Caracas, Venezuela – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido arrived at a rally of several hundred waiting supporters last month in San Bernardino, a middle-class Caracas neighbourhood.
The stage where Guaido was set to speak was at the bottom of a long narrow street, where men, women and children had gathered.
Not long after Guaido arrived, tear gas engulfed the area, thrown by masked and heavily armed civilians on motorcycles.
From the stage, an organiser appealed to the crowd to crouch down, stay calm and not run, especially given the large number of elderly people and children there.
As soon as the gas dissipated, Guaido got on the stage just as more motorcycled men began firing live rounds, presumably to frighten off the opposition leader. He refused to budge. On this occasion, no one was killed or injured.
Venezuelans call these irregular armed gangs colectivos or collectives, while the UN Human Rights Commission describes them as para-police, or paramilitary forces loyal to President Nicolas Maduro.
Government opponents and protesters fear them far more than the police or the National Guard.
For years, they have served as an unofficial, parallel force to confront demonstrators with impunity. Often, they do not bother to cover their faces or hide their identities, as they move in to “keep social order” on behalf of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.
But for embattled President Maduro and his supporters, the collectivos are likened to “angels of socialism”.
“I admire them. They are organisations created for the good of the community. The collectives work for society, for the sick, for peace, and against crime. They have been around for 20 years as a form of organisation of the people,” said Maduro, the day after the San Bernardino incident.
He did not explain how they obtain tear gas – which is only supposed to be issued to riot police and National Guardsmen – or why many have licenses to carry weapons issued by security forces.
The San Bernardino incident came more than two months after Guaido invoked the Constitution to assume the interim presidency, declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election illegitimate. Maduro accuses Guaido and the United States of attempting a coup.
Since then, rival protests have often led to violent clashes between protesters and security forces, or often the colectivos.
The colectivos’ origins date back to the 1960s when leftist urban rebel groups inspired by the Cuban Revolution formed in Venezuela‘s working-class neighbourhoods to fight for social justice. Groups like the Tupamaros robbed banks and stole cars to finance their organisations.
By the time Chavez was elected in 1999, they’d given up on armed insurrection and decided to support his “Socialism of the 21st Century”. Chavez encouraged and subsidised the formation of old and new “collectives”, as guardians of the revolution. Many were given weapons.
Not all colectivos are alike, nor do they all function as paramilitary groups, there are colectivos that do community work and promote government social programmes.
Former urban guerrilla Juan Contreras leads the Simon Bolivar colectivo in the emblematic 23 de Enero working-class neighbourhood of Caracas, where he runs a community radio.
He is dedicated and tireless in the defence of “people’s power”. On the day I met him, he was screaming through a megaphone to alert residents to come and buy government subsidised fish for the Easter weekend.
Long gone, he said, are the days when he walked around carrying a gun, although, of course, he knows how to use one.
“I am a member of the Bolivarian Popular Militia now. If I have to take up arms and defend the revolution, that is from where I will do it,” Contreras said.
But there are other colectivos that have been using their weapons for years for other purposes.
They are well known for carrying out extrajudicial killings, kidnapping, running extortion networks and controlling lucrative food distribution networks in the community, as well as trafficking in petrol and drugs along the border with Colombia.
Valentin Santana, the leader of the La Pedrita colectivo, arguably Caracas’s largest and most powerful group, remains free and visible even though three arrest warrants have been issued against him for murder and attempted murder.
On April 30, the day of Guaido’s unsuccessful attempt to inspire a military uprising, Santana brandished an assault rifle in a video posted on Twitter, in which he announced the time had come to defend the revolution with weapons in hand.
The next day, a paramilitary group fired live rounds at demonstrators from a government building in the opposition stronghold of Altamira. State police unsuccessfully attempted to confront the “delinquents”.
The following day, the police director of operations who had commanded the operative was summarily dismissed for interfering with the gunmen.
Some argue that the government has lost control of these armed civilian bands. They do not answer to a single chain of command. But even the most unsavoury groups remain useful for intimidating, harassing, or forcibly mobilising their communities when necessary.
On February 23, the day that Maduro’s opponents attempted to bring in truckloads of food and medicine from neighbouring Colombia, I witnessed just how efficient the pro-government paramilitary groups can be.
When tear gas and rubber bullets did not seem to deter a group of some 600 government opponents on the Venezuela side of the border in San Antonio, National Guardsmen withdrew and cleared the way for the masked men on motorcycles. Immediately, people began running, terrified.
The men fired at the crowd and at the adjacent buildings for at least two hours until the main street leading up to the Simon Bolivar Bridge looked like an abandoned war zone. It’s unclear how many people were injured. I saw at least two people being dragged away, one with a gunshot wound to the head, while the masked men refused to let ambulances through.
When it was over, the para-militaries began looting a large sports store. Eventually, National Guardsmen arrived, joining in as the paramilitaries picked through t-shirts, backpacks and other choice items.
Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez claimed the armed civilians were “Colombian paramilitaries” – an argument that many on the border didn’t buy.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly has designated these civilian bands as “terrorist groups” that carry out “violent paramilitary actions, intimidation, murder and other crimes” described as “acts of state terrorism”.
But, despite an international outcry against the use of these groups in recent weeks, Maduro has come out firmly in their defence. And amid the continued attempts by his opponents to force him from office, he has called on the colectivos – without distinction – to take to the streets “to every corner to defend the Revolution”.