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An unprecedented attack that killed a general is an ominous sign of growing criminal power in Venezuela

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The recent murders of an air force general and five other security officials in Venezuela, believed to have been carried out by a mega-gang, confirms the growing impunity these criminal groups enjoy and the control they exercise in a key central state.

Early on May 4, an army and police patrol was ambushed in a mountainous area of the northern state of Aragua. Three soldiers and two police officers were killed, alongside Air Force Brigadier General Alexis Silva Zapata, reported El Pitazo.

The official version of events says the patrol was responding to a call for reinforcements issued by troops at a nearby estate owned by the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana — FANB). The farm is located in Magdaleno, only six kilometers from the infamous Tocorón prison.

The head of Venezuela’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas — CICPC), Douglas Rico, announced that members of a mega-gang (a criminal organization with over 100 men) operating from the Tocorón prison were to blame for the ambush.

Speaking at a press conference, Rico said that the attackers had been well-armed with AK-47 automatic rifles. He added that the killers stole the patrol’s weapons, which were missing from the scene.

Sources consulted by InSight Crime said that two members of a criminal gang known as “El Tren de Aragua,” identified only as “Bola” and “Wilmer Guayabal,” had planned the attack. Following the ambush, they took refuge inside Tocorón where, despite serving sentences for various crimes, they are able to come and go with total freedom.

InSight Crime analysis

Venezuelan soldiers before the start of distribution of security forces and voting materials for the presidential election, at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, May 15, 2018. Reuters

The murder of six members of Venezuela’s security forces in one attack is virtually unprecedented, even in the country’s current state. It is a scandalous show of the power and control wielded by El Tren de Aragua, controlled by Héctor Guerrero, alias “El Niño,” the prison boss of Tocorón.

For the last 20 years, such events had only been seen in border areas near Colombia carried out by guerrilla groups. But this attack happened in one of Venezuela’s most populous states, just a 90-minute drive from Caracas.

This attack, however, occurred in one of the four most important states of the country, located an hour and a half from Caracas. It proves the stranglehold El Tren de Aragua is establishing, with a presence extending into the states of Sucre and Bolívar, while some of its members have also been arrested in Peru.

As InSight Crime has reported, Venezuelan prisons see inmates run elaborate criminal operations from behind bars, or leave to commit crimes and return for shelter, all with the backing of prison authorities.

A source told InSight Crime that Venezuelan authorities are currently exploring two possible motives for the attack.

A national guard general next to inmates after a riot in “El Rodeo” prison in Guatire, outside Caracas, June 17, 2011. REUTERS/AVN/Alexander Gomez/Handout

The first is that this was an attempt by El Tren de Aragua to tighten its grip on the area, where armed gangs have been extorting farmers and businessmen. The second is that this may have been a direct attempt to assassinate General Silva Zapata.

“His head had a price on it, and in dollars,” the source told InSight Crime. “What is not known yet is who and why they would want to kill him.”

It is believed Silva Zapata may have been working on a plan to reduce crime in Aragua, which was the second deadliest state in Venezuela in 2018 with 1,669 homicides, according to figures from the Ministry of Interior, Justice and Peace, which InSight Crime had access to. These included 755 deaths due to “resistance to authority,” indicating that individuals were killed by security forces.

The military in Venezuela is strongly involved in criminal activities, with these efforts being grouped under what has become known as the “Cartel of the Suns.” This makes the attack in Aragua all the more striking given that it has a strong military presence, known to act in conjunction with mega-gangs.

Ten days since the assassination, the alleged killers have not yet been captured or formerly identified, showing once again the almost total impunity criminal groups now have in Venezuela.

Read more from InSight Crime:

ELN Still Receiving Payments from Companies in Colombia

Colombia Captures Leader of Los Pachelly But Gang is Thriving

Kamilo Rivera and the Ghosts of Guatemala’s Death Squads

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