Caught between gangs and Venezuelan police in Cota 905

Photo: Gustavo Vera – Al Jazeera

 

Residents describe the battle for control in one of Caracas’ most violent neighbourhoods.

By Aljazeera – Camille Rodríguez Montilla and Gustavo Vera

Jul 27, 2021

The 300,000 residents of the Cota 905 shantytown perched on the hills of western Caracas are no strangers to violence.

Their neighbourhood, abandoned by police in 2017, has been run by gangs. There had been a few clashes in recent months, but nothing like the all-out fighting that drove Ines (not her real name – she like others in this piece asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation) to flee her home in the middle of a gunfight.

Ines and 11 other families lived in an abandoned preschool. As police descended on Cota 905 on July 7, gang members told Ines and her neighbours that they could either leave or hide, that they were going to use the school as a firing point. The fighting had already been raging for 12 hours.

Cota 905 had long been under control of a gang, run by Carlos Luis Revete, known as El Koki. A 2017 deal with the government had named it a “Peace Zone”, meaning the police abandoned it, leaving residents to police themselves. President Nicolas Maduro’s government hoped the strategy would help lower violence; instead, Revete used the time to consolidate his hold on power, better arm his fighters, and expand into other neighbourhoods.

Fearful of both the gangs and the police, Ines and her 16-year-old daughter took what clothes and food they could and left the school. They walked several hours before taking refuge at a relative’s home.

The next day, a neighbour who stayed behind called her with bad news. “The police broke my door; they ransacked my house,” she told Al Jazeera.

Neighbours said they saw the police leaving the preschool with their belongings, including a refrigerator and a washing machine. The Venezuelan information ministry which speaks for the police did not respond to a request for comment.

The fighting was still ongoing. Explosions could be heard in nearby middle-class neighbourhoods. Stray bullets were a concern. A woman was wounded in front of one of Caracas’ main markets, Quinta Crespo, and the nearby Southern Cemetery was also considered dangerous.

More than 3,100 officers from different forces were sent to Cota 905 and other areas affected by the fighting, according to the country’s minister of interior, justice and peace, Carmen Meléndez.

“The State Security Organizations continue to be deployed in the areas violated by these criminals and will not rest until they recover absolute control,” she tweeted July 8th.

The following day, more people had left. Entire families were walking around Caracas in the rain, carrying small bags, looking for somewhere to stay until the violence stopped. Residents told Al Jazeera they worried the police would involve them or their children in the conflict –  imprisoning or killing them then falsely labelling them gang members.

Ines said that had become common during police raids: “If they can’t find the guilty, they look among the innocent and young ones,” she told Al Jazeera. “I’ve lost family members during these raids already.”

Read More: Aljazeera – Caught between gangs and Venezuelan police in Cota 905

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