The gang leader emerges from a darkened bedroom holding two grim trophies: a bullet proof vest and a 9-mm handgun — both taken off a murdered policeman.
Venezuela has long been synonymous with bloodshed. The country has the second-highest homicide rate in the world after Honduras and violence is so commonplace that only the most spectacular of crimes (murders of celebrities, at funerals and in broad daylight) seem to make the news.
Increasingly, however, it’s the police who are under fire. In recent weeks, gangs have ambushed police stations with hand grenades and machine guns. Patrolmen are being hunted for their motorcycles, body-armor and weapons.
So far this year, 125 law-enforcement officials have been murdered in greater Caracas alone. If that same rate held in the United States, it would be the equivalent of 6,572 police murders. Instead, there have been 33 shooting deaths of U.S. officers.
“Enrique” — who runs a gang of 15 hardened drug dealers, arms traffickers, thieves and kidnappers — agreed to talk to the Miami Herald under the condition of anonymity. Showing off the Glock pistol that he claims his gang took from an officer a month ago, he said the authorities are outgunned.
“The police want to wage war against us but they can’t,” he said. “Our weapons are meaner.”
The police want to wage war against us but they can’t. … Our weapons are meaner.
In theory, guns are highly regulated in Venezuela and the government occasionally engages in sweeps to get them off the streets.
But Enrique said cash-strapped cops and military officials will supply the gangs with anything they want. An AR-15, AK-47 or other machine gun might go for 1.2 million bolivares, or about $1,700 if bought with black-market dollars. A hand grenade runs about $71.
“The police are very corrupt,” he said. “They don’t earn anything and so, to make a little more money, they will sell you their guns or ammunition. If it wasn’t for the police we wouldn’t have weapons; we wouldn’t have anything.”
In Venezuela, police corruption might be as much about survival as it is profit. Enrique admitted that the officer they killed in October was targeted because he’d arrested a gang-member and then refused a bribe to let him go.
“He didn’t take the money and our guy is still in jail so he had to die,” Enrique explained. “It was just revenge.”
Jesús Eduardo Lamas is the assistant director of the 1,658-strong police force of Miranda State — which includes part of greater Caracas. Of police killed this year, six have been his officers.
While he concedes there may be some bad apples within the national police force, the vast majority of officers are honest, underpaid and hardworking.
An entry-level policeman in Miranda state makes 386,000 bolivares a year in salary and benefits. If she were forced to exchange that cash for dollars on the street, it would work out to about $550.
Any of his men and women could probably make more doing something else, he said, but they’re passionate about their jobs.
“To be a policeman in this country right now requires a great degree of heroism,” he said. “The criminals are far better armed than we are. … They have access to weapons we’re not even authorized to carry.”
The grenades are a case in point. So far this year, there have been 23 hand-grenade attacks in Caracas that have caused 19 deaths and 63 injuries. Of those fatalities, four have been police.
Lamas said the grenades are either coming from the military or being smuggled into the country.
“After they’re detonated it’s virtually impossible to figure out where they came from,” he explained. “But we as police don’t have access to those weapons. All of that has to come through the national government.”
The Interior Ministry did not respond to interview requests.
As the country heads into key legislative elections Dec. 6, the ruling party acknowledges it has problem. Earlier this year, President Nicolás Maduro launched “Operation Liberation of the People” or OLP — a massive criminal dragnet that has involved almost 70,000 security forces.
During the first 100 days of the program, authorities said they arrested 1,852 people, dismantled 109 gangs and seized 1,272 weapons.
At La Urbina police station in eastern Caracas, officers were getting ready to head into a sprawling, violent neighborhood called Petare. Gone are the days when police could patrol the area alone or with a partner. Now they head into the zone in packs of six or more.
Rafael Graterol, a commissioner at the station, said his officers have become economic and symbolic targets.
“Killing a police officer is a double victory for [criminals],” he said. “They get our weapons but they also get the respect of other gang members.”
“The saddest thing is that we’ve become accustomed to becoming just another statistic,” he added. “Countries that are in war have nothing on us.”
About two months ago, Yulibed Perdomo’s 32-year-old husband led a police raid into Petare.
“I was terrified,” she said, “because that’s like the Wild West, you hear gunshots here and gunshots there.”
Her fears were merited. That night, her husband, Aldrid Manuel Crespo, was ambushed and shot in the neck just above his protective vest. He died at the hospital, leaving behind his wife and two young children.
The police paid for Crespo’s funeral and offered his widow 50,000 bolivares (about the same price as a black-market hand grenade) but little else. Perdomo said her husband never earned much while he was alive but always believed his family would be taken care of if something happened to him.
“The situation was always difficult — he was depressed a lot because of all of his colleagues that had died,” she said. “But he was dedicated to his work.”
Perdomo, who has moved back in with her mother to make ends meet, is trying to organize other police widows and orphans to press the government for benefits.
In a country where triple-digit inflation is eating away at purchasing power and basic goods are hard to find, Enrique said the gang phenomenon is essentially one of economics.
One of his foot-soldiers might earn 1 million bolivares during a good month, or more than 100 times the minimum wage.
“If there was a job that would let us make enough money to buy a car, for example, then everybody would work,” he said. “Until then, nothing is going to change.”