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- BBC News World
More than 22 uninterrupted hours of detonations.
That is what Aglaia Berlutti experienced in her home in El Paraíso, a middle-class residential area located in the southwest of Caracas.
During the afternoon of July 7, he heard gunshot sounds. The bullets came from the Elevation 905, a neighborhood located just five blocks from his home.
The detonations continued throughout the night and the next day.
“I am not an expert in weapons, but I know what a bullet sounds like,” says Berlutti in an interview with BBC News Mundo. “Something that I never thought would live in my city. The worst that can happen to you is that you learn to recognize how bullets sound.”
For three consecutive days, the southwest of Caracas experienced an escalation of violence. Armed gangs and state security forces clashed in the streets and neighborhoods of the area between Wednesday afternoon and Friday.
Several roads and highways were restricted.
The Minister of Interior, Justice and Peace, Carmen Meléndez, confirmed what happened through her Twitter account, assuring that it was “structured organized crime groups that have systematically attacked our society, intimidating, wounding and murdering innocent people. “.
But it was not until Saturday that the Government offered a more concrete balance: four police officers and 22 “criminals” died in the clashes and 28 people were injured..
The Government described this operation as a “great victory” and called it “Operation Great Indian Chief Guaicaipuro“.
After the danger, residents of the area now wonder if and when a similar confrontation will happen again.
It is not the first time that Cota 905 and other surrounding neighborhoods, such as The Cemetery, The Valley and La Vega, paralyze this area of Caracas due to clashes between gangs and the police
Last April, a patrol from the Scientific, Criminal and Criminal Investigation Corps, CICPC, was attacked by armed gangs in the El Paraíso tunnels, near Cota 905.
“I feel like the social order was broken,” says Berlutti. “We are experiencing a progressive degradation of our security.”
“When a detonation sounds, you do not know exactly what is happening because the levels of misinformation are very high. I do not know if they are clashes between gangs or with the police. I feel kidnapped.”
BBC News Mundo tried to communicate with government spokesmen to no avail.
A red zone
Caracas has two avenues known as “cotas”: La Cota Mil, also called Avenida Boyacá, which runs along the slopes of Cerro El Ávila in the north of the city. And Cota 905, or Avenida Guzmán Blanco, which heads south.
The city also, as it is located in a valley, has several hills on which for several years the barrios, popular sectors considered dangerous areas.
One of these neighborhoods extends along Cota 905, home to more than 300 thousand people in conjunction with the surrounding parishes. The presidential palace is less than 3 kilometers.
Here, the labyrinthine streets lined with precariously constructed houses have witnessed the strongest hand of the Nicolás Maduro regime and its fight against crime, which shows no signs of weakening.
For years, the neighborhoods have been the bastion of Chavismo and its residents believed in the promises of the late President Hugo Chávez.
“It was always a dangerous area,” says Melanio Escobar, who grew up between Montalbán, another nearby residential area, and Cota 905.
This journalist, now based in Miami, assures that he was used to shootings and how more than once while at home he had to throw himself to the ground to protect himself.
“All my life I witnessed shooting. The window of my room overlooked the neighborhood and I saw how motorcycles were stolen or there were clashes.”
Even so, he insists that they were sporadic events and that the violence has been increasing in the zone.
“The violence has escalated to a point that is no longer unnoticed by the rest of the country,” he says.
For Alfredo Escalante, a human rights activist in the area, what Caracas is experiencing is the expansion of a power that has been consolidated by way of arms.
“All power seeks expansion, and this is how these gangs have been growing and penetrating other neighborhoods and residential areas, affecting more and more people.”
He assures that there are already cases of forced displacement in the area of people fleeing violence, as well as confinement of people who are sheltering in their homes.
“The population is mired in terror,” he assures.
The questioned police action
In July 2015, the National Guard and various police forces stormed various neighborhoods in the country as part of a security operation. At Cota 905 there were more than a hundred detainees and several deaths.
The authorities called this operation “Operation Liberation of the People” (OLP), and they repeated it several times during the following years and in different neighborhoods.
The OLPs were the strong-arm proposal of the government of Nicolás Maduro against one of the most pressing problems in Venezuela: violence and organized crime.
For years, Caracas and other cities in the country have led the ranking of the most violent cities on the planet.
Maduro and his cabinet have praised the action of the Special Actions Force of the Bolivarian National Police, the FAES, a feared elite group created in 2017 in response to criticism against the OLP.
But human rights organizations do not share the same opinion.
Official figures are scarce. The latest annual report of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory highlights where there is opacity: since 2016 there has been a “Sustained increase in police fatality in relation to deaths caused by criminals”.
According to the report, 2020 was the year in which for the first time there were more deaths from clashes with the police than from crime: 4,231 deaths classified by the authorities as resistance to authority compared to 4,153 homicides committed by criminals.
“Police lethality has spread throughout the country and appears to be the only security policy that has been implemented,” the report reads.
In July 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, criticized the action of the FAES and called for their dissolution.
Far from it, the FAES have been involved in repeated confrontations with alleged criminals in the poor neighborhoods of the country until recently.
One of these latest clashes occurred in January of this year in the La Vega neighborhood, where 23 people died according to the Venezuelan Program for Education Action in Human Rights, Provea.
“Criminal fiefdoms” and “zones of peace”
Wilfredo, a priest who lives in a nearby area and who prefers to keep his full name anonymous, explains that at Cota 905 they know of the actions of several criminal gangs that obey local leaders.
Given the absence of the State, and the limited capacity of the opposition to work in these areas, these gangs began to act as local governments.
“You have to understand the dynamics of the neighborhood,” says Wifredo. “The police go up to a certain point and don’t go any further. As long as the police don’t cross the border, there is a certain peace“.
He explains that the gangs are organized with checkpoints called sentry boxes, communication systems, and weapons.
But between black and white there are many nuances.
“Wherever the state failed to protect its people, these gangs installed their hegemony,” says Wilfredo.
It ensures that these bands not only control the drug sales and kidnappings, but also the food business. In addition, they organize parties, distribute toys to children and protect neighbors, so the residents have benefited in part.
“It’s a very complex reality. People say ‘I don’t like the thug, but he helps me.”
For the former Security Commissioner of the Caracas Mayor’s Office, Iván Simonovis, there are five criminal structures operating “in and with” Venezuela: mega gangs, drug trafficking, collectives, guerrillas and terrorism.
He assures that the mega gangs have organized and executed from Cota 905 “up to four, five or six kidnappings per night“for a significant sum of thousands of dollars.
How did these bands get so powerful? “The deterioration in the quality of life made the gangs create their own defense mechanisms,” says Simonovis.
“Now (the gangs) have gotten out of control. They created a monster,” says the former commissioner.
On August 25, 2017, Cota 905 was declared “zone of peace”, a euphemism created by the Government to negotiate with criminal gangs in the neighborhoods and have them surrender their weapons voluntarily.
The result was territorial control. “They are criminal fiefdoms,” says Simonovis. “The southwest is taken by the band of the ‘Koki’, but the east is taken over by another criminal structure. Every one of the big neighborhoods in the country is taken. “
The “Koki” is the leader of Cota 905, a subject wanted by the Government and who has not been found.
A problem that is not over
None of the interviewees believe that the problem has been solved.
For Simonovis, with the confrontation over at Cota 905, it is most likely that the gangs will restructure.
“I am of the opinion that they are going to return with much more forcefulness,” he assures.
“Fighting crime is not an order. You cannot decree that crime is reduced. It is part of a strategy that should last for years and be sustainable over time, “he points out.
Wifredo wonders what will happen to the innocent civilians.
“The people of the neighborhood took advantage of the ceasefire to leave their homes. But at some point they will return to them. Their integrity has to be respected. There has to be a way for them to regain peace.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.