Caracas, Venezuela – Juan “Juancho” Montoyo’s walkie-talkie crackles as 30 armed men and a few women standby at the ready in one of Caracas’ toughest neighbourhoods.
This collective – which could be described either as a “politicised gang”, or a “community protection squad”, depending on one’s point of view – maintains a degree of order in the January 23 barrio, allegedly working with Venezuela’s socialist government and dealing ruthlessly with opponents.
As insecurity continues to plague Venezuela, collectives such as Juancho’s Tupamaros are set to play an increasingly important role in defending the “Bolivarian Revolution” inspired by former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
“Violence is a tool,” Juancho, a leading figure in the Marxist group, told Al Jazeera in an April interview following a Tupamaro meeting in Caracas. “It’s going to be seen as something good or bad depending on your interests.”
Violence is a tool... It's going to be seen as something good or bad depending on your interests.
With fierce, yet strangely kind eyes, Juancho discusses acts of harsh political violence with a calm, almost soothing matter-of-fact demeanour.
“If the opposition had won the last election by a small margin, we wouldn’t accept that,” he said of the campaign led by Henrique Capriles against now-President Nicolas Maduro. “If the opposition wanted to set up an office here in January 23, that would be impossible,” he said, as members of his group would use force to stop them.
Al Jazeera visited a meeting of the Tupamaros in April where the group planned strategy, but was not allowed to take notes on the proceedings or photograph the participants, aside from Juancho.
‘There will be trouble’
To Venezuela’s middle class and some government supporters, the Tupamaros are simply thugs, intent on undermining democracy and fighting a bloody class war through intimidation, kidnapping and other crimes. To their supporters, they are the front line of the rough justice practiced in neighbourhoods where the police are too scared, too inefficient, or too corrupt to inspire public trust.
Founded in the 1980s and inspired by Marxist rebellions across Latin America, the Tupamaros – who take their name from an indigneous Peruvian anti-colonial rebel – began largely as a crime-fighting organisation in January 23 and other poor neighbourhoods.
“In January 23, the collectives are the authority, they set the rules for living,” Jose, a former officer with Venezuelan military intelligence (DISP) told Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity for fear of violent reprisal. “If you get along with them, you’ll have no problems, but if you compete with them in the drug business there will be trouble. It’s even worse in ideological terms.”
The collectives are the authority, they set the rules for living... If you get along with them, you'll have no problems, but if you compete with them in the drug business, there will be trouble.
To infiltrate the group during the 1990s, DISP sent in an undercover agent posing as a left-wing journalist who would feed information to Jose.
Jose then registered a basketball team in the January 23 ghetto to get involved in the community and monitor developments. “They have two faces: a dark face and a public face,” the former officer said.
“They were involved with drug trafficking and kidnapping on one hand and social-cultural work and sports on the other. They did some things that were good for their community. The money they would raise, they would use to arm themselves.”
A poster for an upcoming salsa dance hangs on the wall of their meeting room in a cultural centre inside January 23, alongside posters of Hugo Chavez, Che Guevara and other leftist icons.
It’s unclear how much popularity the Tupamaros and similar collectives retain in January 23 and other poor neighbourhoods across Venezuela. Residents shopping in neighbourhood stalls refused to discuss the matter.
The exact number of members involved with Tupamaros and other far-left collectives, including La Piedrita, the Carapaica Revolutionary Movement and the United Revolutionary Front is also difficult to track, according to research from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, a think-tank based at the University of Maryland.
Members of the Tupamaros said they received guerrilla training from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group which also uses kidnapping and drug trafficking to finance a long-running Marxist insurgency in neighbouring Colombia.
Since the socialists won their first election in 1998, Venezuela has seen impressive declines in poverty and inequality, accompanied by a sharp rise in violent crime.
When asked why he believed crime had increased, despite the tough tactics his group uses against law-breakers, Juancho simply said: “That’s a hell of a question.”
Many in Caracas believe the government is covertly backing criminals, through its alleged relationship with groups such as the Tupamaros, as a way of placating supporters and terrifying political opponents into acquience.
“When I was an active officer, the Tupamaros group were labelled as urban guerrillas and they were watched by the security services,” Miguel, a hulking former officer with the special tacticts group (GTE), an elite branch of the security forces, told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity. “When Chavez came to power, people in the Tupamaros were tasked with looking after some government VIPs. Now they receive direct support from the government.”
Willing to eschew election results if the ballots weren’t in their favour, it isn’t difficult to criticise the Tupamaros for being anti-democratic bullies. But, Juancho said, the political opposition has the same mentality – they are just less honest in expressing it.
“In 2002, when they took power in a coup for 48 hours, they abolished the constitution,” Juancho said of a short-lived putsch led by Pedro Carmona, boss of Venezuela’s largest business association. “No country in the world would accept that.”
The coup attempt, lacking any pretence of democratic legitimacy, hardened divisions in an already polarised society and, according to some, further cemented the links between the socialist government and armed collectives.
Juancho claims the coup attempt led the government to establish a direct line of communication to his group, controlled by the office of National Assembly President Disodado Cabello, a former military official and one of the most powerful men in Venezuela. The claims could not be independently verified and the ministry of defence did not respond to interview requests about its relationship with the Tupamaros.
For Venezuela’s government, groups such as the Tupamaros are a mixed blessing. They provide crucial grassroots organising ability for demonstrations or elections, but they aren’t always easy to manage. The government initially supplied the Tupamaros and similar groups with weapons, Miguel said, “but now the whole thing is beyond the government’s control”.
Since the election of Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver with connections to the Cuban government, Venezuela’s economic problems have worsened.
Inflation is running above 27 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, and shortages of basic goods, including toilet paper, seem to be increasing. Despite having the world’s largest proven oil reserves, yields on dollar denominated government bonds are above ten percent, twice the average for emerging markets.
Edmee Betancourt, the central bank president, has said the death of former president Chavez could be blamed for the “disrupt [of] the economy”.
As other left-leaning governments in South America push for business opportunities and increased private investment, the Tupamaros still retain the old-school Marxism of the 1960s, and believe virtually all industries should be in the hands of the state.
“The older guys [in the collectives] were indoctrinated by the Shining Path [a Maoist group in Peru],” Jose said. “Now the ideological link is Bolivarian [named after Venezuelan liberation hero Simon Bolivar] but that’s a bit contradictory, as Marxism and Bolivarianism are different.”
Now working in private security, Miguel keeps in touch with some of his old friends from the DISP. Today, many of the senior security advisers to the military come from Cuba, especially its G2 intelligence unit, he said. While the Tupamaros are feared and respected in their own neighbhourhoods, they are no match for well-trained, serious military operatives, he said.
‘Their time will come’
The goal of the Tupamaros is no longer a full blown insurgency in the short-term, Juancho said, but a strategic alliance with the government. They represent Maduro’s left flank, as the government looks to keep its core support base, while trying to find new allies – even reaching out to its sworn enemy, Uncle Sam, during a recent Organisation of American States summit.
Increasingly tight elections show that crime, corruption and inflation are alienating the government’s initial middle class supporters and even some of the poor.
To continue winning elections, most observers believe Venezuela’s government needs new foreign investment and tighter monetary policy to combat inflation.
Those policy goals clash with the Tupamaros’ ideological agenda, but in the near term the government is likely to continue relying on them, former security officials said, as it needs the grassroots political muscle.
As men with pistols bulging from beneath their jeans watch Juancho talk, he gives a clear message about deepening the Bolivarian revolution with further and faster nationalisations of private property.
He saves particular scorn for the “red bureaucrats” – officials close to the Socialist Party – who have become wealthy from high oil prices and government largesse during the Chavez years.
“I hope they are enjoying drinking their Scotch now,” he said with a wry smile. “As we get closer to a true revolution, their time will come.”
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris