News / Americas

    Venezuela Violence Puts Focus on Militant 'Colectivo' Groups

    Opposition demonstrators throw stones at police during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Feb. 12, 2014.
    Opposition demonstrators throw stones at police during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Feb. 12, 2014.
    Reuters
    This week's explosion of violence in Venezuela has again put a spotlight on militant grassroots groups called “colectivos”, which view themselves as the defenders of revolutionary socialism but are denounced by opponents as thugs.
     
    A well-known colectivo leader was shot dead during competing political demonstrations in Caracas on Wednesday, while opposition activists blamed colectivos for starting the violence in which two other people died.
     
    Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez speaks during an interview in Caracas, Feb. 11, 2014.Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez speaks during an interview in Caracas, Feb. 11, 2014.
    x
    Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez speaks during an interview in Caracas, Feb. 11, 2014.
    Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez speaks during an interview in Caracas, Feb. 11, 2014.
    Colectivo members have taken to state TV to call for calm and demand the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, whom they accuse of inciting bloodshed.
     
    Using a slogan “The Exit”, the U.S.-educated Lopez has for two weeks helped organize sporadic demonstrations around the country to denounce President Nicolas Maduro for failing to control inflation, crime and product shortages.
     
    The colectivos emerged during the rule of the late Hugo Chavez as the self-appointed guardians of his leftist policies.
     
    From running security in their communities to drumming up support for government anti-poverty efforts, they function as an informal extension of the Socialist Party, frequently blurring the lines between partisan activism and community service.
     
    They are a key part of government's electoral “machinery”,  and they can move voters at the last minute to help sway close races and are sometimes tarred by critics as poll station thugs who intimidate opponents.
     
    The colectivos point to their bookshops, study groups, summer camps for children, and coffee mornings for pensioners as genuine services to their communities. They frequent government marches and rallies to keep opposition meddlers away.
     
    Maduro, Chavez's successor, said he had known the dead colectivo leader, Juan “Juancho” Montoya, since Montoya was 14 in the poor, staunchly pro-government 23 de enero (January 23) neighborhood of Caracas.
     
    “He was a fighter and a comrade,” said Glen Martinez, leader of colectivo Radio23. “Juancho was a brother and a friend. Peace cannot be placed above justice, and without justice there can't be peace.”
     
    The groups are scattered around the nation and probably have only a few thousand members. The dozen or so best-known are all based in the colectivos' heartland: the 23 de enero barrio near the center of Caracas.
     
    The 23 de enero area is home to about 100,000 people. Security is almost entirely in the hands of the colectivos. Some set up armed roadblocks at night, communicating by walkie-talkie, stopping cars and questioning passengers.
     
    Despite the groups' unstinting support for the government, their overt thuggishness can pose a public relations nightmare for the authorities.
     
    The colectivos are accused of assaulting staff at opposition TV stations, sending death threats to print journalists, and even tear-gassing the residence of the Vatican envoy in 2009 after Chavez accused the Catholic Church of meddling in politics.
     
    “The colectivos are paramilitary groups armed by the government and protected by officials in uniform,” Lopez, the opposition leader, told Reuters after Wednesday's violence.
     
    Montoya told Al Jazeera in a interview last year that if the opposition had defeated Maduro in the April 2013 election to replace Chavez, his group wouldn't have accepted the outcome.
     
    “Real Revolutionaries?”
     
    There was a scandal in 2012 after one colectivo, “La Piedrita”, posed children apparently clutching assault rifles and copies of Venezuela's constitution for a photo in front of a mural that depicted Jesus and the Virgin Mary armed with AK-47s.
     
    The group later said the guns were replicas, but there was an angry public backlash after the pictures were circulated widely on social media. Chavez himself said the photo was “indefensible”.
     
    He questioned if La Piedrita, which alludes to the saying “a pebble in the shoe”, a nuisance, were “real revolutionaries”, or actually U.S.-funded opponents seeking to discredit him.
     
    Government supporters accuse the opposition of calling for the recent street protests in the hope of staging a coup similar to one 12 years ago that briefly ousted Chavez.
     
    Members of the colectivos were then at the forefront of demonstrations that helped sweep Chavez back to power. Those dramatic events have since taken on near-religious overtones for many in the groups.
     
    Colectivos such as the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar group, named after South America's 19th century independence hero, are staunchly ideological, but deny having weapons.
     
    The group runs a radio station, left-wing bookshop, an Internet cafe, and even a veterinary clinic from a former police base, now covered with paintings of Bolivar, a masked Palestinian fighter, and Argentine guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
     
    After Wednesday's deaths, the colectivos united in calls for Montoya's killers to face swift justice.
     
    “We are not part of this game that they [the opposition] are playing to create a coup,” said one spokesman, David Romero, speaking in front of a blazing beacon known as an “eternal flame” at the military museum in 23 de enero, where Chavez is buried.
     
    “We're not imploding, like they want,” said another, Jose Odreman. “Don't be mistaken! We're more united than ever. Chavez lives, the fight continues!”

    You May Like

    Leaving Scalia Replacement to 2017 Would Mean Unusually Long Vacancy

    History of high court shows Obama not in unique situation during final year of presidency

    US Fact Checkers Debunk Some Republican Candidate Claims 

    Slim evidence for several claims made by Republican presidential candidates at their last debate ahead of next Saturday's key nominating election in South Carolina

    Uganda Presidential Debate a Small Victory for Democracy

    In homes and bars across country, Ugandans were fixated on their screens as eight political candidates running for president took part in national debate

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Ugandai
    X
    Serginho Roosblad
    February 12, 2016 9:29 PM
    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video Refugees in Kenya Vie to Compete in Rio Olympics

    In Kenya, refugees from other African nations are training at a special camp and competing for a limited number of slots in this year's Rio Olympics under the flag of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Ngong, this is a first in Olympic history.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    More Americas News

    Photogallery Pope Francis Holds Mass in Gritty Mexico City Suburb

    Ecatepec city lies in populous state of Mexico, region plagued by warring drug cartels and infamous for spate of disappearances of women

    Haitian Lawmakers Choose Jocelerme Privert as Interim President

    Privert said after the vote he hopes to lead a government that will 'foster confidence within all sectors of society'

    Mexico Accuses Prison Officials of Homicide after Brutal Riot

    Warden, two others detained following one of deadliest prison riots in Mexico's history last week; ‘Who is directly responsible? ... The director of the penitentiary,’ state prosecutor says

    Pope Tells Mexican Leaders to Provide 'True Justice'

    Pontiff warns nation's president, lawmakers against permitting privilege for an elite class at the expense of the rest of society

    More than 5,000 Pregnant Colombian Women Infected With Zika Virus

    Total number of people diagnosed in Colombia has reached 31,555, the National Health Institute says in its Epidemiology Bulletin, among them 5,013 pregnant women

    Pope-Patriarch Meeting Seen by Russians as Significant

    Meeting in Havana on Friday between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill was the first between the two church's leaders