By Sarah Kinosian and Vivian Sequera
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan authorities closed roads in northwest Caracas on Thursday due to intense firefights between security forces and organized crime gangs that analysts say are trying to expand the territory under their control in the capital.
Heavily armed criminal groups have moved in the past month to residential and commercial areas from slums in the city’s hills, and violence has exploded over the past 24 hours with gun battles breaking out in at least five populous neighborhoods.
“State security agencies continue to be deployed in the areas affected by these criminals,” Interior Minister Carmen Melendez wrote on Twitter.
She said some highways in the areas were closed as part of the operation, and urged members of the public to stay at home.
President Nicolas Maduro’s government has not mentioned any casualties as a result of the clashes. Human rights activists in the area have said at least four civilians were killed on Wednesday and half a dozen have been wounded.
The information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Since January, gangs from the Cota 905 barrio have been trying to expand their territory into nearby areas including La Vega.
“We haven’t been running the kitchens at full capacity since January because of the shootouts nearly every day,” said Amelia Flores, 58, who runs two soup kitchens, primarily for children, in the area. “I don’t what happened, but in the past 24 hours the situation has exploded and the kids are traumatized.”
The gangs want to control one of the main corridors linking the capital with the west of the country, said a human rights activist based in one of the affected neighborhoods.
“It’s been the same conflict for months,” said the activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
Analysts say gangs in Cota 905 have been able to operate with ease as it has been a no-go zone for security forces due to a pact with the government to lower violence. Experts say the gangs took the opportunity to acquire military-grade firepower such as grenade launchers, assault weapons, and drones.
“They used the space that the government gave them in the Cota to re-arm, gain strength, and plan an attack,” said Alexander Campos, a researcher at the Central University of Venezuela who studies violence and politics in society.
“They are expanding from controling the barrios in the hills into lower parts of the city,” he said. “It’s difficult for them, but they’re winning.”
Ines Candida, 56, lives in the middle-class neighborhood El Paraiso, just across a highway from the Cota 905 barrio. She said gangs had been in shootouts with the police every day for the past month, but she had not seen or heard anything like the past 24 hours.
“We are prisoners in our own homes,” she said by telephone, as unrelenting gunshots rang out in the background.
Reached by phone at a church in the nearby El Cementerio neighborhood where he and others were taking shelter, Catholic priest Wilfredo Corniel, 45, said over more gunfire: “It feels like we are in a war zone.”
(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian and Vivian Sequera; Editing by Daniel Wallis)