Government-backed militias have been accused of murdering protesters during recent civil unrest in Venezuela, turning the spotlight on armed groups that could become even more dangerous were they to break ties with authorities.
Since the outbreak of anti-government protests in February, opposition figures have accused the Maduro administration of using leftist urban militias known as "colectivos" (collectives) to violently suppress protest.
"The colectivos are paramilitary groups armed by the government and protected by officials in uniform," opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez told Reuters.
The militias have staged numerous counter-demonstrations and are widely believed to be behind attacks on protesters by armed men on motorbikes that have left several protesters dead.
In response to the violence, President Nicolas Maduro disowned the militias, saying "We don't accept violent groups in the Chavista camp, and the revolution," reported Infobae.
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The relationship between the Venezuelan government and the colectivos is complex, and the alliance between them is by no means guaranteed.
The militias operate in impoverished urban areas, where in many cases they have become the de facto authorities. They exert tight control over daily life and provide security in the crime-ridden slums, acting as "police, prosecutors and judges."
They also serve an important function for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's electoral machine, especially when it comes to getting the vote out in colectivo territories, which are bastions of government support. According to some experts, the colectivos may even be financed by diverted communal project funds, and could be receiving arms from the Venezuelan Armed Forces.
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However, while they have been acting against government opponents in recent protests, the colectivos are independent and sometimes even critical of the socialist party. With Maduro distancing himself from their actions, and the future of the Chavista political project ever more tenuous, it raises the possibility of at least some of these groups severing ties with the government.
Should this happen, the militias could easily turn to lucrative criminal activities for financing. According to a 2011 report by the International Crisis Group (pdf), some of the colectivos may already be involved in drug trafficking, car theft and other organized crime, and they have the arms and the contacts -- especially with Colombian rebel groups -- to step up their involvement in the underworld.