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

Missouri Town Braces for Possible Racial Unrest

Situation in Ferguson hinges on whether white police officer will be indicted for August shooting death of unarmed black teen; decision could come Monday More

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of 1930s Deadly Famine

President Poroshenko compares Soviet-era ‘genocide’ to current tactics of pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine's east More

S. Philippines Convictions Elusive 5 Years After Election-related Killings

Officials vowed to deliver justice as the nation marked the anniversary of the country's worst political massacre that left 58 dead, more than half media More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Obama's Immigration Moves Debated on TV Talk Shows

President urges Republicans to pass legislation if they dislike executive orders he issued to address status of millions of illegals in US
More

Vazquez Is Favorite to Win Uruguay Presidential Vote

Leftist ruling party candidate buoyed by widespread affection for country's outgoing leader, strong economic growth
More

Brazil's Rousseff Struggles to Limit Petrobras Scandal's Damage

President expects bribery scandal at state-run oil company to deteriorate in coming months, aides say, with arrests possible for some political allies
More

Mexico, Central America Hail Obama's Immigration Reform

Mexican leader calls US president's proposals 'most important measures taken in several decades'
More

Torturers of Chilean President's Father Sentenced to Jail

Judge sentences 2 retired colonels to prison for committing 'crime of torture resulting in the death' of Alberto Bachelet Martinez during early days of Pinochet dictatorship
More

NYC Immigrant Advocates Praise Obama Move, Vow to Continue Fight

Threatened refusal by Republican congressional leaders to cooperate will backfire politically, attorney insists
More