Masked members of a "colectivo," or pro-government cells, attend a rally in Caracas on January 7, 2019. – "Colectivo" members are referred to as both, revolutionary idealists and thugs. (Photo: YURI CORTEZ, AFP/Getty Images)
When rolling blackouts once again left millions without water and electricity recently in Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro called not on his military but loyal armed groups “to defend the peace of every neighborhood” and “every block.”
The groups – widely known as colectivos – took up the call with zeal.
As conditions in Venezuela have gone from dire to unliveable, Maduro has increasingly relied upon colectivos to quash discontent and maintain social order.
Since Jan. 23, when opposition leader Juan Guiadó invoked the constitution to declare himself interim president, embattled Maduro has faced regular large-scale protests over widespread shortages of food, medicine and water.
Anti-government protests are routinely broken up by masked motorcyclists who open fire into crowds, sending protesters running for their lives, and journalists are persistently detained and threatened for covering the disturbances.
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“They are vital as a defense mechanism in breaking up protests and generating fear in the civil population,” says defense analyst Rocío San Miguel, who points out that 2019 is notable for the growing public links between Maduro and the gangs.
“They are the operating arm of the state.”
But working-class communities in Caracas and across the country fear taking to the streets could cost them their food handouts or even their lives. That’s because colectivos run entire apartment blocks and neighborhoods as criminal empires.
Masked members of a "colectivo," pro-government cells, attend a rally in Caracas on January 7, 2019. – "Colectivo" members are referred to as both, revolutionary idealists and thugs. (Photo: YURI CORTEZ, AFP/Getty Images)
In some areas, de facto authorities levy tolls for those entering or leaving neighborhoods and control the distribution of food and medicine, says the Latin American investigative unit Insight Crime.
The government increasingly relies on the unwavering loyalty of these irregular paramilitary groups to deal with the public heavy-handedly rather than the military, which could potentially disobey uncomfortable orders and cause a government-military rupture.
Experts say estimates of members of colectivos run from as low as 5,000 to anywhere as high as 100,000. Maduro’s supporters claim the members of colectivos are peaceful defendants of the revolution, but Guaidó has said that all those who do not impede the actions of the “paramilitary colectivos are complicit in crimes against humanity.”
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio wants them added alongside guerrillas and drug traffickers to the U.S. list of Foreign Terror Organizations.
Yet, these groups often operate with impunity and are sometimes trained by the state in return for securing votes and oppressing political opposition.
Colectivos were not always armed gangs defending the government through violence and fear — they evolved from groups established in 2001 by the revolution’s architect and Maduro’s predecessor — Hugo Chávez Frías.
“The colectivos first appeared in the early years of the Chávez administration to inform people of social policies,” explains Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian and political analyst at El Rosario University in Bogotá. “The idea was to organize people and inform them of what the government was doing.”
Then known as círculos Bolivarianos, or Bolivarian circles, they carried out activities ranging from workshops explaining the new constitution drawn up by Chávez to literacy support for the illiterate and social gatherings for women and youth.
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