Sections of Caracas Paralyzed by Shootouts Between Gangs and Cops

Swathes of Venezuela’s capital are paralyzed by intense fighting between urban gangs and security forces while terrified families cower in their homes as the nation’s slide toward anarchy accelerates.

Gang members from the Cota 905 slum in western Caracas and surrounding neighborhoods torched vehicles and trucks and shot at civilian drivers, as well as police, with heavy weaponry.

The fighting entered a third day as security forces and heavy armored cars entered Cota 905 to regain control in the morning. Authorities shut some major roads citywide and urged citizens to stay home.

Sections of Caracas Paralyzed by Shootouts Between Gangs and Cops

As the economy contracts for an eighth straight year in one of the deepest slumps in world history, the government has effectively lost control of large areas of the nation to local mafias and Colombian guerrillas. The latest round of fighting underscores how the administration of President Nicolas Maduro even now is struggling to retain its grip on poor neighborhoods of the capital that were once under the firm control of its supporters.

“I am terrified. This is horrible. I’ve been locked in my bathroom all day, and bullets have entered my building in several apartments,” said Teresa Portilla, 68, a resident of El Paraiso neighborhood, near Cota 905, Thursday night. “It hasn’t stopped. I think they have even thrown grenades.”

While Portilla spoke, gunfire was clearly audible in the background. Videos shot by residents showed families from the area fleeing their homes with their belongings.

“The enemies of the Homeland intend to sow anxiety through the financing of criminal gangs,” Maduro said Friday, in a tweet. “We will not stand idly by. We are acting forcefully according to the law and the constitution to guarantee security.”

$500,000 Reward

It’s unclear what triggered the latest violence, but the government offered a reward of $500,000 for information leading to the capture of Carlos Luis Revete, alias “Koki,” who they say is the leader of the city’s most powerful gang, and also offered the same reward for two other gang leaders.

As the fighting continued, slum neighborhoods surrounding Cota 905 also erupted in violence, and dozens of blocks of residential areas close to the downtown have become a war zone.

Sections of Caracas Paralyzed by Shootouts Between Gangs and Cops

Social media videos posted by neighbors in buildings close to the clashes appear to show bullets striking their homes and the intense rattle of shooting. People queuing at gas stations and in the streets can be seen taking cover behind cars. Some families even slept in elevators, away from windows and balconies, to better protect themselves from stray bullets.

Extortion and Kidnapping

In 2013, the government negotiated truces with some of the gangs and set up so-called peace zones where the security forces wouldn’t enter. That turned neighborhoods such as Cota 905 into no-go areas run by criminals that make their living through extortion, kidnapping and drug trafficking. In many cases, the gangs sought to win the loyalty of local communities by distributing food, helping pay for funerals and even organizing parties.

“This is the result of the overflow of crime versus a powerless security force, which is really good at controlling protests against Maduro, but inefficient against organized crime,” said Luis Izquiel, a local criminologist.

Sections of Caracas Paralyzed by Shootouts Between Gangs and Cops

The government hasn’t published a death toll from the recent fighting, but local NGOs that monitor the violence say that at least six people have died.

Government forces continue to deploy in the area and are dismantling armed groups, Interior Minister Carmen Melendez said Friday. Melendez accused “right wing” groups, backed by international actors, of financing and planning the clashes.

On Thursday, the government sent the National Guard and the feared Special Action Forces, known as FAES, to the area. Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, has accused the FAES of committing extrajudicial executions, and recommended its dissolution.

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