Members of a “collective” killed by police were buried in a public funeral in Caracas, amid concerns that these armed civilian groups — many originally supplied and trained by the Chavez government — could be slipping out of the state’s control.
On October 7, five members of two political collectives, known as the “5th of March” (5 de Marzo) and “Shield of the Revolution” (Escudo de la Revolucion), were killed by national policemen who were raiding a downtown high-rise building. The victims included the leader of the 5th of March, Jose Odreman, and his second-in-command, Michel Contreras.
EFE reported that during the funeral procession — which was accompanied by a police caravan — some of those in attendance shouted criticism of the government, such as “they’re using us as disposable cups, when they need us then they sure call on us.” This could possibly be in reference to the fact that in the past, the Chavista government has relied on the political collectives — which by and large are based in Caracas’ poorer neighborhoods — as promoters of the ruling socialist party.
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Local Caracas celebrity Humberto Lopez — who has made a name for himself appearing at government events dressed as Che Guevara told one local media station that the collectives “are preparing for war.” While Lopez does not appear to be formally associated with the collectives, the possibility of the collectives “going to war” in Caracas has long been feared by many Venezuelans.
Collectives began organizing in Caracas as early as the 1970s. Under President Hugo Chavez’s administration (1999-2013), they became a major source of support for his government, particularly after the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. In the words of Venezuela expert Rebecca Hanson, “some collectives vociferously protect what they see as their right to be armed”. They have remained armed despite multiple attempts by Venezuela to disarm the civilian population. Some of these armed collectives collaborated with the security forces in the repression of protesters earlier this year.
It is possible that these latest killing, particularly of the commanders of the 5th of March could cause the government’s relationship with the collectives to deteriorate. Some of the collectives have received government funding, which may have been reduced after Chavez’s death, perhaps forcing them to turn to other, criminal, sources of revenue.
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President Nicolas Maduro’s government must play a delicate game when handling the Caracas collectives. There is another example in Venezuela of a pro-government armed group that slipped out of the state’s control: the guerrilla group the Bolivian Liberation Forces (FBL), which caused headaches for Chavez by declaring itself to be pro-Chavista, while simultaneously conducting criminal activities along the Colombia-Venezuela border.