Venezuela’s Leftist Collectives: Criminals or Revolutionaries?

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A recent clash between Venezuela’s collectives and police — which may have led to the removal of the country’s Interior Minister — illustrates the complex and ambiguous relationship between the state and the country’s militant leftist groups, which have been accused of criminal activity. 

On October 7, a violent confrontation between Venezuela’s investigative police force (CICPC) and two militant leftist groups, known as “colectivos,” or collectives, resulted in the deaths of five members of these groups. Among those killed was Jose Odreman, the leader of a network of collectives known as the 5th of March.

In response, the 5th of March coalition demanded the resignation of Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, and planned an October 23 rally in front of the Attorney General’s Office. The rally was called off at the last minute, and the next day President Nicolas Maduro announced that he was replacing Rodriguez Torres with Defense Minister Carmen Melendez.  

Melendez lost no time in purging the CICPC, immediately firing the agency’s entire administrative leadership. For his part, Maduro promised to create an executive commission to oversee police reform and tasked Melendez with “revolutionizing the police.”

The 5th of March also demanded the resignation of Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, via Twitter, as well as posting other critiques of the politician.

Then, about a month after the clash with the CICPC, collectives organized a press conference in which they expressed their opposition to the government’s disarmament program, reading a statement that represented 260 different collectives, who said they refused to hand over their weapons.  

“It seems totally absurd to us that [the government] is asking the collectives who do revolutionary work to disarm as if we were criminal groups,” read the statement. “No! We are not criminal groups, we are revolutionary organizations.”

The Government-Collective Nexus

The timing of the Interior Minister’s removal has led to speculation that the government ceded to demands from the collectives.

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that pressure from the colectivos (and their high-level allies) was a major part of that decision,” Phil Gunson, a freelance reporter for foreign media who is a longtime resident in Venezuela, told InSight Crime in an e-mail. “It could be argued that Maduro merely used that as a pretext. But that would be rather odd, since it made him look weak and at the mercy of irregular armed groups. Not good for the public image, and worse still for relations with the military.”

It is difficult to determine what role the government has played in arming and funding these groups and up to what point their activities will be tolerated.

The murky nature of the collectives and their ambiguous relationship with the government make it difficult to determine exactly how much influence they wield. Part of the problem is that the collectives aren’t homogenous. In Venezuela, the word “colectivo” can refer to any community organization with a shared purpose, ranging from neighborhood groups that coordinate social events or share a particular hobby, to the militant collectives accused of attacking anti-government protesters earlier this year. Even among the armed collectives — which share the stated purpose of defending the Bolivarian Revolution — there are differences in both the activities they carry out and their relationship to the government. 

Alejandro Velasco, a Latin American Studies professor at New York University who has done extensive research on social movements in Venezuela, told InSight Crime that while the existing narrative on collectives is that they have a “very strong, well-organized and structured collusion” with the state, the reality is more complex.

There are some collectives, like the Tupamaros, who have formal links to the government and even run their own political party. The Tupamaros had close ties to Caracas’ former Mayor Juan Barreto, who appointed a leader of the group as the city’s deputy director of public safety, and recruited other members to serve on the metropolitan police force. According to an International Crisis Group report, by the time the mayor’s term ended in 2008, there were an estimated 7,000 individuals linked to the collectives on the municipal payroll. (Below, a mural supporting the Tupamaros collective). tupamaro

Other collectives, like the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar, limit their formal contact with the government to soliciting funding for community projects, said Velasco. A third category of collectives maintain even more informal ties with government institutions, but even so, individual members often have access to people in power through their work in ministry security details or as bodyguards for public officials.

As a result, it is difficult to determine what role the government has played in arming and funding these groups and up to what point their activities will be tolerated. Velasco said that collectives receive government funding through both formal and informal channels, including slush funds the government doles out to different sectors, which collectives can access through direct or indirect petitions. In some cases, the funding is obtained even less formally, with collectives relying on personal ties between members and government officials to access resources, Velasco told InSight Crime. 

According to Gunson, some collectives also fund themselves by demanding protection money or charging membership fees.

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The source of the collectives’ weapons is similarly murky. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has stated that the collectives are “paramilitary groups armed by the government and protected by officials in uniform,” but others — including Velasco — reject the idea that the government has directly armed these groups. (Below, a mural attributed to the “Alexis Vive” collective).

Alexis Vive Collective Pool

According to Velasco, collectives rely on the same informal channels that give them access to political and financial capital to obtain weapons. Some collective members are also part of the formal militias, for example, which are armed and trained by the government. Others obtain weapons by working in security details or as bodyguards. Velasco said that in general the relationship between the government and the collectives “speaks a lot more to the porousness of the government and the inefficiencies and incompetence of certain sectors than it does to a coherent kind of vision.”

Regardless of how they obtain their weapons, the fact remains that while the government has stated that only official security forces can carry guns in defense of the state, it has never forced the collectives to disarm. As a result, some collectives have amassed impressive arsenals that include automatic rifles, submachine guns, fragmentation grenades, and teargas canisters. Gunson said he believes there may be several thousand armed collectives in Venezuela, although they vary in their level of organization and number of weapons.   

Neighborhood Watchmen, or Violent Criminal Actors? 

As evidenced by their statements at the recent press conference, collectives justify their arsenals by arguing that they defend both the Bolivarian Revolution and their neighborhoods. However, some groups have moved far beyond acting as a neighborhood watch. In 2008, for example, one collective took over the archbishop’s residence in Caracas for several hours after accusing the Catholic Church of conspiring against the government. Collectives have also attacked the opposition news station Globovision on more than one occasion.

More recently, during the anti-government protests earlier this year, collectives were accused of murdering protesters. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS), collectives perpetrated at least 437 violent attacks on protesters during the first quarter of 2014. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), cautions that while the collectives were blamed for much of the violence, however, they were likely only responsible for a small part. “Basically it got to the point earlier this year that any time there was an armed civilian on a motorcycle, he would be referred to as a member of a collective,” Smilde told InSight Crime.

There is a great deal of animosity between security forces and the armed collectives.

Collectives have also clashed with security forces on numerous occasions. Many collectives started out as self-defense groups created to protect their neighborhoods from violence perpetrated by the police and criminal actors. As a result, there is a great deal of animosity between security forces and the armed collectives. Velasco told InSight Crime that police and collectives are engaged in a “historic struggle over who has legitimate control over the monopoly of violence in the state,” which has led to a situation in which collectives perceive the police as enemies and police view the collectives as “usurpers.”   

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

There have also been allegations that some collectives are involved in criminal activities. According to the International Crisis Group, there is evidence to suggest that collectives are engaged in drug trafficking, arms dealing, and car theft. Gunson told InSight Crime that some collectives take over the criminal activities of the neighborhood gangs they target in their “social cleansing” operations, and that others take control of occupied buildings and charge the residents rent. “It’s no secret that many colectivos engage in criminal activities,” he said.

Maduro’s Dilemma 

“For some they are the last line of defense of the revolution. Others think they are really screwing things up and that they’re undermining the rule of law.”

Clashes between collectives and security forces have put the government in a difficult position. Despite the role state institutions play in supporting the collectives, either formally or informally, the government also appears to see these groups — at times — as a liability.

On the one hand, as George Ciccariello-Maher — a professor at Drexel University and the author of a book on Venezuela’s revolution — told InSight Crime in an e-mail, the collectives “are one of the most important elements in supporting and defending the Chavista government and the revolutionary process. The Venezuelan government, more than any other, responds to its base.”

At the same time, however, Maduro’s administration does not want to be perceived as condoning violence against the opposition. “I think members of the Chavista coalition have an ambivalent relationship to these groups,” Smilde told InSight Crime. “For some they are the last line of defense of the revolution. Others think they are really screwing things up and that they’re undermining the rule of law.” 

While at times the government has attempted to rein in the collectives, it has never pushed to fully disarm them and, according to some critics, has largely allowed them to act with impunity. As recent events suggest, the collectives have a great deal of political capital — capital that could increase if Maduro’s tenuous grip on power slips. (Below: the hillside slums in Caracas where many collectives are based). 

2014.11.24 CaracasMilitias

“There’s been a very difficult transition after Chavez’s death with Maduro in power,” Smilde said. “The government is perceived as unstable by both supporters and opponents. That makes these collectives see themselves as having even greater importance, as the ones who could defend the revolution if the Maduro government can’t.”

Gunson echoed these comments, stating that the collectives “have grown increasingly autonomous and self-confident” since Maduro came to power. “In theory they are the regime’s shock-troops,” he said, “but some of them are now openly saying that their support is conditional. […] Chavez never allowed them such independence.”

The situation is further complicated by the collectives’ alleged involvement in illegal activities. Regardless of the extent of this involvement, the fact that militant groups with no government oversight and a propensity for clashing with security forces are pressuring the government to meet their demands and refusing to disarm doesn’t bode well for Venezuela.

If Maduro is ousted from office and armed collectives try to defend him, the current conflict between pro and anti-government protesters could unleash widespread violence. Without access to government funding, collectives could also begin to rely largely on criminal activities to finance themselves.

Even if the Chavista regime manages to hang on to power, the collectives will likely continue to clash with law enforcement. Unless the police corruption and violence that initially produced animosity between the security forces and collectives is adequately addressed, the October 7 killings could mark the beginning of an escalating conflict. 

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