Colectivo (Venezuela)

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Collectives
Colectivos
Country Venezuela
Preceded by Bolivarian Circles
Motives Defend the Venezuelan government and the Bolivarian Revolution.
Ideology Bolivarianism, Chavismo
Political position Far-left
Major actions Drug trafficking, arms trafficking, murder, theft, extortion[1][2]
Status Control 10% of cities throughout Venezuela[1]
Means of revenue

Government of Venezuela

Crime

  • Drug trafficking
  • Extortion

Colectivos or collectives[3] are a type of crime organization in Venezuela that supports the Government of Venezuela and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela with their Bolivarian Revolution.[4] The term may refer to a crime organization with any shared purpose, such as a neighborhood group that organizes social events, a group that has a hobby or the militant groups that have attacked individuals.[2] Some personnel of Venezuela's intelligence agencies, including the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence and the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, are also members of colectivos.[5] There are between 20 and 100 different colectivos in Venezuela, with the most prominent groups being the Tupamaros, Frente Francisco de Miranda, Alexis Vive, La Piedrita and Ciudad Socialista Frente 5 de Marzo,[6][7][8][9] controlling about 10% of cities throughout Venezuela.[1]

Colectivos say they are "dedicated to the promotion of democracy, political groups and cultural activities" in Venezuela,[4] with some colectivos help with social programs in neighborhoods.[10] However, colectivos have been described as armed gangs or paramilitary groups by many organizations, with Human Rights Watch describing them as "armed gangs who use violence with impunity" who harass political opponents of the Venezuelan government.[9][11] Colectivos have attacked Venezuelan opposition TV staff, sent death threats to journalists, and tear-gassed the Vatican envoy in 2009 after Hugo Chávez accused them of intervening with his government.[9]

History[edit]

Colectivos emerged during the 1960s from guerrilla warfare in urban Venezuela and made a return during the presidency of Hugo Chávez.[10][12] They returned after Chávez created their parent organizations known as Bolivarian Circles.[13] According to Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society, colectivos were modeled after the Iranian Basij militia, with Humire noting that Chávez had personal meetings with Iranian officials that included the commander of Basij, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Nadqi.[14] Hugo Chávez assigned colectivos to be "the armed wing of the Bolivarian Revolution" with the Venezuelan government, giving them weapons, communication systems, motorcycles and surveillance equipment to exercise control in the hills of Caracas where police are forbidden entry.[4] Some weapons claimed to have been given to the groups include assault rifles, submachine guns and grenades.[4]

Colectivos have been described as being aligned with far-left politics in Venezuela and act as "enforcers for the government", working with the Venezuelan armed forces and the ruling-party PSUV, receiving patronage from the political party.[6][15] It has been stated that they bring money into slums in Venezuela, punish criminals and intimidate political opponents.[3] Neighborhoods in the presence of colectivos note their use of weapons stating that colectivos control altercations on occasion but more often attack neighbors.[6] Some colectivos allegedly partake in drug trafficking in Venezuela and commit acts of extortion.[3]

2002 Venezuelan coup d'état attempt[edit]

When Chavez was momentarily ousted during the 2002 Venezuelan coup d'état attempt, members of some colectivos helped lead demonstrations supporting Chavez and worked with the military to help return Chavez as president.[16]

2007 Venezuelan protests[edit]

An 8 November 2007 riot at the Central University of Venezuela resulted in clashes between students and several masked gunmen, with several injuries. Armed men riding motorcycles arrived, scaring off students.[17]

2009 Globovisión attack[edit]

On 4 August 2009, several dozen motorcyclists with red berets surrounded the entrance of Globovisión's offices and subdued the security guards, entering the facility by force while tossing two tear gas canisters into the ground floor of the building. President Chávez condemned the attack and pro-government leader Lina Rón was jailed for three months following the incident.[18][19]

2009 Vatican envoy attack[edit]

Colectivos tear-gassed the Vatican envoy in 2009 after President Hugo Chávez accused the Roman Catholic Church of interfering with his government.[20][21]

2012 Venezuelan presidential election[edit]

The International Crisis Group believed that colectivos could "intimidate voters" during the presidential elections since they "secured polling stations under Plan República".[7]

2013 Venezuelan presidential election[edit]

During the Venezuelan presidential election, 2013, Reuters called colectivos "a key part of the government's electoral machinery" that "help sway close races and are sometimes tarred by critics as poll station thugs who intimidate opponents".[9] The Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, said that during the 2013 Venezuelan presidential elections, voting centers had an "intimidating climate" when "groups of motorcyclists associated with the governing party" were seen around voting centers.[22]

2014 Venezuelan protests[edit]

During the protests in 2014 against President Nicolás Maduro, colectivos acted violently against the opposition protesters, usually without impediment from Venezuelan government forces.[23] Armed groups threatened to rape individuals in an apartment complex in Maracaibo without intervention from the National Guard.[24] According to two student protestors, armed groups have also prevented some lower class Venezuelans from protesting against the government since they are already suspected of violence against protesters.[25] More than half of those killed during the protests were killed by colectivos.[26] Human Rights Watch said that "the government of Venezuela has tolerated and promoted groups of armed civilians," which HRW claims have "intimidated protesters and initiated violent incidents".[27]

These groups of guarimberos, fascists and violent [people], and today now other sectors of the country’s population as well have gone out on the streets, I call on the UBCh, on the communal councils, on communities, on colectivos: flame that is lit, flame that is extinguished.

President Nicolas Maduro [28]

Colectivos fire toward the protest where Genesis Carmona was killed

The Venezuelan prison minister, Iris Varela, has called colectivos a "fundamental pillar in the defense of the homeland".[29][30] Although President Maduro has thanked certain groups of motorcyclists for their help against what he views as a "fascist coup d'etat... being waged by the extreme right", he has also distanced himself from armed groups by stating that they "had no place in the revolution".[31] Vice President of Venezuela, Jorge Arreaza, also praised colectivos saying, "If there has been exemplary behavior it has been the behavior of the motorcycle colectivos that are with the Bolivarian revolution."[32] On 28 March 2014, Arreaza promised that the government would disarm all irregular armed groups in Venezuela.[33]

In a report titled Punished for Protesting, Human Rights Watch stated that government forces "repeatedly allowed" colectivos "to attack protesters, journalists, students, or people they believed to be opponents of the government with security forces just meters away" and that "in some cases, the security forces openly collaborated with the pro-government attackers". Human Rights Watch also stated that they "found compelling evidence of uniformed security forces and pro-government gangs attacking protesters side by side.[28]

Attack on Fermín Toro University[edit]

On 5 May 2014, during the 2014 protests, armed colectivos attacked and burned a large portion of Fermín Toro University after intimidating student protesters and shooting one.[34][35] The colectivos damaged 40% of the university and looted items after breaking into the facility.[36]

Robert Serra's murder[edit]

On 1 October 2014, rising PSUV member and colectivo mediator Robert Serra and his companion were stabbed more than 30 times to death in Serra's "heavily guarded home".[37][38][39][40] Though the Venezuelan government blames the Venezuelan opposition for his death, others have called his murder an inside job.[37] Days later on 7 October, clashes between Venezuelan police and colectivos began when police raided the headquarters of the Shield of the Revolution colectivo and according to "a close associate of Serra" and leader of the 5 de Marzo colectivo, José Odreman, a colectivo member was "shot dead in his sleep" during the raid.[41] During the raid, three officers were allegedly taken hostage.[41][42]

In a pause between the fighting, Odreman made statements hinting at the involvement between the clash and Serra's death, criticized law enforcement corruption and said to Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres, “I lay full responsibility on you of what might happen to me. Enough comrades have been sacrificed”.[41][43][44] A little over an hour after his statements, photographs emerged showing the 5 de Marzo colectivo leader Odreman being held captive by Venezuelan authorities followed by videos which showed his dead body lying in a pool of blood.[41][43] The Venezuelan government has denied any relations between Serra and stated that the clashes between colectivos and authorities were due to a murder investigation.[41][43] The director of CICPC, José Gregorio Sierralta, stated that officers were allegedly fired upon and responded with deadly force that killed the colectivo members including Odreman.[44] However, residents of the building denied Sierralta's statements stating that there was no confrontation or hostages, that Venezuelan authorities first raided the building allegedly killing one member in his sleep then raided the building once more supposedly capturing and executing the other four colectivo members, altered nearby evidence and stole items from the scene.[45][46] President Maduro also stated that the five men who were killed in the incident were allegedly a gang of former police officers led by Odreman.[47] Runrunes noted in an investigative article that the police and bodyguards arrested by Venezuelan authorities involved with Serra's death were also members of colectivos.[48]

Response of colectivos[edit]

Following the clashes, Humberto López or "El Ché", a leader of colectivos stated that all colectivos were in "war footing" and that the colectivos "did not bet on death, we are committed to war. All colectivos are up in arms". Noting that the Venezuelan Housing Mission buildings are in the hills of Caracas, El Ché assured that colectivos will not discriminate between government or opposition supporters and that "the people will lose the hills" if needed.[49][50]

Colectivos protested against the incidents and demanded the dismissal of then Ministry of Popular Power for Interior, Justice and Peace, Miguel Rodríguez Torres.[42] Weeks later on 24 October, the Miguel Rodríguez Torres was replaced by Carmen Meléndez, with one of the reasons allegedly being the pressure by colectivos placed on the Venezuelan government following the incidents.[51] President Maduro also called on Freddy Bernal, a government leader with close ties to colectivos, to "reform" the police after the incident.[3] Following the dismissal of Rodríguez Torres, the 5 de Marzo colectivo also called for the dismissal of Diosdado Cabello.[52]

Attack on the University of Los Andes[edit]

On 2 March 2015, armed groups of colectivos in Mérida reportedly attacked the University of Los Andes, supposedly to intimidate the protest site, shooting guns at students and faculty while also holding 3 students hostage and stealing belongings of students.[53][54]

2017 Venezuelan protests[edit]

During the 2017 Venezuelan protests, The New York Times stated that colectivos "appear to be playing a key role in repressing dissent". The colectivos fought beside official Venezuelan authorities and "engage in fiercer and often deadly intimidation". [1] Days before the Mother of All Marches, Diosdado Cabello, a high-level PSUV official loyal to the Bolivarian government, stated that 60,000 motorized colectivos and the Bolivarian Militia would be spread throughout Caracas on 19 April "until necessary" to deter the opposition's "megamarch", calling their actions "terrorism".[55] During that march, two young protesters, Carlos Moreno, a 17-year-old boy was shot in the head and killed while 23-year-old Paola Ramírez, were allegedly killed by members of colectivos.[56]

In early 2018, members of colectivos in Aragua state appeared on a Colombian radio show and explained that they were paid by the government to violently prevent opposition marches and that some of their colleagues had "murdered several people".[57][additional citation(s) needed]

El Junquito raid[edit]

Colectivos were involved in the operation to kill Venezuelan rebel Óscar Alberto Pérez, working beside Venezuelan troops during the event. Heiker Leobaldo Vásquez Ferrera of a colectivo located in 23 de Enero was killed during the operation, with Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture highlighting that such cooperation between colectivos and Venezuelan authorities shows little separation between the two entities.[58][59][60]

Community works[edit]

According to ABC News, colectivos run health clinics and several education initiatives, with funds which they receive from the government.[61] Some colectivos help with after-school programs, child care centers, puppet shows, drug rehabilitation, and sports programs; they also encourage voting by going door to door and protect communities from criminals.[10] Every member of a colectivo are required to bring ten individuals to vote at polls during elections.[61]

Crime[edit]

Colectivos provide protection from crime in some instances to neighborhoods they are involved in,[3] though some neighborhoods report that colectivos attack neighbors themselves.[6] As colectivos attempted to grow more independent from the Bolivarian government, they began "controlling organized crime like drug trafficking in Caracas barrios"[1]

Some colectivos patrol the 23 de Enero motorcycles, masked and armed, supposedly to protect the neighborhood from criminals such as drug dealers.[61] According to ABC News, "it is widely believed that colectivos kill drug traffickers who do not obey their orders".[61]

According to the International Crisis Group, colectivos may be involved in drug trafficking, arms dealing, and car theft.[2] Phil Gunson, a freelance reporter for foreign media, states that, "It's no secret that many colectivos engage in criminal activities".[2] Gunson reported that colectivos combat criminal gangs in neighborhoods and take over the previous gang's business in crime and also take over buildings already own by individuals and force them to pay rent.[2] Colectivos allegedly were also partially responsible for the increase in the number of murders in Venezuela for 2011 according to the Metropolitan Observatory on Citizen Security.[62]

Funding and resources[edit]

Monetary funding[edit]

Colectivos were initially funded by the Bolivarian government.[63] Some colectivos, such as the Tupamaros, have formal links with the Venezuelan government and politics, with over 7,000 individuals involved around the City of Caracas payroll since 2008.[2] President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, along with Freddy Bernal and Eliezer Otaiza, have been accused of directing colectivos by organizing and paying them with money from the funds of Petróleos de Venezuela.[13][64] Colectivos also receive funds from government funding for community projects.[2] Alejandro Velasco, a Latin American Studies professor at New York University states that colectivos "receive government funding through both formal and informal channels, including slush funds the government doles out to different sectors" and also have "personal ties between members and government officials to access resources".[2]

As colectivos grew less dependent on the government, they began to fund themselves through crimes such as drug trafficking and extortion.[63] Gunson states that some funding for colectivos comes from demanding payment for protection and requiring members to pay fees.[2] According to The New York Times, colectivos "control vast territory across Venezuela, financed in some cases by extortion, black-market food and parts of the drug trade as the government turns a blind eye in exchange for loyalty".[1]

Weapons[edit]

The arming of colectivos has been debated. It has been stated that the Venezuelan government directly arms colectivos with weapons.[4] However, Velasco believes that use the same formal and informal methods of receiving funds is used for weapons as well.[2] These methods include being armed and trained in formal government militias or working as security and bodyguards.[2] Despite the Venezuelan government's statements saying that only official authorities can carry weapons for the defense of Venezuela, colectivos are armed with automatic rifles such as AK-47s, submachine guns, fragmentation grenades, and tear gas.[2][61]

Prominent groups[edit]

La Piedrita[edit]

La Piedrita colectivo is one of the most influential colectivos in Caracas,[6] specifically in 23 de Enero where it has its roots dating back to 1985 with founders Carlos Ramírez and Valentín Santana.[65][66] La Piedrita formally organized when Bolivarian Circles began to be established in Venezuela[13] and since then, has been described as a colectivo that is one of "the most violent in the country".[66] La Piedrita was also headed by Lina Ron, who at the time of her leadership stated that thousands of Bolivarian Circles such as her own were "armed to the teeth".[13][67] Ron allegedly had a connection with Diosdado Cabello as well from as early as 2002 where Cabello was allegedly the key supporter of Ron.[13] Also, Cabello had supposedly mediated between La Piedrita and the Tupamaros when they had a conflict in 2010.[13]

Tupamaros[edit]

The Revolutionary Tupamaro Movement (Tupamaro) is a far left Marxist colectivo and political organization in Venezuela. Several Tupamaros participate in peaceful movements while some believe the "idea of armed struggle as a means to gain power."[68] Chávez's government had an "ambiguous" relationship with the Tupamaros, who helped manage social programs, such as child care and drug rehabilitation centers, and promoted political participation; however, the Tupamaros' involvement in vigilante justice in high crime areas that the police force often avoided led to rifts with the federal government, which resorted on occasions to using the military to deal with the groups when they clashed with police.[69] The Tupamaros are known to "cleanse" neighborhoods they are in of criminals: if repeated warnings to criminals to leave an area fail, they often resort to murder using "death squads",[68][69] though some claim that these measures are taken to remove competition in the area.[70] It was alleged that during the 2014 Venezuelan protests, Tupamaros worked with the Venezuelan National Guard to attack protesters, with videos and pictures uploaded to social networks purporting this to be true.[71]

Controversy[edit]

In a March 2014 interview, Reinaldo Iturriza, the current Minister of Communes in Venezuela, condemned what he perceives as the campaign to demonize the 'colectivos' by attributing recent violence to them and defining them as armed paramilitary groups. He insisted that "the collectives are not synonymous with guns and violence, but with popular participation, organization, and mobilization, [...] with working together with the Bolivarian government to solve specific problems in the communities."[72] In an opinion article on the pro-Chavez website, Venezuelanalysis.com, Tamara Pearson accused the private media and opposition groups of falsely portraying the colectivos as "irrational, cruel, grotesque armed motorbike riders who 'enforce' the revolution and are responsible for most of the current violence"; she suggested that using the term in this way was part of a campaign to demonize "the real collectives in Venezuela; the social organisations – feminist collectives, community organisations, environment and education collectives, cultural groups, mural painters and so on." [73] Spokesmen for colectivos also denied accusations with one member of the Ciudad Socialista Frente 5 de Marzo colectivo stating that they were a "community organization" and that in the presence of their colectivo "crime fell by 60%".[6]

Involvement in education[edit]

Children of the La Piedrita colectivo receiving awards at the Palacio Municipal de Caracas.

Colectivos run several education initiatives.[61] According to Ennio Cardozo, a professor of political science at the Central University of Venezuela, colectivos "do talks, forums and they indoctrinate very young kids into Marxism. The government finances all this. But if you don't agree with them they will shut you out from most of the social programs until you give allegiance to the (socialist) party".[61] The president of the School of Teachers Sectional Tachira, Javier Tarazona, states the Venezuelan government encourages the participation of guerrillas and colectivos in schools and that their involvement allegedly "promotes violence, confrontation and, if necessary, war".[74]

The president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Private Education, María Teresa Hernández claims that Resolution 058 by the government is "unconstitutional" and that it "seeks for colectivos with political projects of the ruling to be directly involved in public and private schools" in Venezuela. She continued saying that schoolchildren are "very easy to manipulate" and need to develop political beliefs on their own.[75] This move violates Articles 102, 103 and 104 of the Venezuelan Constitution which states, "That the guidelines and principles to advance quality education and also inclusive and non-discriminatory and responsive only to doctrinaire anachronistic and obsolete ideology are reflected. The 102, for example, states that "education is a public service and is based on all currents of thought"...[76]

Reactions[edit]

Media[edit]

The New York Times describe them as groups that "originated as pro-government community organizations that have long been a part of the landscape of leftist Venezuelan politics ... civilians with police training, colectivo members are armed by the government".[1] They further state that "colectivos are appearing almost anywhere the government sees citizens getting out of line".[1] The United Nations describe colectivos as "pro-Government armed groups".

Governmental[edit]

During the 2014 Venezuelan protests, various organizations expressed concerns towards the actions of colectivos. The European Parliament asked the Venezuelan government to "immediately disarm and dissolve the uncontrolled armed pro-government groups and end their impunity."[32][77] United States Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Venezuelan government of using "armed vigilantes" against those who opposed the Venezuelan government.[32]

As the 2017 Venezuelan protests intensified, during the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Worldwide Threats Hearing (SH-216) on 11 May 2017, Senator Marco Rubio discussed with Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Mike Pompeo the role and actions of colectivos in Venezuela. Senator Rubio asks if there is a "real threat" of colectivos selling advanced weaponry to the FARC, drug cartels or terrorists on the black market, to which Director Pompeo replies, "it is a real threat ... Maduro gets more desperate by the hour, the risk of these colectivos acting in a way that is not under his control increases as time goes on as well", mentioning that there has not been evidence of major arms deals taking place, though "stockpiles exist".[78][79]

Supranational organizations[edit]

The United Nations states that "[c]olectivos are organizations which formed to support their communities and implement governmental programs ... they decide who receives government assistance and perform surveillance and intelligence activities for the authorities. ... While not all colectivos are armed ... pro-Government armed groups ... intimidated, threatened and attacked people perceived as opposed to the Government".[80]

According to a report by the Organization of American States discussing human rights violations performed in Venezuela, colectivos murdered at least 131 individuals between 2014 and 2017.[81]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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