In this second article, Venezuelan journalist Javier Mayorca examines the evolution of organized crime in Venezuela, from the first manifestations of official corruption and contraband during colonial times and the influence of Italian groups, to when criminal organizations reached their peak after Hugo Chávez took power. This analysis also looks at the role of Colombian groups and the violent mutation of crime in Venezuela under current President Nicolás Maduro.
In 2015, the Venezuelan Observatory of Organized Crime warned the country had entered a new stage in the development of criminal activity, with the emergence of so-called “Mega-gangs.” These groups, owing to their number of members, variety of illegal activities, and geographical dispersion, marked a difference in what had been seen before.
This article is the second in a series of two by Javier Mayorca exploring the evolution of organized crime in Venezuela. Read part one here.
These structures — which do have comparisons elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere — respond to particular historical, political, economic, and legal conditions that give them specific characteristics. From this peculiarity, the mega-gangs have formed alliances with similar groups that migrated from Colombia, and they have formed national cells of the Rastrojos and Urabeños. This also happened previously, with the so-called Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles). In Apure state, the Bolivarian Liberation Forces have evolved from a group of cattle rustlers and kidnappers — who burst onto the national scene during 1990s — to build a political base, which has allowed them to form alliances with municipal authorities throughout the state.
How did organized crime reach this level of development in Venezuela?
New Alliances, Old Problems
Venezuela’s attractiveness for transnational organized crime increased in 1999 when the National Constituent Assembly, convened by Chávez, approved the ban on extraditing nationals. The proposal of attorney Hermánn Escarrá protected both born and nationalized Venezuelans, and was received by the other constituent participants without further discussion. In all subsequent cases of major criminal detainees in the country who had international arrest warrants, it was determined they had Venezuelan identification.
Chávez began processes of formal rapprochement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) regarding the kidnapping of a young Venezuelan in 1999. The mission was entrusted to retired captain Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, who was later twice appointed as Minister of the Interior (MRI).[i]
In 2007, the president formalized the role of “liaison” with the FARC, the largest Colombian guerrilla group, on the eve of the release of Consuelo González, Clara Rojas, and her son Emmanuel. Rojas was kidnapped in 2002 during the campaign of then Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.[ii] Rodríguez Chacín, who is on the Clinton List of major drug traffickers, is currently governor of Guárico state.
Since the beginning of the Chavista regime relations with the FARC have been fluid and at various levels. On the one hand there was a public link, with, for example, territory being offered where supposed peace negotiations could be discussed. Meetings between the Venezuelan government and members of the FARC central command, known as the Secretariat, occurred regularly. The Venezuelan government also sponsored public events for organizations linked to the guerrilla group, such as the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar.[iii]
On the other hand, there was a movement of drugs and weapons through the country that benefited the guerrillas. This was denounced in reports by the US Treasury Department. Documents found after the death of Luis Devia, alias “Raúl Reyes,” confirmed that assessment.[iv]
The Evolution of the Criminal Panorama
The guerrillas also carried out kidnappings of high profile figures (bankers and ranchers), and the ransoms brought in millions in foreign currency. In the last known case the victim was vice president of financial group Germán García Velutini. The victim’s capture was allegedly carried out with the cooperation of members of the Venezuelan military.[v]
Simultaneously, settling in the country were members of organizations that were apparent FARC rivals, such as the Rastrojos, Urabeños, and traffickers that became independent with the diaspora of the Norte del Valle Cartel.
Their main allies were (and are) active and retired members of the military, as well as members of police forces. In principle, Venezuelans were serving as “regulators.” That is, they determined what activities could take place in the country prior to payment, and which could not. But, since 2007, they had been directly involved in the transportation of bulk drug shipments.
In Venezuela, as happened before the arrival of Chávez, negotiations between drug suppliers, brokers, and those who receive shipments at destination points were also being conducted. Former Italian prosecutor Francesco Forgione documented the transfer to Venezuela of representatives from the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra, and the Calabrian mafia (‘Ndrangheta).[vi] In other words, the active presence of transnational criminal groups in the country became diversified, a result of the perception they could operate with relative impunity.
After the extradition ban, the Venezuelan government made several decisions that helped make the country an ideal territory for foreign criminals. In 1999, reconnaisance flights to detect illicit crops were banned. In 2005, Chávez ordered the cessation of cooperation agreements with the US State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affiars (INL), which had as an immediate consequence the expulsion of representatives from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). And, in 2008, he threatened to remove Venezuela from the international police system (Interpol), although this did not materialize.
These decisions were justified by a rhetoric of protecting national sovereignty. But, in practice, the effect was that the country’s security became compromised more easily by certain groups considered allies of the regime.
Chávez knew the armed forces were displeased with the warming of relations with subversives, whom they attributed as responsible for the majority of service deaths of soldiers and officers. In his eyes, the possibility of betrayal was confirmed in April 2002 when senior commanders ordered their troops to withdraw and not interfere with mass demonstrations demanding his resignation, in clear contempt of an order given by him directly.
The Chavista Legacy and The Emergence of Los Colectivos
After that experience, the president ordered all available resources into the creation, and in other cases the consolidation, of small armed groups known as “colectivos,” whose activities had until then been restricted to 23 de Enero (January 23) neighbourhood of Caracas, in Libertador municipality. The collectives replaced the so-called “Bolivarian circles” and were entrusted with the armed defense of the political process. Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, would be one of the beneficiaries of this process beginning in January 2014. After a televised order, these groups moved against protesters in major cities that were demanding Maduro’s resignation. The official death toll of these confrontations was 43, including Juan Montoya, the head of the colectivos secretariat in Caracas, presumably at the hands of his peers.
Official support multiplied the number of armed groups emerging throughout the country. In 2014, the Ministry of Internal Affairs censused more than 90 groups of this kind in the Capital District during an ambiguous disarmament initiative.
The groups, however, are generally are not considered criminal gangs, although some of them are known more for extortion and drug trafficking than for defending the regime. Along with them, a new type of grouping has emerged: the “mega-gang.” These are distinct in that they have no political purpose. They are criminal structures through and through.
The first major mega-gang in Venezuela has been operating for about four years in the territories of Aragua and Guárico. Its leader, José Tovar Colina, a former member of an elite Navy unit, is now an internationally wanted criminal.[vii]
But the main factor that spurred the emergence and consolidation of mega-gangs was a program called “Zones of Peace,” the implementation of which began in September 2013 under the oversight of Deputy Minister of Internal Policy José Vicente Rangel Avalos. The logic of these zones was that the police and military had become a determining factor in driving homicidal violence in the country. Therefore, withdrawing them from certain areas would decrease violence. Simultaneously, economic growth in these areas would be encouraged through credit lines granted by a governmental foundation.
The police and military could not enter these areas unless they had a specific court order. This directive is not supported by any documents, but police chiefs on various occasions have said the Ministry of Interior verbally reiterated this order.
Criminal groups began using the Zones of Peace as a place to hide kidnap victims, according to a report from Bolivarian National Guard (GNB). Simultaneously these groupings were growing in strength and geographic coverage until they extended their criminal operations to places that were not protected by the ministerial program.[viii]
In the immediate term, the Peace Zones were a factor that spurred violent crime. As described in this work, the regime itself seems to be working for the destruction of its own institutions. According to Carlos Tablante and Marcos Tarre, at least one-third of the homicides in Venezuela (the second most violent in the world according to the United Nations) are the result of organized crime, whose groups are protected by chronic impunity.
This problem has not yet been fully recognized or appreciated by the regime, because to do so would mean admitting mistakes that would eventually result in the complete loss of power. Still, the result of the December 2015 elections indicates that the majority of the Venezuelan population has begun to take steps towards rescuing institutions.
[iii]PÉREZ, J. G.: Raúl Reyes, el canciller de la montaña. Bogotá. Editorial Norma, 2008.
[iv]LARES, F.: The Chavismo Files. New York. Page Publishing, 2015.
[vi]FORGIONE, F.: Mafia export. Cómo la Ndrangheta, la Cosa Nostra y la Camorra han colonizado al mundo. Barcelona. Anagrama, 2010.