Caracas, Venezuela – A former socialist guerrilla whose brother died battling Venezuela’s dictator in the 1950s, Adicea Castillo knows the far-left well. But the current political climate – where armed pro-government collectives are asserting themselves in poor neighbourhoods – is too much for the aging radical.
“This is part of a worldwide experience with paramilitary groups,” the former leader of the Left Revolutionary Movement (known by its Spanish acronym, MIR) told Al Jazeera. “These groups are often better armed than the police.” They have been intimidating government critics, including those on the left, during recent unrest, she said.
As protests intensify across Venezuela, supporters of President Nicolas Maduro are digging in their heels for another round of protracted conflict on the streets. Both sides are trading barbs over the possible paramilitarisation of political conflict in the oil-rich nation.
but they are out of control.”]
Maduro frequently raises the spectre of paramilitaries with links to Colombia launching urban attacks, while the opposition accuses the government of supporting armed collectives as “shock troops” against student demonstrators.
“Let’s not mince words. Objectively, these are paramilitary groups,” a state official who trains Venezuelan security forces told Al Jazeera. “They might run some positive community development projects [in poor areas] but they are out of control. Since 2005 they have become the avante guard for certain sectors of Chavismo,” the official said – on the condition of anonymity as he still works for the government.
At least ten people, including a high profile collective leader, have died – with more than 100 injured – since opposition protests rekindled in early February.
If there is one thing pro and anti-government intellectuals agree on, it’s that urban, armed conflict between unconventional actors is a dangerous, if still unlikely, possibility.
“There is a conspiracy happening here,” said Omar Nasser, a pro-government international relations analyst.
“There is an attempt to topple an elected government by means of force; this is nothing new, we saw the same sort of project in Libya and now in Syria.”
“Collectives”, which include armed groups operating in the hillside slums around the capital as well as some rural areas, are nothing new in Venezuela. The first groups formed during the Cold War to protest against police repression and battle drug traffickers. Many of Castillo’s old comrades who took up arms against the dictator Perez Jimenez have since joined their ranks.
But not all collectives are armed. A member of one of the groups said collectives include gay rights activists, environmentalists, anarchists and women’s rights campaigners. The only thing linking them together, he said, was their desire to defend the revolution.
Armed revolutionaries, or violent thugs?
Jose Mujica, Uruguay’s popular leftist president, once fought alongside the Tupamaros, a large armed leftist group in Latin America.
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In Venezuela, the Tupamaros are now one of the most prominent armed collectives. Mujica and his comrades robbed banks and launched kidnappings to finance their revolutionary activities and redistribute money to the poor.
And today’s collectives in Venezuela also sometimes use force, in what they consider the fight for socialism and their homeland, one collective member told Al Jazeera.
In the early 1990s, before the election of populist President Hugo Chavez in 1998, most urban collectives focused on fighting crime and the drug trade.
“The collective members are part of the Chavista coalition. They have been revolutionaries all their lives,” collective member Armando told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity. “They came from the need to fight drug trafficking. The reality is that we lived in an undeclared war even before Chavez arrived; the right-wing against the poor.”
With the beginning of Chavez’s “Bolivarian period” of sweeping economic reform, many collectives embraced the socialist project, becoming the movement’s left flank.
Some members now work as security operatives in the Caracas mayor’s office or in other government departments, the state official said.
They formed a powerful political apparatus in poor communities, helping to mobilise residents for pro-government demonstrations and in running social projects.
“In areas where they operate, the collectives organise summer camps for kids, cultural activities, and sports programmes,” Armando said. “There are some cases where we have started social projects and obtained arms for self-defence,” said the 33-year-old activist, who works as an investigator at a state-run company.
The Tupamaros, the Simon Bolivar Coordination, and the Alexis Vive movement are some of the largest collectives, but there are more than 100 similar groups operating across the country. They are often plagued by splits and divisions – common within leftist organisations worldwide – and their structures and membership remain reasonably fluid.
Some analysts blame them for intensifying the spiralling crime rate in Venezuela – which claimed around 20,000 lives in the past year – and for recent violence targeting student demonstrators who oppose the government.
“These collectives are paramilitary groups who have been paid by the government for 15 years,” Jose Manuel Rodriguez, a politician with the First Justice opposition party, told Al Jazeera. Police, backed by collectives, attacked buildings where student activists took refuge from tear gas attacks, he said, accusing them of infiltrating opposition rallies to stir up trouble.
The government official, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, confirmed that armed collectives have been known to be responsible for street crime and alleged political intimidation. “The government has instructed the police not to interfere with things in the territorial spheres of the collectives,” he said. “For example, the collectives stole vehicles, police found them, but couldn’t proceed with prosecutions.”
Who killed Juancho?
Long a fixture of a street level politics, collectives were thrust into the national spotlight on February 12, following the killing of Juan “Juancho” Montoya during a demonstration.
A leading figure in the collectives, and a supporter of political violence against his opponents, Juancho died after being shot in the head in what appears to be a targeted killing. Gunmen killed two opposition protesters in the same demonstration.
“Violence is a tool,” Juancho told Al Jazeera in an April 2013 interview. “It’s going to be seen as something good or bad depending on your interests.”
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National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a former military man and arguably the second most powerful person in Venezuela, said the “revolutionary” Juancho was “vilely assassinated by the fascists”.
In his April 2013 interview, Juancho claimed to have a direct line of communication to Cabello’s office, from which he would receive directives on where to aim his violence. It was an explosive allegation which could not be independently verified.
“Juancho wasn’t any regular collective member. He was informed, educated and had military training. He was a member of the board of directors of 107 collectives in Caracas. We believe it was a deliberate assassination. The aim of that was to awaken the hate of armed groups to start a confrontation,” Armando said, adding that the groups refused to take the bait.
The circumstances of Juancho’s death, and the other killings on February 12, remain shrouded in mystery.
The SEBIN, Venezuela’s intelligence service, was instructed to stay in its barracks, Maduro said. But some members of the group took to the streets with their weapons, apparently disobeying a direct order – leading Maduro to dismiss the head of the intelligence agency. One SEBIN official has reportedly been detained in relation to the killings, leading some analysts to question how much control Maduro has over the security forces.
“There are people opposing the government in the intelligence services and regular police in high and low positions,” the state official said.
An investigation from Ultimas Noticias, a newspaper considered centre-left, concluded that the shots that killed Juancho and other demonstrators originated “from individuals identified with uniforms, plates and vehicles of SEBIN, accompanied by others dressed as civilians”.
Keenly aware of the gravity of the current situation, Maduro on Saturday called for a national peace conference with “all political sectors” to begin on Wednesday. The goal is to “try to neutralise violent groups”, he said, in what some analysts considered a reference to the collectives.
Getting rid of the guns
This is not the first attempt at a disarmament initiative.
In August 2013, Juancho stood side-by-side with President Maduro, as they destroyed 100 guns taken from the January 23 neighbourhood, in what many Venezuelans hoped would be the beginning of a broader campaign. The effort floundered.
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Politically, the process represents a tightrope for Maduro. His party apparatus depends on organisers – including collectives – to mobilise supporters in poor areas ahead of demonstrations. And with fears – warranted or otherwise – about armed opposition groups or outside intervention, many in his movement would likely question disarming loyal allies during the current crisis.
“It would be a terrible mistake from the government’s side to weaken their own shock forces, especially ahead of a possible peak in political violence,” the state official said. “Venezuela has a high proportion of gun ownership, of weapons on the street. This is dangerous for the opposition and government alike as you wouldn’t be able to determine what side someone is on. We are now in a rising conflict situation.”
Some sectors of the Chavista movement believe the collectives must retain their arms in the face of what they believe are foreign threats, emanating from the US and Colombia.
“Paramilitary forces from Colombia are already here. They aren’t just in Tachira [near the Colombia-Venezuelan border]; they are in the barrios,” Armando said. “They are strong in Petare [a neighbourhood in eastern Caracas], Carapita and in the countryside. They are in Carabobo, in an area close to Valencia called Bejuma – and also in the countryside of Barinas.
“There is a lot of struggle between irregular groups from Colombia, Venezuela and paramilitaries. It’s a kind of silent war, you don’t hear much about it in the media.”
Collective members say they, rather than the opposition, are victims of a violent class war and they need weapons for self defence.
Motorcycles are the preferred transportation for collective members, and Armando said anyone who is dark-skinned and riding a bike is now a target.
Recent events have backed that view. Someone strung wires across a motorway in a wealthy area of Caracas on Friday. The wire decapitated Elvis Duran, a 29-year-old motorcyclist riding down the road. In another twist, Maduro ordered the arrest of Retired Army General Angel Vivas, for allegedly training opposition supporters to make booby traps.
Vivas, sporting a flak jacket and assault rifle, took to the roof of his house, decrying “Cuban and Venezuelan henchmen” who were trying to arrest him.
“The collectives are prepared to fight any possible intervention,” Armando said, denying that the government was supplying them with weapons. “In the unlikely possibility of a civil war, they would be trained to fight the enemy.”
Street barricades were set up in several key areas of Caracas on Monday. Watching the situation unfold into what could become a low-level irregular conflict, Adicea Castillo, like many Venezuelans, is terrified.
“In the past, we were attacked by the army,” she reflected. “Now we have to face the army and these collectives.”
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @chrisAJE