Chavista “Collectives” : How 21st Century Brown Shirts Oppress Venezuelans
EspañolAs Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis worsens and protests against the government increase, the violent “collectives,” the Chavista regime’s “shock troops,” have become infamous for their attacks against opposition politicians, journalists, and citizens.
On Thursday, June 9, Julio Borges, the leader of the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, was brutally assaulted while protesting peacefully in front of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Borges himself accused the Chavista collectives of carrying out the attack.
One week earlier, on June 2, several armed men harassed and attacked journalists — while also stealing their equipment — as they covered a protest against the government that arose a few blocks away from the presidential palace in Caracas. This assault took place in broad daylight and in front of the state’s security forces as residents of nearby neighborhoods protested against the worsening food shortages.
As Venezuela’s security deteriorates, the PanAm Post spoke to Saverio Vivas, a community leader who lives in Catia, a working class zone in Western Caracas where at least 15 armed collectives act with impunity.
Vivas decided to reveal information about the armed groups that defend Maduro’s government and whose slogan is “Fatherland, Socialism, or Death.”
What are the armed collectives? Who created them and what is their objective?
“Collectives” are armed groups. They are paramilitary units which the government astutely calls by another name.
The government itself created these paramilitary groups so that they would defend the regime and exert social control over the population. Their objective is to exert force upon the people in order to avoid a large-scale rebellion.
Here, in the west of Caracas, things take place that are not seen elsewhere. In poorer neighborhoods, armed groups are carrying out government functions.
In the Catia sector, for example, there are areas that are not under police control; the armed “collectives” exert power.
Several days ago, the collectives did not allow police officers to enter a neighborhood (23 de Enero) in order to protect drug dealers as well as gambling and prostitution networks. The national government was well aware that this was taking place and turned a blind eye.
The fact is that, today, the Venezuelan government needs to keep the population under control. As food and medicine shortages, hunger, and corruption cause ever greater discontent, citizens will be tempted to take to the streets and protest massively, as would be the case in any country. In Venezuela, however, when citizens protest on the streets, the armed collectives do the government’s dirty work by threatening people and suppressing dissent.
Since the National Police cannot shoot against citizens since this would have legal consequences, the government allows the armed collectives to shoot and kill with absolute impunity.
Even state television programs have openly supported these paramilitaries, arguing that they deserve support since they keep Hugo Chávez’s going.
How do the collectives operate? How are they financed? Surely they don’t do the government’s dirty work for free.
The collectives receive different forms of payment. In the first place, their members are hired directly by the government, both by ministries and local administrations controlled by Chavistas. The government is hiring criminals as security personnel just because they are willing to kill.
They are willing to commit all sorts of crimes without any qualms. They even have entire geographical areas under criminal control, and they achieve this with intimidation.
Not long ago, Caracas’s mayor (Jefe de Gobierno) led a group of armed thugs who attacked several journalists in the Libertador municipality. Who was in charge of committing these crimes? The municipality’s Chief of Security. He’s a member of the collectives.
Aside from receiving funds directly from the state, the collectives also enrich themselves since they can break the law with impunity. The government allows them to commit crimes in a certain sector, looking the other way as the deal drugs and carry out other illicit activities.
For example, when motorcycle gang members are arrested by the police, the officers realize that the thugs carry ID cards from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) or from the forensic services (CICPC). So, even if they arrest them, they soon get a call from Vice-President’s office ordering their release. The government has created an entire system of impunity.
At this point, when popular discontent is so great, the national government understands that they have to rely on armed groups to control the population. So there will never be a lack of money to pay members of the collectives, nor will there be any incentive to end their impunity when it comes to drug trafficking, prostitution rings, and extortion rackets.
The collectives have two functions: they are underworld criminals and, at the same time, they are public sector workers.
In Venezuela, the National Police knows its role. At the same time, the government has given criminal groups paramilitary power. In certain geographical areas, these collectives have the authority to steal, deal drugs, assault citizens, and, in general, to do as they please.
How many armed collectives are there in Venezuela?
It’s very difficult to say how many there are in total. The fact is that forming an armed collective is a lucrative business in Venezuela.
For example, if someone leads an armed, criminal band that has some degree of respect on the street, they can approach any local council member from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and offer them protection. It’s that simple.
There are many collectives. Some are better known than others, and some are more violent than the rest. Some of them even play a “social” role, for example providing security for children as they play baseball, watching over the game while holding guns in their hands.
We shouldn’t forget that citizens have no right to bear arms in Venezuela. Supposedly, only the state can handle weapons of any kind. Any person who has a non-registered weapon is a criminal, and all of the collectives are made up of armed criminals even if they call themselves “Peace Collectives.”
Not many people say the truth about the collectives openly because they are afraid. Very few are willing to speak out about the reasons why the collectives are so powerful, as I am doing now.
And I decided to speak because I’m tired. I also want to provide an example to others who may be afraid. But it’s time to put fear aside.
As protests increase in number and scope, the armed collectives act ever more shamelessly, for instance assaulting citizens in front of the security forces, whose members do nothing…
That’s correct. It’s very important to clarify that they act with impunity, with the support of the national government, of the National Police and other authorities.
The armed collectives have so much power that they have been able to pressure the government to fire two Ministers of Interior Relations. Recently, after the events in the 23 de Enero neighborhood, a senior police officer was fired for arresting the members of a collective who had kidnapped a diplomat.
When will things change if the collectives seem to be more powerful than the government?
I’m speaking to you now because I’m tired of seeing how my daughter must endure hunger. At some point, all decent Venezuelans will have to face the armed bands whose members have no remorse for the suffering they are causing.
They only defend their own interests and protect PSUV politicians and bureaucrats. But we are reaching the point in which citizens are becoming so fed up that we are willing to be shot as long as we stand up to them.
It’s impossible to engage in dialogue with them. How can you hold dialogues with a government that is indifferent to the humanitarian crisis? What are you going to talk about with people who forbid the sale of basic goods in local supermarkets?
People are asking me to speak about about this: we’re not even allowed to buy foodstuffs under price controls in supermarkets because the government has assumed control over food distribution.
They are forcing us to starve. This is a fact. And they can do so only because the armed collectives are there to shoot citizens if they protest.
The collectives are the last support of Venezuela’s failed socialist revolution. And I say this so that people can understand that we Venezuelans aren’t cowards for not toppling the government. The problem is: it is difficult for people to assume the responsibility of taking on the armed collectives, being shot, and leaving their family behind.
Sadly, we are reaching the point in which many people will be willing to die in the struggle, because we are tired. We are willing to face the consequences which we have previously sought to avoid.
In Venezuela, we either starve to death or we take to the streets and protests. The armed collectives must understand that they must disappear.