Dulce Nombre de Jesús de Petare is the full name of the suburb east of Caracas in Venezuela, known as one of the most populated slums in the world. Precisely, with its 369 000 inhabitants, Petare occupies the seventh place in the world ranking, second only to Neza-Chalco-Itza, (Mexico) in all of Latin America.

Petare, like many other slums in the world, is composed of an informal and precarious housing conglomerate, located on the fringes of a metropolis (in this case Caracas, capital of Venezuela, with its 6 million inhabitants), which very rarely benefits from local and national public policies. Here, criminal gangs have therefore occupied the political vacuum by taking over local economies for illicit business.

The city looks like a cluster of red brick buildings exposed or covered with colored plaster, held up by concrete structures to even out the difference in height caused by the slopes of the mountains surrounding the Venezuelan capital, on which the slum rises. The roofs, made of sheet metal and other makeshift materials, suggest a certain precariousness and poverty of the urban sector.

The origins of the slum

The area where Petare is located was first populated in the 16th century, following a land concession to one of the first conquerors. The various Spanish landowners who inhabited the area founded the town in 1621 under the name of San Jose de Guanarito. The name Dulce Nombre de Jesús de Petare derives from the 18th century church, with the same name, that formed a nucleus of the colonial settlement, and where a Franciscan friar settled to assist the Indian workers. The area was in fact very fertile and was dedicated to the production of coffee, cocoa and sugar cane.

The town was quickly absorbed by the metropolitan area of Caracas, which over the years experienced a great growth of population due to people who poured into the city from the countryside in order to improve their economic conditions. However, the slum has retained its commercial core. It is also home to two universities: Universidad Santa María and Universidad Metropolitana.

Venezuela’s most recent political history has seen millions of disenfranchised citizens recognize Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution as the chance for social, economic, and racial inclusion in a deeply unbalanced society. But now, with their lives disrupted by the economic and social disaster resulting from the implementation of Maduro’s policies, many of these citizens are turning against the president. Indeed, Venezuela’s economic decline has caused an exponential increase in the number of inhabitants of informal urban sectors (slums) such as Petare, due to the collapse below the poverty line of a large segment of the population.

The most violent slum

Petare is to be considered a city within the suburbs of Caracas, Venezuela, as it is itself divided into hundreds of neighborhoods. The narrow, nameless streets leave no room for visitors, making it an impregnable stronghold. Since the city is located at an altitude of almost one thousand meters, one of the few ways to access it is by Metrocable: a cable car that departs from the center of Caracas, located in the lowest part of the valley, and takes pedestrians to the highest points of the mountain. This type of transportation is integrated into the public transportation system of the municipality of Caracas, and is very common in the large mountain metropolises of Latin America.

Survival is the daily challenge of the slum inhabitants: they live in extreme poverty in a country that can no longer  provide a reliable source of water or electricity. Some sectors of the Petare slum remain without water for periods of days on end, and blackouts rage nationwide, leaving the whole of Venezuela without electricity.

Its unique urban conformation allows organized crime to proliferate. The Petare slum is one of the poorest areas of Venezuela, and the rate of armed robberies, murders and kidnappings reaches a very high figure here, making this area the most corrupt in Caracas.

According to Business Insider’s report, the Venezuelan capital earned the title of the world’s most violent city in 2015. Although this number has been debated, the homicide rate stands at 119.87 per 100,000 inhabitants. The country’s shocking level of violence is directly related to its social, economic and political dysfunction, and also by the political-economic crisis Venezuela has lived since 2013.

Petare is the “home” of organized criminal gangs and constantly fighting each other, it is where the reign of crime is accentuated without restraint. The real sectors that make up the slum are the subject of territorial dispute for the control of illicit activities.

Wilexis’ mega gang

Wilexis Alexander Acevedo Monasterios, a.k.a. “the Wilexis,” has begun to be frequently mentioned, since 2014, among Petare residents for his illicit activities, climbing the lists of the most wanted by the municipal and state police, the national police, and the Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas (CICPC).

The young fugitive quickly distinguished himself from the other criminal gangs in Petare for his actions to control the territory. By establishing, unofficially, various sectors of the slum as “Zonas de Paz” in fact, he established himself in the criminal world, becoming the undisputed leader of the largest gang in the slum. As stated by an anonymous informant, the Peace Zones have enshrined the power of Wilexis, who has begun to equip more and more people with weapons and then affiliate them with his gang and poses “as if he were king of them all.” These areas are characterized by the absence of controls: the access to the inside of the slum is informally forbidden to the police and, in the rare occasions in which they try to enter inside the control zone of Wilexis, they are punctually forced to engage in violent clashes with the members of his gang.

More than 200 criminals are part of the “Wilexis” gang. Its members range from 13 to 28 years of age and the crimes they are most frequently guilty of are: murder for hire, drug trafficking and extortion. The slum population accepts the presence of this gang and tolerates the crimes committed daily by the same because, in exchange for their non-interference in their own affairs, they offer protection to the citizens by acting as Venezuelan police and defending them whenever there is a clash between rival gangs or with the police.

The health emergency in the slums

Not even the threat of the spread of the new coronavirus has served to quell these disputes; one of the most recent reports of gang fighting (in this case between the Wilexis gang and the 2 de La Bombilla gang) was recorded on March 20 for control of the José Félix Ribas de Petare sector.

Robert Muggah, an expert in security and development, stated that: “Around the world, informal settlements are at risk of becoming infectious disease super-units. More than 1.2 billion people live in a slum, and that figure will rise to more than 2 billion by 2030,” he recalls. “As a rule, the urban environment is highly conducive to the spread of viruses. These risks are exacerbated in overcrowded and densely populated areas, particularly those lacking safe housing with adequate ventilation, sanitation infrastructure and basic services such as water and sanitation,” Muggah lists. “In addition, basic preventive measures such as isolation and regular hand washing are impossible in most informal settlements. This is not only because of the lack of houses with multiple rooms, running water or private toilets, but because people have no savings and literally cannot afford to stay indoors and stop working.”

Against this backdrop, action to create real and effective long-term impact should be considered critical. In Petare, as in other underdeveloped neighborhoods in Latin America, criminal gangs have extended their control over the territory because they have proven to be the only ones able to cope with the health crisis and enforce security and confinement measures. In a disastrous socio-economic situation such as Venezuela’s, it is essential that the State intervene to safeguard its citizens. When it fails to do so, as in Caracas and other major cities, the underworld reacts, playing the role of an indolent government.

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