The landscape of Venezuela’s social conflict has grown even more complicated a week after the failed uprising led by Juan Guaidó. This continued descent into state-sponsored anarchy has only favored armed and criminal groups who act with increasing impunity.
On April 30, a group of soldiers of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana – FANB) rebelled, led by Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly and sworn in as interim president of Venezuela, and Leopoldo López, head of the Voluntad Popular party. One notable figure who joined the rebellion was General Manuel Cristopher Figueroa, the now ex-director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN), the political police charged with persecuting and torturing Maduro’s opponents.
The armed rebels progressed along one of the main streets of Caracas, calling on civilians and the security forces alike to join their cause. While this call did not receive the backing it sought, it nevertheless showed a continuing weakening of the military establishment surrounding Maduro.
Repression against demonstrators was swift, with at least five people killed over two days in Caracas and the state of Aragua. Videos circulated on social media showed that clashes involved “colectivos” (paramilitary groups linked to Maduro) and agents from the judicial and preventive police forces, who were not known to have taken part in such repression before.
In the days since the uprising, other acts of violence and murders have been carried out by a range of criminal groups, including colectivos, “pranes” (prison gangs) and mega-gangs.
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A shootout near the Simón Bolívar bridge that connects Táchira with Colombia; the murder of an air force general and five other officers in Aragua, seemingly ordered from a prison gang at the Tocorón penitentiary; and a confrontation between rival mega-gangs in the state of Sucre, which left eight dead and 14 injured, top the list of recent incidents.
Nobody has been arrested or charged in relation to these incidents. Criminal groups continue to enjoy almost unlimited impunity while Maduro has only intensified the repression and persecution of his opponents.
InSight Crime Analysis
The failed attempt to overthrow Maduro has exposed something more dangerous than the president losing control of the military: how Venezuela could descend into armed civil conflict and the role criminal groups could play in such violence.
Venezuela is already the most violent country in the region, with a rate of 81.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, and one of the most dangerous in the world. However, the role of armed groups and criminal organizations has begun to blur with state functions, and violence is rising steadily as a a consequence.
“While the FANB has been weakened, criminal groups have been strengthened. Nobody is going after them or accusing them of anything. They have immunity, they are above the law. They exercise territorial control,” Venezuelan security expert Alberto Ray told InSight Crime.
Members of armed groups who robbed and attacked members of the public in the state of Lara were detained by security forces but immediately released. Worse, the police officers who arrested them were subsequently sanctioned and dismissed from their jobs by regional officials close to Maduro.
“We are seeing the privatization of spaces [traditionally occupied by the state] to criminal groups, without security forces and the military doing anything about it,” said Ray.
The colectivos, present nationwide, are paid off to “defend the Revolution” but have also essentially been given carte blanche to develop criminal economies.
Colombian guerrilla groups, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), are now present in over half of Venezuela, finding a safe haven and a staunch ally in Maduro.
This panorama is completed by the dysfunctional actions of the security forces, as the Venezuelan army has trained ELN guerrillas to launch high-powered missiles, according to Bloomberg.