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

    Turkey, US Splits Deepen Over Support for Kurdish Militants

    Ankara summons American ambassador to protest remarks by State Department spokesman who said Washington does not consider Syria's Kurdish Democracy Union Party (PYD) a terrorist organization

    Obama Seeking $19 Billion for National Cybersecurity

    Move, touted as attempt to build broad, cohesive federal response to cyberthreats, calls for increase in cybersecurity spending across all government agencies

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire, who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.

    More Americas News

    Video Olympics Technology Center Getting Ready for 2016 Games

    This year, the whole system will be cloud-based, enabling millions of fans around the world instant access to relevant information about the competition

    Red Cross Scales Up Community Action to Combat Zika

    ICRCS is mobilizing its large volunteer force in affected communities to help them clear up trash and areas where mosquitoes can breed

    Haiti's Prime Minister Calls for Peace on 1st Day Without President

    Evans Paul urges Haitian protesters to end weeks of sometimes violent street marches and join a dialogue to create a transitional government

    Social Media Erupts in Support of Sikh Man Barred from Flight

    Waris Ahluwalia says he was barred from boarding a flight from Mexico City to New York because he refused to remove his turban

    Canada Ending Airstrikes in Iraq, Syria

    Canadian PM Trudeau said a campaign of airstrikes is useful for bringing short-term gains, but not for long-term stability

    Cuban Baseball Stars, the Gurriel Brothers, Abandon Team

    A record 150 baseball players defected last year; Gurriels deemed exceptional loss because of skill, fame and perceived loyalty