El Coqui seemed to be comfortable. Caracas’ foremost gang boss had, for several years, dominated the sprawling neighborhood of Cota 905, a densely packed and poor part of western Caracas.

As long as he kept his criminal activities inside Cota 905, he enjoyed almost complete impunity, having negotiated a deal in 2017 as part of the government’s Peace Zones (Zonas de Paz), which prevented security forces from even entering the area.

Carlos Luis Revete, alias “El Coqui,” had little to fear. He could walk around his neighborhood, free of molestation. Well-known artists were even invited to perform for him at open-air parties inside Cota 905, a privilege rarely enjoyed by anybody in Venezuela at the moment.

That impunity would occasionally be tested. But when officers from Venezuela’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC) did try and pursue members of El Coqui’s gang, they would usually either stop short of entering Cota 905 or be ordered to turn back.

On the rare occasions that violence broke out, authorities usually came off worse. In April 2021, a shootout between El Coqui’s gang and the CICPC left one officer dead and three more injured. An armored vehicle, sent in to rescue the officers, was also attacked with high-caliber weaponry.

So what led El Coqui to break this status quo?

Life in La Vega

To the southwest of Cota 905 lies another neighborhood: La Vega. With over 120,000 people and no dominant criminal presence capable of rivaling El Coqui’s, it seemed ripe for invasion.

As InSight Crime previously reported, members of El Coqui’s gang were first reported in La Vega in late-2020. They set up checkpoints at entrances to La Vega and imposed a curfew.

But La Vega is not a Peace Zone. And security forces did not initially seem willing to grant El Coqui carte blanche in another part of Caracas.

Special forces moved in on January 8. At least 23 people, mostly residents unconnected to organized crime, died in what became known as the Massacre of La Vega.

This did not dislodge El Coqui from La Vega, but it did seem like authorities temporarily lifted his impunity. In late January, violence repeatedly broke out between El Coqui’s gang and security forces inside Cota 905, La Vega and in other parts of the city.

But six months on, he’s still there. Without the political agreements he made in Cota 905, El Coqui has become the boss of La Vega, thanks to a little bit of killing and a little bit of talking.

One smaller gang boss, Yorfren Javier Guédez Bullones, alias “El Mayeya,” saw the benefit of an alliance. He has become a loyal friend to El Coqui, allowing his gang to operate across La Vega and build a number of surveillance posts on high ground overlooking the area.

And life in La Vega has definitely become more dangerous for residents. The neighborhood was far from peaceful before El Coqui, but inhabitants say they’re now afraid of going outside.

“My grandson tells me: ‘Grandma, El Coqui is back, I’m not going to the park because I’m scared.’ … The grandchildren don’t have a childhood anymore … when they hear gunshots, they say it’s El Coqui again,” one grandmother in La Vega told Efecto Cocuyo in June.

SEE ALSO: Profile of ‘El Coqui’

There have been consistent reports of deaths due to stray bullets. One woman was shot in the chest while cooking in her apartment in March. A retired policewoman was also killed after being hit in the stomach by a stray bullet in May. That same month, a 16-year-old boy died in hospital after being shot in the head while working out in his apartment building. On June 14, a man was accidentally struck in the head and killed while inside a shop.

The gang has also sought to clear out any residents connected to state security forces. One such resident was a man identified only as Robert, the owner of a gas station and an alleged member of a colectivo (state-supported militia groups.)

In a voice message sent to his colectivo, which InSight Crime had access to, Robert stated that he was summoned to a meeting with El Coqui’s gang. After he did not go, the gang kidnapped his eldest son, aged 24. When the colectivo still did not agree to turn over its weapons, the son was reportedly tortured and killed.

But other reports state that El Coqui’s gang has worked to build relations with the community. InSight Crime interviewed a number of residents in La Vega who said that the group has offered a measure of protection, forced petty criminals to leave the neighborhood and have not extorted local businesses.

Now, El Coqui’s control of La Vega appears to be complete.

Lackluster State Response

On June 12, the Venezuelan state responded. Between 300 and 600 officers belonging to the police’s Special Action Forces (Fuerza de Acciones Especiales – FAES) moved into La Vega. Their targets: El Coqui and El Mayeya.

SEE ALSO: El Coqui’s Ambition Fuels Urban Warfare in Caracas

The government hit all the expected notes: all roads in and out of La Vega were blocked, residents were told not to go outside, the two leaders were being hunted and the community would be freed.

Twitter videos showed convoys of black vehicles driving through La Vega carrying men armed to the teeth.

On Twitter, Venezuela’s Minister for Justice and Peace, Carmen Meléndez, was jubilant. “The deployment in La Vega was an overwhelming victory,” she wrote, claiming that 38 people had been arrested and a number of weapons seized.

Those who had been detained were lined up, made to sit on the floor and black bags placed on their heads for a photograph.

Suspects recently arrested during a police raid in La Vega, Caracas. Photo: Venezuela Investigative Police.

But they didn’t get El Coqui and they didn’t get El Mayeya.

And maybe they didn’t really get anyone else either.

Despite sending in hundreds of troops and claiming victory, the government has shown no proof that El Coqui’s control of La Vega was even weakened. None of the 38 people arrested were identified.

Since the raids, residents told Efecto Cocuyo that no other arrests of gang members had been noticed.

Four days after the raid, the government released new photos of El Mayeya and over a dozen of his collaborators, suggesting his gang was not overly affected. El Coqui also issued an ultimatum: all security forces needed to pull out immediately or his gang would start killing civilians.

Wanted poster for Yorfren Javier Guédez Bullones, alias “El Mayeya.” Photo: Ministry for Interior Relations, Justice and Peace.

The FAES has not pulled out altogether, some patrols have remained deployed at the entrances to La Vega. But this appears to be little more than a cursory presence.

El Coqui now controls La Vega, as he does Cota 905.

And he may not be done. His gang has been seen with increasing frequency in other neighborhoods of western Caracas, including El Paraíso and Santa Rosalía.

In an audio message that recently circulated widely on social media, one alleged member of El Coqui’s gang can be heard saying: “What they don’t know is we control all of Caracas, we dominate all of Caracas.”

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Source: Insight Crime