Venezuelan authorities have closed roads in Caracas amid intense shootouts between security forces and organized crime gangs that analysts say are trying to expand the territory under their control in the capital.
Heavily armed criminal groups have moved into residential and commercial areas in the past month from slums in the city’s hills, and violence has erupted in the past 24 hours with shootings in at least five populous neighborhoods.
“State security agencies continue to be deployed in the areas affected by these criminals,” Interior Minister Carmen Meléndez wrote on Twitter.
He said that some roads in the areas were closed as part of the operation and urged members of the public to stay home.
The government of President Nicolás Maduro has not mentioned victims as a result of the clashes. Human rights activists in the area have said at least four civilians were killed Wednesday and half a dozen injured.
The information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Since January, gangs in the Cota 905 neighborhood have been trying to expand their territory to nearby areas, including La Vega.
“We haven’t been operating the kitchens at full capacity since January due to shootings almost every day,” said Amelia Flores, 58, who runs two soup kitchens, primarily for children, in the area. “I don’t know what happened, but in the last 24 hours the situation has exploded and the children are traumatized.”
The gangs want to control one of the main corridors that link the capital with the west of the country, said a human rights activist based in one of the affected neighborhoods.
“It has been the same conflict for months,” said the activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
Analysts say gangs in Cota 905 have been able to operate with ease as it has been a no-go zone for security forces due to a pact with the government to reduce violence. Experts say the gangs seized the opportunity to acquire military-grade firepower such as grenade launchers, assault weapons and drones.
“They used the space that the government gave them in La Cota to rearm, gain strength and plan an attack,” said Alexander Campos, a researcher at the Central University of Venezuela who studies violence and politics in society.
“They are expanding from the control of the neighborhoods in the hills to the lower parts of the city,” he said. “It is difficult for them, but they are winning.”
Inés Candida, 56, lives in the middle-class neighborhood El Paraíso, just across a road from the Cota 905 neighborhood. She said that the gangs had been in shootings with the police every day for the last month, but that I hadn’t seen or heard anything like it in the last 24 hours.
“We are prisoners in our own homes,” he said by phone, as relentless shots rang out in the background.
Contacted by phone at a church in the nearby El Cementerio neighborhood where he and others were taking refuge, Catholic priest Wilfredo Corniel, 45, said among more shots: “It feels like we’re in a war zone.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism