In addition to the continuing humanitarian, social, and political turmoil in Venezuela, a power outage left most of the country in the dark for several days, affecting houses, hospitals, and the water supply, and paralyzing public transport. On March 12, 2019, Nicolás Maduro also incited his supporters to violence. “I call on ‘colectivos’, on everyone; it's time for active resistance,” he said.
The message, broadcast on national TV, was aimed at “colectivos”, some of Maduro’s main backing to stay in power. The government indirectly provides weapons to the paramilitary groups to disrupt anti-government protests through intimidation and violent repression. Official forces don’t use these methods, so as to avoid legal proceedings.
These irregular community organizations date back to the regime of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), and in many cases control entire neighborhoods, especially in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. They manage food distribution at “official prices” and are linked to illegal businesses, such as narcotrafficking and extortion.
Each “colectivo” consists of about 20 members, who ride unidentified motorcycles and military vehicles. During confrontations with civilians, they wear distinct colors to recognize each other. They use different weapons, such as pistols and even rifles exclusively for the Armed Force.
According to José Ricardo Thomas, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela, those groups are Maduro’s last main backing to prevent the people from rising against his dictatorship. “The ‘colectivos’’ grassroots are thugs, criminals, prisoners, and low-ranking politicians,” Thomas told Diálogo. “Many of them are active members of the Armed Force and the police, who remove their uniforms to work with the criminals who make up these groups. Their role is to intimidate, criticize, assault, and kill, so as to annihilate protests against Maduro, because the possibility of an uprising from the people worries the government.”
“The groups [are] violent; they use both symbolic and physical violence,” Rafael Uzcátegui, coordinator at PROVEA, a Venezuelan nongovernmental organization that defends human rights, told Diálogo. “Their modus operandi is intimidation.”
The paramilitary groups use different levels of violence; sometimes its mere presence in public areas is already a problem. “When 20 motorcyclists roam the streets, it creates enough fear to keep people from joining protests. It’s a major type of symbolic violence,” Uzcátegui said. “They resort to physical violence when they need to; they use firearms and carry out raids, they hit and threaten people. Their actions are clear violations of human rights with the implicit permission of government employees and Maduro.”
Another role of “colectivos” is to subdue working-class neighborhoods, which are crucial to Maduro’s manifesto. “The ‘colectivos’ control territories with important symbolic value to the government, especially popular areas,” said Uzcátegui. “Maduro can tolerate protests in middle class areas, because they reinforce the idea that only privileged groups are unhappy with his government. What he doesn’t tolerate are protests in the poorest sectors, since he claims that [his regime] helps the poor, so the poor should be grateful. This is where the government uses ‘colectivos’ to intimidate the population, to maintain fear-based control over the poorest people.”
Both specialists believe that Maduro’s government increasingly resorts to “colectivos” to avoid compromising government officials in violent acts against citizens. They carry out illegal acts they want to remain unpunished.
The groups were blamed for five deaths on February 23, 2019, in the border areas with Colombia and Brazil, when partner nations tried to enter Venezuela with humanitarian assistance. Protesters were shot at; fingers pointed at members of “colectivos”.
The irregular community groups’ armament is linked to diversion of government resources. According to Thomas, “colectivos” initially used 9 mm weapons common among police units, but have had deregistered Army weapons at their disposal since 2004. Following 2014, they reportedly began to carry high-caliber Russian rifles such as Kalashnikov.
Another way the government helps arm “colectivos” is by giving them free rein to conduct illegal businesses, such as extortion or narcotrafficking. The Maduro administration may not hand weapons directly to “colectivos”, but allows them to conduct illegal activities, by which they obtain funds to buy their weapons. “Since they control some areas, they control different businesses, such as food sales. They smuggle drugs, and there are turf wars among them to win control over certain areas due to the profits they generate,” Uzcátegui said.
“Colectivos” are among the many tools of repression Maduro uses to cling to power. Meanwhile, he is losing ground, and people no longer wonder if they’ll be able to break free from the oppression of Maduro’s regime, but how much longer it will take to collapse for them to gain freedom.