05/18/2024

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A fisherman walks along the shores of Lake Maracaibo.

In Zulia, Venezuela, Not Even Schools Escape Extortion

In Zulia, Venezuela, Not Even Schools Escape Extortion

A threatening pamphlet sent to residents of a fishing village in the state of Zulia, Venezuela, marked a turning point for the local criminal landscape.

The threat was not directed at traders, shrimp farmers, and cattle ranchers – usually preyed on by criminal gangs operating in the region. This time, in the municipality of La Cañada de Urdaneta, private schools were in the firing line.

“Good afternoon to the mothers of La Cañada de Urdaneta. Do not send your children to school until we give the order. Otherwise, they’ll all be crying,” read the message sent around the town.

The threat was posted on social media by an armed group referring to itself as “LV Oro.” The message was clear: If parents wanted their children to keep attending classes, they would have to pay an extortion fee.

SEE ALSO: Venezuelan Extortion Gangs Exploiting Instagram to Amplify Threats

Several parents and student tutors, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime that LV Oro asked for $1 per student per month. Schools in the area have on average 200 to 300 students, according to teachers interviewed by InSight Crime. 

The La Cañada municipality registered the highest murder rate in Zulia state in 2023, with 69.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. That is nearly three times Venezuela’s national rate, according to InSight Crime’s 2023 homicide round-up.

La Cañada also registered the highest number of hire-to-kill assassinations in Zulia, the hits ordered by armed gangs. The municipality also posted the third highest number of extortions in the state, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV). 

Behind this criminal wave lies the paradox of a wealthy town where abundance led not to prosperity, but to unwanted attention from criminal gangs.

A Fishing Village in Decline

La Cañada de Urdaneta lies on the outskirts of Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia, which houses important economies such as crop cultivation, cattle ranching, and large-scale fishing. Economic prosperity has drawn the attention of extortion gangs for over two decades.

The bountiful shrimp industry – a production plant bordering Lake Maracaibo can produce 90 tons of shrimp for export in a single day, according to official reports – tops the list of sectors most affected by extortion.

One shrimp farm owner, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime that extortion gangs demand a monthly contribution “so that you can work peacefully, so that no one touches you.” The gangs knew where the source’s house and shrimp farm were located, plus where the seafood was stored, the farm owner added.

Aside from demanding extortion payments by phone, the gangs also pressure victims – spanning various industries – by spreading their photos on social media. On average, payments ranged from $200 to $500 per month for small producers. But larger businesses and companies have paid up to $2,000 a month, according to a local security researcher.

Traders or producers refusing to pay extortion fees risk having their headquarters or offices targeted by extortion gangs. They could also face physical attacks – a threat that extends to their families and even their employees. Amid the extreme violence, fishermen and other workers have been killed for refusing to comply with the demands of criminal organizations. 

In response, business owners – mostly in the shrimp industry – now invest significant funds in security to protect their businesses and workers. Some have even unofficialy hired members of Venezuela’s National Guard and the police to deal with these armed groups, the same shrimp farmer told InSight Crime.

New Targets in a Ghost Town

Extortion has forced many of La Cañada’s businesses and cattle ranches to close, both the shrimp farmer and local security researcher told InSight Crime. Violence is also widespread. Some residents described the municipality as a ghost town, where, for example, locals leave their house unpainted to avoid drawing attention from extortion groups.

Those who do have money leave for other municipalities where they lead a parallel life. “They have two WhatsApp numbers. They don’t give out their [local] number. Their social media accounts are private,” a La Cañada resident, who also spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime. 

Faced with a decline in commercial life, the extortion mafias began to look for new targets. That is where schools entered the picture. 

“No sector is spared these days. The gangs have everyone mapped. They know who has money. They’ve gone as far as targeting schools, their directors and owners, and even the parents,” said Jorge Govea Cabrera, a security expert in Zulia. 

Of the 45 schools in La Cañada, four are private institutions that have felt the brunt of extortion threats. The children attending these schools tend to come from wealthier families, making them attractive targets.

“It’s been frustrating for us as parents. We are having to stand up for [institutions] that we thought were untouchable,” a parent whose child attends one of the extorted schools told InSight Crime. 

A Hodgepodge of Criminal Gangs

La Cañada de Urdaneta houses at least seven active gangs, according to interviews with local residents, researchers, and journalists, in addition to reports in local press. It is not yet clear which of the groups is responsible for extorting schools.

One school representative told InSight Crime that a gang led by José Leonardo Atencio Coronado, alias “JL La Burra,” was behind the threats. But the pamphlets distributed among parents and tutors was signed by LV Oro – a name previously unknown in the area.

“The person [behind the extortions] is keeping the municipality in a state of anxiety to make their presence felt. While others were charging extortion fees, this guy is now targeting schools and people do not want to leave their house,” said a representative of one of the affected schools.

Several other groups in the area also engage in criminal activity. That includes a gang called “El Yiyi,” named after recently captured leader, Guillermo Rafael Boscán Bracho, alias “Yiyi.” Another gang, operated by Mauricio José Luzardo Rondón, is also active and was linked to the murder of a councilman in August 2022.

SEE ALSO: The Shattered Mafia Behind Criminal Chaos in Zulia, Venezuela

In mid-2023, the rivalry between the two gangs boiled over when hitmen murdered two elderly men related to Luzaro Rondón inside their home.

The group led by Atencio Coronado also operates in La Cañada. Coronado is also thought to be the new leader of the so-called Meleán gang, according to local media.

The Meleán gang, previously led by Antonio Jesús Meleán Vergel, alias “Antonito,” was the dominant criminal actor in this fishing village 20 years ago.

Antonito and his family dominated Zulia’s underworld from the 1980s. He and his family were diplomatic criminals, resolving disputes between criminals and keeping the peace by enforcing mafia codes. In La Cañada, Los Meleán focused on kidnappings and car thefts, rather than extorting small businesses.

After Antonito’s death in 2008, the Meleán gang was weakened and expelled from La Cañada by Jhon Gregorio Wade León, alias “Jhon Wade,” who used excessive violence against anyone refusing to pay extortion fees.  

Wade León was among the 10 most wanted criminals in Venezuela in 2018. He was also the subject of an Interpol red alert. He died in 2018 in a confrontation with authorities. Following his death, hitmen who had worked for the Meleán gang tried to fill the power vacuum and form their own organizations, resulting in the current chaos.

An Absent State

Aside from criminal gangs, a weak state presence in La Cañada has also contributed to the deterioration of the local security situation and the rise of extortion gangs.

Sporadic state anti-crime efforts have failed to significantly disrupt criminal structures or reduce high rates of crime.

The most recent operation came on February 20, when 260 security officials went after criminal gangs in the municipality and tried to restore security in schools targeted by extortion. 

We have deployed a special force to ensure the safety of each and every one of these education centers,” a state security commander told local media. But the dynamics have not changed, residents told InSight Crime. 

“People report extortion and nothing happens,” said security expert Govea Cabrera. “Citizens don’t think they are receiving adequate protection.”

Residents of La Cañada believe their security problems result from the relative absence of the state. With little hope on the horizon, representatives of the affected schools have floated the idea of arranging talks with the gangs in the hope that they cease extortions and their children can resume classes. 

The post In Zulia, Venezuela, Not Even Schools Escape Extortion appeared first on InSight Crime.