of the Suns, a shadowy drug trafficking network run within the ranks of the Venezuelan government and army.

Vice President and Hezbollah ‘Ambassador’

Carvajal also accused former Venezuela Vice President Tareck El Aissami of having significant links to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. He said that he accompanied El Aissami on a 2009 trip to Iran, which included a stop in Syria to invite Hezbollah militants to come and work with FARC fighters in Venezuela. A mere two days after having been named vice president in 2017, the US government sanctioned El Aissami for suspected drugs trafficking links. At the time, InSight Crime reported that El Aissami allegedly “received payment for the facilitation of drug shipments belonging to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled.” He was also linked to coordinating drug shipments for Mexico’s Zetas criminal group and providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” as well as Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco. El Aissami, who is currently Venezuela’s minister for industries and national production, has also been linked to granting Venezuelan passports to members of terrorist groups in the Middle East.

One-on-One with Walid Makled

Carvajal admitted that he carried out direct transactions with convicted drug trafficker Walid Makled. However, he claimed that he did so “for investigative purposes as head of the General Directorate of Military Intelligence.” In February 2015, Venezuela’s most prominent capo was sentenced to 14 years in prison on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. Before and during his capture in Colombia, Makled provided information on the Venezuelan government’s links with international drug trafficking organizations and the FARC rebels. He also said that he had financed one of the late Hugo Chávez’s presidential campaigns.

FARC Enclave

Regarding the presence and criminal activities of the FARC in Venezuela, Carvajal only admitted to having a personal meeting with leaders of the Colombian guerrilla group in order to free a Venezuelan businessman. Before the FARC’s demobilization, InSight Crime noted that Venezuela was a “vital base of operations” for the FARC as three of its seven blocs had a presence there. For the now-demobilized guerrilla group, the South American nation offered access to some of the region’s main drug trafficking corridors, and also served as a place to “escape pressure from Colombian security forces.” As for the former FARC rebels’ connection with the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government, the so-called “narco nephews” of President Nicolás Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores provided information of that link during their drug trafficking trial in the United States. The most recent showing of the criminal activities of former FARC fighters in Venezuela was a meeting between dissident FARC leaders and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) in Apure state along the border with Colombia.

Corrupt Businessmen

The former Venezuelan intelligence chief, who has emerged as a whistleblower that could help ignite a political change in Venezuela, turned against businessman Raúl Gorrín to showcase the corruption that has gained strength under the governments of former President Hugo Chávez and President Maduro. Gorrín is one of the most recent Venezuelans sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for his alleged participation in a corruption network that granted concessions that caused the state $2.4 billion in losses. Former Chávez administration National Treasurer Claudia Díaz Guillén allegedly participated in the scheme along with Alejandro Andrade, who was accused of laundering more than $1 billion and sentenced to 10 years in a US prison. The Globovisión television station owner is also named in the so-called Operation Money Flight case that uncovered $1.2 billion was embezzled from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and main revenue source, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). In this case, Maduro could be one of the beneficiaries of those funds. Additionally, Carvajal assured that Maduro ordered him to blackmail Gorrín, and that he offered him $10 million to ensure the government would not use evidence about the businessman’s alleged criminal activities. But Carvajal is not just an exceptional witness to organized crime in Venezuela. He is also considered to be part of the Cartel of the Suns and faces at least two trials in the United States for his alleged links with drug traffickers and guerrillas. It remains to be seen how these criminal proceedings will end up after he left the Maduro regime and expressed his willingness to cooperate with a new government in Venezuela.

Venezuela Mega-Gang Shatters ‘Pax Mafiosa’ by Murdering Rivals

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A dangerous mega-gang in Venezuela has massacred members of another alleged criminal group in retaliation for the murder of two soldiers. The application of this form of “justice” would spell an end to the “pax mafiosa” between certain criminal groups, controlling neighborhoods of Caracas, and the government of Nicolás Maduro. On the night of February 12, the mega-gang (referring to a criminal group with over 100 men) of Carlos Luis Revette, alias “Coqui,” murdered seven members of the less powerful gang of Elvis Eduardo Castro Troya, alias “El Culón.” These two groups are fighting for control of Cota 905, a populous neighborhood with high levels of violence, southwest of Caracas. The massacre occurred after members of the Castro Troya gang murdered two soldiers from the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) and the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar – DGCIM). The double homicide was considered as a breach of an unwritten criminal rule, which prohibits the killing of police or military officials in the area.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?

It is believed that Coqui — one of the most notorious criminals in Venezuela — acted to defend alleged peace agreements passed with members of the government, which allowed his mega-gang to operate in Cota 905, on the condition of not interfering with public officials. This territory had been declared a “Peace Zone” in 2015, as part of a security policy where government authorities reached agreements with criminals to reduce violence in exchange for territorial control. Although the pact was broken that same year due to the application of the Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo — OLP), an anti-crime policy that saw criminals exterminated in poor neighborhoods, it was re-activated in late 2017 for Cota 905.

InSight Crime Analysis

The massacre carried out in the Cota 905 neighborhood by a gang which has supposedly been targeted by the government since 2015 but conveniently never dismantled, fits in the “pax mafiosa” that has ruled in certain parts of Venezuela. In these areas, the state has completely delegated its power to criminal groups, such as the mega-gangs which impose their own rules in the territory they control.

SEE ALSO: ‘Mega-Gangs’: The Latest Criminal Collective in Venezuela

This meant that, after the two soldiers were killed, the state did not need to intervene or to prosecute those responsible in court. The Coqui mega-gang was simply sent in to replace the state to apply its own brand of “criminal justice.” Non-aggression pacts between security forces and the gangs have been promoted by the highest levels of the Venezuelan state. In 2013, the then deputy minister of public safety, José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, initiated these “negotiations” between the government of Venezuela and the mega-gangs. In August 2017, current vice-president and then president of the National Constituent Assembly, Delcy Rodríguez, visited Cota 905 with other officials and said “we are being careful for any kind of overreaching that could be carried out by state security bodies in Cota 905.” InSight Crime sources revealed that during Rodríguez’s visit, a meeting took place between officials and Coqui.  This laissez-faire by the Venezuelan government has directly led to the strengthening of the mega-gangs and the extension of their control over Cota 905 and other neighborhoods south of Caracas, turning these areas into so-called “corridors of death.” These gangs feel like they can act with impunity, as exemplified by a video of Coqui and his friends openly dancing at a party in their neighborhood.

Recent Arms Seizures Underscore Risks of Venezuela’s Political Tension

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Three recent seizures of military-grade weapons in Venezuela provide evidence that such arms are circulating and in demand precisely as Venezuela is suffering a violent political crisis. The first seizure of military weapons and equipment occurred at the Arturo Michelena International Airport in Valencia, the capital city of Carabobo state on the Caribbean coast. Ender Palencia Ortiz, who is deputy minister of Prevention and Citizen Security as well a general in the country’s national guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), reported that authorities seized 90 BT-150 radio antennas, 19 rifles, and six telephones labeled with military acronyms. Palencia Ortiz added that the weapons arrived in Venezuela on February 3, and that they came from Miami, Florida. Although no arrests were reported, the deputy minister made assurances that investigators would “find those responsible for financing terrorist groups that intend to undermine the peace of the Venezuelan people.”

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Govt Proposes Arming Civilians to Combat Crime

The second seizure occurred February 4 when the GNB detained one of its own sergeants, along with his wife and two daughters, ages four and seven, in the western state of Barinas. While the family was detained, the GNB seized seven light-weight automatic rifles that the sergeant allegedly intended to sell. Then on February 9, the GNB arrested two men at a checkpoint in Sucre state and seized four 7.62-caliber light-weight automatic rifles, 3,000 rounds, 24 magazines, 12 portable radios, and a cell phone. Additionally, in an unusual operation during the same week, the police’s scientific investigations unit dismantled a “laboratory” for military-grade ammunition in Carabobo state. Two men were arrested. The police report stated that the ammunition “was marketed and distributed to criminal gangs operating throughout the nation’s territory.” These weapons captures come amid considerable political tension between the government of President Nicolás Maduro and its opposition. While Maduro has warned of imminent military intervention “orchestrated” by the United States, the opposition, led by National Assembly president Juan Guaidó, is actively seeking the military’s support.

InSight Crime Analysis

The unchecked circulation of illegal weapons has become widespread in Venezuela in recent years. In 2012, the Presidential Commission for Arms and Ammunition Control and Disarmament estimated that there were between 1.2 and 1.5 million unregistered weapons in the hands of civilians nationwide. Some studies have found a relationship between Venezuela’s high homicide rate — 81 per 100,000 inhabitants — and the fact that 89 percent of homicides are committed with firearms.

SEE ALSO: Disarmament Law in Venezuela Yields Near Zero Results

It is common for criminal gangs to possess grenades and weapons of war, often stolen from military barracks. Some Venezuelan security experts estimate that 85 percent of the bullets the gangs use come from the country’s state-owned firearms manufacturer. And this information comes from an unpublished report conducted in 2015 by the government itself. But these weapons are not only in the hands of criminal groups. The governments of both late President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro have armed both the country’s “colectivos” — civilian paramilitary groups — and “milicias,”  groups of uniformed civilians who are receiving military training. Maduro appears to be preparing for an eventual conflict with the United States, ordering military exercises; sending 700 officers from the infamous Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) to the border with Colombia; mobilizing the National Bolivarian Militia and relying on groups of armed civilians to keep him in power. And he has stated clearly that he will use his weapons against a supposed foreign invasion. Disarming the civilian population has been an ongoing challenge for the Venezuelan government. Neither the country’s 2013 disarmament law nor the incentives promoted by the Maduro administration to strip criminal gangs of their arsenals have garnered results. Media investigations have already established the existence of a large black market for weapons in Venezuela. What’s more, security officials often are the source of such weapons, selling them even via social networking applications. What is most concerning about the three recent seizures, which captured at least 30 rifles, is that this high-powered weaponry is clearly available at a time when Venezuela’s long-simmering political tensions have reached a boiling point.

Guerrilla-Trained ‘Colectivo’ Threatens Humanitarian Aid to Venezuela

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A new pro-government Venezuelan militia or “colectivo” allegedly trained by Colombian rebels may have posted itself alongside security forces on the Venezuela-Colombia border. The colectivo’s appearance came at the same time as an announcement that humanitarian aid would be arriving to the region after requests by the country’s political opposition and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó. Venezuela currently faces devastating shortages of both medicine and food. Since February 3, Freddy Bernal — whom President Nicolás Maduro appointed as the “protector” of the border state of Táchira in 2017 — has led the deployment of Venezuelan security forces in the country’s border towns. The forces are made up of both the police and the military, namely the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) of the national police and the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana — FANB). The decision to shore up government forces along the Venezuela-Colombia border came amid Guaidó’s announcement that the opposition was stocking warehouses with food stuffs and other aid at a collection site in the Colombian city of Cúcuta. In videos posted on his Twitter account, Bernal echoed instructions handed down to him from Maduro himself. “To guarantee Peace we are implementing a perfect plan with our men and women from #Táchira, trusting in the #FANB and in our Patriotic Love,” he wrote in a message accompanying one of the videos he tweeted. Venezuelan soldiers have already started to block the aid deliveries. Sources in Táchira informed InSight Crime that the Maduro government’s plan along the border also included mobilizing the “border security colectivo.” The colectivo was first reported on in August 2018 and is said to include dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) as well as armed civilians.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Criminal Structures Bolster Maduro in Second Term

InSight Crime confirmed that approximately 70 alleged members of the border security colectivo roamed the streets during anti-Maduro protests in the Táchira towns of San Antonio and Ureña on January 23. Non-governmental organization Fundación Redes (FundaRedes) blamed the group for the deaths of two protesters that day.

InSight Crime Analysis

A pro-Maduro colectivo on the border could threaten humanitarian aid efforts in Venezuela, as many colectivos have been linked to criminal activities. Venezuela’s colectivos were originally created by former President Hugo Chávez to quell efforts against him. They are still active today, mostly in the capital city of Caracas. It is telling that military and police forces under the command of Freddy Bernal did nothing to deter the recent public shows of force by the border security colectivo as they cruised the streets on motorcycles dressed in black and outfitted with weapons, bulletproof vests and balaclavas. The inaction renews suspicions that government authorities not only tolerate but work in tandem with the groups, which are increasingly armed. Until now, the border security colectivo operated underground. The only evidence of the group’s presence in Táchira was the occasional instance of graffiti on city walls featuring the image of a man carrying a rifle and an inscription: “The colectivos are taking the border to defend the revolution.”

SEE ALSO: The Devolution of State Power: The ‘Colectivos’

But a witness told InSight Crime that “they came out on January 23 after the march at about five in the afternoon, to intimidate people and shoot up all of Ureña and San Antonio.” Meanwhile, military sources consulted by InSight Crime said that members of the border security colectivo may be receiving training from guerrilla groups. The training is said to have taken place in a camp in the village of Palotal within the municipality of Bolívar in Táchira. It is not surprising that the Maduro administration is deploying troops to the Venezuela-Colombia border at the same time that Venezuela’s opposition says its going to move aid through there. But the presence of a colectivo, which may have received training from rebel forces, could increase regional tensions.

Russian Mercenaries Providing Muscle for Venezuela’s Embattled Maduro

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The suspected arrival of around 100 Russian mercenaries in Venezuela to provide protection for Nicolas Maduro has set alarm bells ringing internationally while heightening the sense of insecurity surrounding the president and his entourage. Two groups arrived from Russia, one ahead of presidential elections in May 2018 and another in recent days, The Moscow Times reported. The arrivals were apparently spread out with the men arriving either in Venezuela or in neighboring countries in smaller pairings to avoid drawing attention. The arrival of these alleged mercenaries does not come by chance but at a moment when Maduro is facing arguably the toughest test to his rule yet. Opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, has named himself as interim president of Venezuela and has rejected Maduro as a fraud. This situation has divided the international community, with the likes of Russia and China sticking by Maduro while the United States, Canada and most of Latin America have recognized Guaidó.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

This international division has only strengthened Maduro’s resolve to stay in power at any cost. The United Nations has reported that over 40 people have been killed and more than 850 have been detained in the most recent round of protests. Guaidó’s family has allegedly received threats from security forces who entered their home. And at least 10 foreign journalists have been arrested and deported in the last week.

InSight Crime Analysis

This is not the first occasion that the Russian government or its envoys have sought to help Venezuela. According to sources close to InSight Crime, about 2,000 Russian nationals have been working inside the country for over a year, mostly in intelligence roles and reporting to Venezuela’s Minister of Defense, Vladimir Padrino. The physical weight lent by this newly arrived group adds to the work that has been carried out by Cuban and Venezuelan agents, loyal to the Maduro regime, for years. Russian government spokespersons have denied sending any physical security to Venezuela. And they denied that any “mercenaries” existed in Russia, stating that this profession would be considered a crime. However, international media suggest that the mercenaries work for Wagner, a Russian private military group, and have been tasked with protecting the Venezuelan leadership. Beyond mercenaries, other shows of strength by countries such as the United States have also raised fears that military intervention in Venezuela is a possibility.

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Venezuela has become the latest geopolitical battleground over which Russia and the US are sniping at each other. The Russian government spokesperson, Dimitry Peskov, said that a US military intervention in Venezuela would be “very dangerous and unacceptable.” Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, added that “Venezuela is friendly to us and is our strategic partner. We will stand…with this country in the defense of sovereignty, against the unacceptable violation of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.” This international Cold War-style posturing only complicates Venezuela’s situation while not helping bring the country’s political impasse any closer to a resolution. In the meantime, the criminal enterprises within the Venezuelan government continue to thrive.