Members of the public have been urged to stay in their homes as security forces take on gang members in the surroundings of the Cota 905 barrio.

The fight between state security forces and armed criminal gangs in Venezuela’s capital’s most-populated neighborhood has killed more than 20 people and displaced others, authorities said Saturday, in the country’s latest escalation of gang violence.

Since Wednesday, gunshots have rung out over most of Libertador, when gang members based in Cota 905, a slum on Caracas’s southwestern outskirts, and other neighboring areas exchanged fire with police and military troops.

According to local media, state security was able to enter the labyrinth of homes that comprise the hill-hugging section of Cota 905, capturing ammo, firearms, and even an ocelot kitten – an endangered feline species — by Friday afternoon.

Venezuelans arrive in Arauquita, Colombia, on March 21. Photographer: Daniel Fernando Martinez Cervera/AFP/Getty Images

Interior Minister Carmen Meléndez said on state television Saturday that 22 “delinquents,” as well as a national guard sergeant and three police officers, had been murdered. Meléndez sat close to tables showing ammunition, guns, and narcotics confiscated by police.

According to the minister, during the incident, which included 3,110 police officers from different state agencies, 28 individuals were wounded.

Venezuela is still embroiled in a severe political, economic, and humanitarian crisis, prompting this current outbreak of violence. President Nicolás Maduro has strengthened his hold on the country’s institutions in recent years.

However, he is still battling to establish state authority in long-neglected areas of the country — and even in the capital. Analysts think the gangs are trying to expand their geographical dominance amid a power vacuum caused by a lack of police.

According to preliminary information from security experts, the violence may have erupted after a feared gang boss was wounded in a shootout with police.

As gunshots started to fly, individuals sought refuge in their toilets and under their mattresses. Others rushed to the city’s downtown plazas, carrying beds and other possessions.

Alfredo Infante, a priest in a village near the siege, has heard terrible stories from parishioners and their families since the crisis began. One lady said that her house had been attacked and her belongings had been stolen. Another questioned if it was safe to sleep inside. Others prayed to God to keep them safe.

Such incidents highlight how the estimated 300,000 inhabitants of Cota 905 are frequently caught in the crosshairs of two violent characters vying for power.

Neighborhoods are now ruled by mega-gangs, which are substantial criminal organizations made up of many smaller ones. During national holidays, gangs often exercise social control via peaceful methods such as passing out food and gifts to youngsters.

“They essentially function under a feudal structure that gives them a feeling of normalcy,” he said. “They’d rather live in a society they understand than an unfamiliar one where violence is prevalent.”

Social media videos show a gathering of ladies protesting the presence of state security officers.

“We request that the cops leave Cota 905,” they said over a loudspeaker while banging pans. “Put a stop to this violence.”

According to Paola Bautista de Alemán, head of Instituto FORMA, a Venezuelan think tank devoted to economic, social, and political research, people’s mistrust of state actors comes from the violent methods they have tried to retake power.

Mexican protesters confront the marines sent in to disband them. Reuters

According to a United Nations fact-finding mission, Venezuela has one of the worst rates of state-sanctioned murders in Latin America. According to the study, the country’s police and security services murdered more than 20,000 individuals between 2016 and 2021 on the grounds of “resistance to authority.”

The 411-page study reveals how many young men were murdered when security personnel suddenly barged into homes during crime-fighting operations because they were targeted “due to actual or suspected participation in illicit activities.” Covering up extrajudicial killings by placing firearms and firing at walls to simulate a fight was a frequent technique.

Maduro, for his part, declared the Cota 905 operation a success.

“Venezuela now is stronger than ever from a constitutional standpoint,” he said on Twitter. “When it comes to terrorism, peace always wins.”

Despite this, the stalemate put many people on edge. Some gunshots penetrated apartment windows, reminding residents of war-torn areas outside. The gunshots could even be heard in the neighboring middle-class areas.

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