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Colectivos

Updated: Feb 21


Introduction & Overview


Colectivos are armed, far-left paramilitary groups that reside in Venezuela’s poorest neighbourhoods and slums. Loyal to the Venezuelan government and the Bolivarian Revolution, they act mainly as government enforcers to maintain order and suppress dissent. Numbered in the hundreds, members of Colectivos are armed, funded directly by the government, and are usually seen travelling on motorcycles in large groups.


History & Foundations


The Colectivos emerged during a period of armed leftist rebellions against the presidency of Rómulo Betancourt in the 1960s. Some of these groups, like the Tupamaros (named after the former Uruguayan group with the same name), conducted bank robberies and engaged in car theft to fund their activities. Decades later, in 1998, they publicly endorsed Hugo Chavez’s candidacy for presidency (Infobae, 2017a).


Following his election a year later, most of these groups gave up their armed struggle and decided to support the new socialist government (Newman, 2019). Chavez took advantage of this trend and decided to fund, organize, and arm these groups to protect his revolution and broader political ambitions. Later, these groups came to be referred to as the Bolivarian Circles, which were part of political groups set up by Chavez to garner grassroots support.


During the events preceding the April 2002 coup that saw Chavez temporarily removed from power, the groups proved their loyalty to him and his government by engaging in violent acts against anti-government protestors participating in mass worker strikes. During the protests, members of the Bolivarian Circles shot at protestors that were marching towards the presidential palace and later exchanged fire with police officers. The incident resulted in 19 deaths and over a hundred injuries. After the incident, Chavez’s government began to refer to the groups as “colectivos'' ('collectives' in English) and began the process of legitimisation by including these groups in the political process on a local level (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2018). This process included the covert arming of the groups with decommissioned and confiscated handguns from military bases by the director of Venezuela’s national intelligence agency (Briceño, 2019).


Following this explicit support and 'normalisation', political attacks grew rampant and violence grew steadily. In 2003, a Colectivo by the name of Coordinadora Simón Bolívar aided the Bolivarian Forces of Liberation (a communist guerrilla group) in a series of coordinated bombing attacks targeting the Spanish and Colombian embassies in Caracas (Medina, 2003). Years later, in 2008, Colectivos once again participated in a series of coordinated bombings, this time targeting the headquarters of Venezuela’s largest business union, Fedecámaras. The perpetrator, an active member of the Metropolitan police department, was the sole victim of the bombing after one of his explosives detonated prematurely. Further blame was placed on a Colectivo called Frente Guerrillero Venceremos, following the discovery of pamphlets belonging to the group at the scene (El Universo, 2008). A few weeks before this attack, another Colectivo attempted to blow up the George Washington statue in Caracas. The bomb detonated, but only caused minor damage (Infobae, 2017b).


In 2009, several canisters of tear gas were fired at the Vatican’s diplomatic headquarters by a Colectivo in response to them offering asylum to Nixon Moreno, an anti-government protestor accused of attempting to rape a police officer. Colectivo La Piedrita claimed responsibility, leaving pamphlets outside the building accusing the Catholic Church of treason against the Venezuelan people (CNN, 2009).


That same year, the group raided and tear gassed the headquarters of Globovision, a prominent television news network accused by Chavez of inciting violence and conspiring against his government (Reuters, 2009). Despite the government's support for the Colectivos, this attack drew strong condemnation, leading them to imprison the leader of the group, Lina Ron, for three months. Following the incident, the U.S. embassy in Venezuela suggested to the American government that Lina Ron be added to a list of suspected terrorists for her involvement in the attack (Semana, 2011).


More recently, in 2017, colectivos stormed the National Assembly building armed with firearms and attacked opposition legislators with teargas and pipes, injuring 7 (Ramírez & Rawlins, 2017).


Today, there are hundreds of different Colectivos around the country, with some of the largest and most prominent ones being based in the capital city of Caracas (Infobae, 2017a). In fact, in the 23 de Enero neighbourhood alone, there are reportedly over 46 different Colectivos (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2018). Some of the most prominent groups include La Piedrita, Alexis Vive, Los Tupamaros, and la Coordinadora Simón Bolívar.


Objectives & Ideology


Colectivos are known to be relatively homogeneous ideologically, with all of them uniformly endorsing the current government of Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution. Ideologies may vary on a smaller scale, with different forms or approaches to leftism, but the two major tenets of their beliefs are Bolivarianism (a mix of nationalistic and socialist ideals named after Simon Bolivar) and Chavismo (the socialist ideology of Hugo Chavez).


Despite their strong support for the Venezuelan government, some Colectivos reportedly have ill-feelings towards Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked predecessor following his death in 2013. This stems from a variety of issues that include reduced funding, perceived government hostility towards the groups, and the belief that Maduro has corrupted Chavez’s revolution and led the country to deteriorate. Nonetheless, the groups remain loyal to the revolution and government because they prefer it over the pro-capitalist opposition government. However, it is reported that the government has lost control of many of these groups as they refuse to answer to them, instead opting to defend the revolution and government independently and on their own terms.


Overall, the group's main objectives are to 'protect' (as they view it) Venezuela from foreign intervention and to uphold Chavez’s legacy and revolution. On the local level, the groups serve as security in certain neighbourhoods and are known to conduct a wide array of community service. Among these are after-school programs, sports events, and drug rehabilitation programs (Markovits & Bevins, 2008). This is notably the case following Chavez’s dissolution of the Metropolitan Police in 2011, as security in certain neighborhoods was turned over to the Colectivos (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2018).


To this day, police rarely enter or patrol these areas, often allowing the groups to govern themselves. One of these neighbourhoods is the 23 de Enero neighbourhood in Caracas, which is regarded as a hotbed for the armed groups. Here, Colectivos impose roadblocks to tax vehicles, controlling movement into the neighbourhood while also reportedly imposing protection taxes on residents. The groups also claim to combat crime, regularly executing drug dealers and thieves (Markovits & Bevins, 2008).


However, despite the groups' alleged involvement in fighting crime and curbing the local drug trade, Colectivos have long been accused of trafficking both drugs and weapons, as well as participating in organized crime, a claim that has been reinforced by locals and investigative journalists alike (Briceño, 2019) (Infobae, 2020) (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2018).


The Colectivos are also used by the government to help administer social programs, ultimately deciding who gets government assistance in certain neighbourhoods. However, the groups have often been accused of stealing medicine and food rations from these programs to sell on the black market. They have also been accused of using aid programs to discriminate politically, with residents of one neighborhood complaining that Colectivos would threaten to shoot and refuse to give food to those who spoke negatively about the government (Transparencia Venezuela, 2019) (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2018). The groups also reportedly provide intelligence and surveillance for the government (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2017) and patrol polling stations during election seasons, often engaging in threats and violence against voters.


These incidents of voter intimidation are not uncommon. In 2021, Colectivos conducted a drive-by shooting on a voting center, killing a young man and injuring two others (Infobae, 2021). That same day, Colectivos threatened voters and fired their weapons in the air at another voting center close to the site of the first shooting (Monitoreamos, 2021b).


On the national level, the groups are used by the government to stifle dissent, often targeting anti-government protests and members of the opposition. Maduro has publicly called on the groups to maintain order before, most notably during the 2019 electricity blackouts where he asked them to participate in “active resistance”, presumably against saboteurs and rioters (Diario las Américas , 2019).


Colectivos often work as security for public officials, serving as bodyguards for local politicians pertaining to the ruling PSUV party (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) (Gurney, 2014) (Kobelinsky, 2017). It is also not uncommon for Colectivo members to hold positions in government, especially on the local level. One colectivo group, the ‘Tupamaros’, allegedly had close ties with the former mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, who ended up appointing a leader of the group as the city's deputy director of public safety (Gurney, 2014).


Approach to Resistance


As previously stated, Colectivos regularly engage in political intimidation, often threatening opposition politicians and their supporters. This is regularly done by sending death threats to protestors to prevent them from taking the streets (Barráez, 2019). Colectivos are also widely known for disrupting and sabotaging anti-government protests, something which they have admitted they are paid by the government to do (Voz de América, 2018).


The violence caused at these protests is large and indiscriminate, often coming through the form of shooting at protestors. During anti-government protests in 2014, for example, the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS) reported that Colectivos were responsible for at least 437 violent attacks on protestors in the first quarter of the year, with most cases resulting in gunshot wounds. One of these attacks resulted in the murder of Genesis Carmona, a young college student and beauty pageant queen. The shooting led to widespread controversy around the country and - despite the government blaming it on the protestors - footage showed government supporters firing a barrage of shots at marchers seconds before Carmona was hit (La Vanguardia, 2014).


Three years later, during widespread anti-government protests that gripped the country, Colectivos killed 27 protestors and engaged in kidnapping and arbitrary arrests, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Following these incidents, the European Parliament asked the Venezuelan government to “immediately disarm and dissolve all uncontrolled armed pro-government groups and end their impunity" (European Parliament, 2014). Venezuela's National Assembly followed suit a few years later, declaring their actions as “state terrorism” (Europa Press, 2019).


In 2018, the groups once again made national headlines after they shot at interim President Juan Guiado and his supporters at an opposition rally. The armed men later attacked journalists and stole one of the cars used to transport politicians (Meléndez, 2020) (Reuters, 2020).


Two years later, in 2021, the Colectivos were believed to be behind an assault on the campaign center of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), a coalition of opposition parties, that left a legislator badly beaten (Monitoreamos, 2021a).


More recently, in 2022, several female students reported that Colectivos had grabbed them and ripped their fingernails out during protests at the University of the Andes in Merida state. The protests had been surrounding Diosdado Cabellos visit to the university, a high ranking Venezuelan politician and one of Maduro’s closest associates (NTN24, 2022). This attack was not an isolated incident, however, as Colectivos have repeatedly targeted university students in the past. Seven years prior, colectivos stormed the same university, firing shots at students and assaulting them (Diario las Américas, 2015).


While the Colectivos' attacks on anti-government protests are fairly common, their repression of workers on strike such as teachers and doctors has also been well documented. In 2016, Colectivos assaulted and kidnapped doctors who were protesting the dismissal of three of their colleagues for accepting medicinal donations from opposition politicians (Lozada, 2016). Additionally, in 2023, Colectivos threatened and shot at teachers who were protesting for better salaries around the country (NTN24, 2023) (Barráez, 2019).


Their attacks on journalists have also been widely reported, notably in 2020 when Colectivos assaulted and robbed journalists covering the arrival of opposition leader Juan Guaido outside of the Simon Bolivar International Airport, near Caracas. Journalists present at the airport reported that police watched the incident take place, but did not intervene (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2020). Prior to that, in 2012, Colectivos shot up an opposition rally being attended by presidential candidate Henrique Caprilles and then proceeded to attack and rob several journalists at gunpoint (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2012).


In 2021, men and women allegedly pertaining to local Colectivos were caught on video touring an occupied apartment building accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Housing. According to building residents, they were attempting to break into empty apartments with the intention of occupying them (800Noticias, 2021). InSight Crime reports that these instances of illegal seizures of property are not uncommon, as many buildings and businesses that were temporarily shut down due to COVID around Venezuela were later occupied by Colectivos (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2021).


UPDATES:


During Venezuela's October 2023 opposition primaries, a voting center was teargassed (Meza, 2023), and another was threatened, prompting officials to change locations (Alcalde, 2023). The violent theft of electoral material was also reported at another voting center (Maduradas, 2023). Colectivos were suspected to be responsible. Numerous unconfirmed videos of colectivos harassing voters around the country, some with firearms, have spread throughout social media.


In February 2024, Colectivos blocked roads in the Petare neighbourhood of Caracas to demand that Police release detained members of the group that had been arrested on a variety of criminal charges. Armed with firearms, Colectivo members forced bus drivers to park their buses diagonally on the road, blocking the flow of traffic. They also threatened a garbage truck into emptying its contents, which they lit on fire, in front of the police station (Hernández, 2024).


Military Capabilities


The colectivos are known to be extremely well armed and possess a variety of weapons, many of which they flaunt at protests and on social media. On top of their access to rifles such as FALs, AKs, and AR-15s, they are also known to be in possession of other firearms such as shotguns, submachine guns and handguns, as well as tear gas and grenades. The groups obtain these weapons through funds provided by the government, on the black market, or from working security for politicians (Gurney, 2014). It is also not uncommon to see them openly brandish and carry firearms in day to day life, despite firearm ownership being illegal and punishable by up to 20 years in Venezuela (Infobae, 2017a) (BBC, 2014).


Moreover, it is important to note that, while not all Colectivos are armed equally or have access to the same firepower, most are at the minimum equipped with 9mm pistols (Unidad Investigativa de Venezuela, 2019).


Political Alliances & Opposition


Venezuela’s Colectivos have been heavily influenced by Iran’s civilian Basij paramilitary force. In 2009, the then-commander of the Basij, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, and then-Iranian defence minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, visited president Hugo Chavez in Caracas. Allegedly, these visits served to aid in the training of Venezuela's own civilian militias, the Colectivos (Humire, 2015).


The groups have maintained somewhat close ties with Venezuelan security forces, with many members having received prior training from police (Torres & Casey, 2017). Colectivos can often be seen working alongside law enforcement to conduct raids and provide security (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2017). The most notable occurrence of this was when colectivo members participated in the 2018 operation to kill rebel commander Oscar Perez alongside Venezuelan troops and state security forces (Fiorella & Leroy, 2018).


One Colectivo, called ‘Tres Raíces’, even has several of its members serving in the country’s National Intelligence Service and local police. This has often allowed them to evade justice and prosecution for murders and kidnappings that members of the group have been linked to (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2018).


Due to these close ties with the government and national security forces, the groups are able to operate with impunity. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, police once left a protest when Colectivos arrived and refused to help those that the group attacked. The British Embassy in Caracas also reported that the members of the group are rarely arrested for breaking the law, and if they are, they are almost immediately let go (Transparencia Venezuela, 2020). In 2018, members of the Colectivo ‘La Piedrita’ participated in military exercises alongside Venezuelan troops. They openly brandished firearms and their leader, Valentin Santana, met with several government officials and high ranking members of the military, despite having two active arrest warrants for homicide (Meléndez, 2018).


Despite this, however, the relationship between Colectivos and police is not always positive, and clashes between them have occurred on more than one instance, often due to animosity between both groups over who holds rightful authority. This stems from the fact that security forces are barred from entering certain neighborhoods by Colectivos, instead being forced to cooperate with them in order to enter these areas.


In 2014, a gunfight between Venezuelan police and members of the Colectivos ‘5 de Marzo’ and ‘Escudo de la Revolución’ resulted in five dead Colectivo members (Pachico, 2014). That same year, security forces killed the leader of the ‘5 de Marzo’ Colectivo, who happened to be a former police officer (Rísquez, 2018). The Colectivos are also known to sometimes clash with each other over territory and drug routes (Infobae, 2017a).


In 2008, it was revealed that several Colectivos from Caracas had been in contact with the Colombia's FARC, a communist guerrilla group, and had received training from them (Stone, 2011).


In regards to the group's funding, the government's initial payments to the Colectivos came through the form of slush funds and direct payment from politicians to members of the group. Nowadays, Colectivos are often paid with food and supplies rather than money (Gurney, 2014). While most Colectivos were originally reliant on this government funding, budget cuts have meant that many groups have had to rely on other means to obtain funds, both through legal and illegal means (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2018).


One Colectivo, for instance, runs an official bodyguard service while others run casinos and various small businesses (Rísquez, 2018). The groups are also known to control illegal gold mines around the country and allegedly tax miners and local communities (Rendon et al., 2020). Drug and weapons trafficking is also common, from which a sizable portion of their income is believed to derive from (Venezuela Investigative Unit, 2018).

Works cited (APA-style)

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VENEZUELA INVESTIGATION UNIT. (2021, March 2). Colectivos ramp up property seizures in Venezuela. InSight Crime. https://insightcrime.org/news/colectivos-ramp-up-property-seizures-in-venezuela/

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