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

Beijing Warns Hong Kong Protesters, Cracks Down at Home

In suppressing protest news, China reportedly has arrested more than 20 people on the mainland who acted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters More

Competing Goals Could Frustrate Efforts to Fight Islamic State

As alliances shift and countries re-define themselves, analysts say long-standing goals of some key players in Middle East may soon compete with Western goals More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Mexico Captures Wanted Drug Kingpin Hector Beltran Leyva

Beltran Leyva is one of four brothers who allegedly headed a vicious Mexican drug cartel after it split with the Sinaloa cartel
More

Mother Says Former US Marine Needs Treatment, Not Mexican Prison

Jill Tahmooressi said son Andrew, 26, has been threatened by prison guards with rape, torture and execution since his arrest in March
More

Rio 2016 Olympics Progress Impressive, Says IOC in Change of Tone

Assessment, in stark contrast to ‘worst’ ever remark made by one committee member, comes after latest site inspection
More

Mexican Soldiers Face Murder Charges in 22 Deaths

Three soldiers charged with homicide in death of 22 suspected drug gang members who prosecutors allege were executed
More

Poll: Record Number of Mexicans Crime Victims in 2013

While government data shows murder rate has fallen in past 2 years, crimes such as kidnapping and extortion, which affect wider swath of the population, rise
More

OAS Asks Members to Take In Guantanamo Detainees

Organization of American States issues appeal for member countries to take in detainees from US military prison
More