March 29, 2019

Who are the Venezuelan Colectivos?

The Paramilitary street enforcers for the Maduro regime

(Cucuta, Colombia)-If you’re following the news about Venezuela you have probably heard someone mention “Colectivos”, the paramilitary forces loyal to the Maduro Government. They are accused of violence and intimidation as well as organized crime. Some Venezuelans view them as protectors of “Chavismo”, but most that I have spoken to view them as terrifying thugs.

The Maduro government claims they are merely a patriotic civic organization that supports the “Bolivian Revolution.” But who are they? Where did they come from? And how did they get so much influence in Venezuela? 

The Colectivos control large areas of Venezuela. They oversee food distribution, social programs, levy informal taxes and deal with “insecurity” in the regions they control. They have also been accused of profiting from narco-trafficking, smuggling on the Colombian border and the killing and intimidation of dissidents.   

Seeing them for the first time in person 

During the six months I had spent in Cucuta, Colombia on the border with Venezuela, I had heard many stories about the Colectivos from fleeing Venezuelans. They have a fearsome reputation, known for providing intelligence on the neighborhoods in which they operate and brutal repression of opposition protests.  

The name alone was enough to inspire fear in most of the people I spoke with. During the protests of Feb 23rd, news that the Colectivos had arrived on the border to reinforce the National Guard and Venezuelan police forces was enough to send some protestors fleeing.  

I returned the next day to the Simon Bolivar bridge, which connects the neighborhood of La Pared in Colombia to its Venezuelan sister city, San Antonio. There were close to 400 people reported wounded the day before during the attempt to push humanitarian aid into Venezuela devolved into riots, and small skirmishes continued as Venezuelan youths were attempting to strip a burnt truck on the bridge for parts.  

A Colombian police officer warned me to keep my distance, as there had been reports of Colectivos firing live ammunition from the Venezuelan side of the bridge.  

A Venezuelan youth wounded by Colectivo Gunfire on the Simon Bolivar Bridge Feb 24th (Joshua Collins)

As I watched, some youths from below the bridge threw rocks at the Venezuelan barricades as other young Venezuelans salvaged parts from atop the bridge. That’s when I saw the hooded men in black lurking in the foliage under the Venezuelan side of the border. 

“Colectivos!” one of the youths shouted. Moments later the sharp reports of firearms sent the groups of youths fleeing.  

One of the young men atop the bridge fell to the rocks below. I watched as his companions carried him to an ambulance waiting at a nearby police station.  

If the goal of the Colectivos was to inspire fear and break up the running skirmish on the bridge, it was successful. Their willingness to use violence to disperse protestors had not been exaggerated.  

Where did they come from? 

The origin of the Colectivos can be traced back to the “Bolivian Circles” under Chavez. The circles were loosely organized community groups created to foster patriotism and education programs that supported the Bolivian Revolution. 

As these groups evolved into a more political force, Chavez realized that they could be used to promote his government in a more direct manner- by responding to protests, providing intelligence on the opposition as well as direct armed support that wasn’t dependent upon the army.  

Collectivos "La Piedrita" branch (Photo from twitter)

By 2002 he was arming and funding these groups, creating a civilian militia force that would act as a bulwark to his power, especially in the capital, Caracas.  

They began to earn a fearsome reputation among opposition members and protestors when they helped to crush the rebellions that rocked Venezuela in 2014. And they operate with the tacit support of Venezuelan security forces. 

“They are heavily armed groups that possess the power to kill and operate with impunity". says José Miguel Vivanco, a representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

They claim that any armed actions they take are justified and target criminals.  

“Of course we need to inspire respect and, to some extent, fear. We are a clandestine force whose job it is to clean up Venezuela, how could we possibly do that if people doubted our ability to enforce, to police and to do what is necessary when no one else can or will?” said “Gilberto”, a high-level Colectivo in Caracas in an interview with reporter Annika Hernroth Rothstein.  

Under Chavez, the Colectivos were unified and loyal to the presidency.  When Maduro took power some of these groups splintered, and now report to the military or have become harder to control.   

They say that they will outlast Maduro if it comes to that. And they could represent a serious threat to the stability of any new government in Venezuela.  

What do they do? 

They don't only respond to protests, intimidate journalists and attack government critics. They also participate in “get out the vote efforts” during elections, which consist of going armed into opposition neighborhoods to ask how the citizens plan to vote and food-distribution in poor neighborhoods in exchange for supporting Maduro.  

They provide intelligence on those attending opposition protests and conduct “raids” which they claim target street criminals, but which critics say are just as likely to target government critics.  

The Colectivos resemble the mafia in their organization. The various branches have territories in which they combine community programs and food distribution with a protection racket, earning profits from businesses both legal and illicit. They also have relationships with ELN, Colombian guerrillas and the Bacrin, narcotraffickers, which provide them with income from smuggling as well as armaments. 

There have been multiple reports of Colectivos attacking opposition leaders as well as protestors since 2014. A reporter from the Caracas Chronicles was recently threatened with rape if she didn’t leave a hospital in Caracas during the ongoing blackouts.  

Colectivo Members in Caracas (Photo from twitter)

Immediately after the border closure, there were widespread reports of Colectivo violence against those suspected of having taken part in the protests as well as against their families in the Venezuelan border towns.  

The Colectivos admit their part in quelling protests but say that they do so for the “safety of the people” and deny repressing the Venezuelans.  

They claim to have representatives in every layer of society, from schools to legislatures to security forces. And it is widely believed that if the Venezuelan crisis were to devolve into an armed struggle, the Colectivos would immediately begin to function as urban guerillas. 

Originally stemming from groups meant to promote “direct democracy”, they have evolved into something much more sinister- enforcers, thugs and profiteers from the chaos within Venezuela. For the moment at least they possess a license to kill. And they are likely to stay loyal to the Maduro regime due to their ideology as well as the fact that they profit heavily from the insecurity within Venezuela.  

Sources within Venezuela say that if the profits were to dry up, they would likely be willing abandon Maduro. But for now, Maduro relies on them to maintain order. During his most recent televised speech on Sunday he called on them to redouble their efforts against the ongoing protests inspired by the month long country-wide blackout. 

Joshua Collins

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