Armed Civilians Fight Venezuela Protesters

Straight out of the Castro playbook.

Ezequiel Minaya in the Wall Street Journal:

Armed Civilians Fight Venezuela Protesters

Government Goads Self-Appointed Guardians of Revolution to Counter Unrest
Government supporters on motorcycles riding in Caracas during a rally in February. Some Venezuelans accuse such supporters of violence. Reuters

CARACAS—As Venezuela’s civil unrest stretches into a fourth month, the government has relied mostly on National Guard troops to contain protesters. But it also has another, less formal tool: gangs of armed, pro-government civilians.

Mobs of civilians on motorcycles have swarmed antigovernment demonstrations, sometimes firing weapons, sometimes swinging bats, and have stormed a university and burst into apartment blocks in search of adversaries, witnesses and rights groups said. Created under late President Hugo Chávez’s government, these so-called colectivos—or collectives—are the self-appointed guardians of Venezuela’s socialist “revolution.”

But the recent protests under President Nicolás Maduro have thrust them into a far more prominent role, say human-rights groups and opposition members. Among their concerns is that the civilian groups, while loyal to the government, aren’t explicitly under its command, and can largely act as they please.

José Pinto, who as head of the Tupamaro Revolutionary Movement is one of Venezuela’s best-known colectivo commanders, characterized the opposition in the same general language used by government officials: as a fanatical, fascist right wing intent on seizing power with the help of the Obama administration.

“Since we know how the empire acts,” Mr. Pinto said in an interview, referring to the U.S., “it forces us to take measures.”

A large man with a raspy baritone, Mr. Pinto, 62 years old, denied his group was violent, but said the group favors a tough crackdown on protesters, whom he called “bugs.”

“I think that the government needs to use an iron hand against these [protesters] because we know they are not students, they are not housewives. They are gang members, criminals, paramilitaries,” he said, speaking in his office a block from Congress.

To many Venezuelans, groups like the Tupamaros and other colectivos are similar to Iran’s Basij paramilitary force, a paramilitary organization deployed to put down dissent. Without uniforms or other identifying signs—members often wear helmets, dark glasses and masks—they are tough to identify.

“The job of the colectivos is to generate chaos and panic in the streets,” said Juan Guaidó, an opposition congressman who said colectivos held him at gunpoint while raiding his political party’s offices. “With them around, you have to be on the lookout for a beating, shooting, a killing.”

Human-rights groups and local media say that the colectivos may have had a hand in as many as a dozen of the 41 deaths in the protests. The crackdown appears to have largely worked: The protests are now far smaller than they were when they exploded across the country in February over rampant crime and a crumbling economy.

But in a country where the opposition says the judicial system is in the hands of the president’s office, no colectivo leaders have been arrested over this year’s violence. Human Rights Watch, a New York advocacy group, on Monday released a report saying that judges and prosecutors in Venezuela have repeatedly ignored evidence of systematic human-rights abuses by government security forces.

The colectivos operate with the explicit encouragement—sometimes heartily delivered in speeches—of the country’s leaders, including Mr. Maduro, who recently called on them to “fight fire with fire” against the government’s adversaries. “We will not accept campaigns to demonize the Venezuelan colectivos,” Mr. Maduro said in one speech. “If there is a conscience someplace, it’s in these colectivos.”

Underscoring the two men’s close ties, Mr. Maduro gave Mr. Pinto a high-profile role on the first day of discussions the government held in recent weeks with some opposition leaders to end the unrest. Mr. Pinto, who like Mr. Maduro was a student of Karl Marx, responded to the invitation by saying he would nominate Mr. Maduro for a Nobel Peace Prize because he is “reiterated the call for peace.”

Known to his followers as “El Gordo,” or “The Fat Man,” Mr. Pinto also defended the Tupamaros, saying the movement is “based on profound love of humanity.” He described his organization as a political party and community group that cares for the well-being of the people in the poor 23rd of January neighborhood that is Caracas’s bastion of government support.

“What do colectivos do? Political work,” he said in a speech at the palace.

Official information about suspected attacks by colectivos isn’t available, and calls to discuss the colectivos with Mr. Maduro’s office, the Attorney General’s office and the human-rights ombudsman’s office weren’t returned.

But high-ranking officials have repeatedly said in public pronouncements that the opposition is responsible for generating violence and that the colectivos have been peaceful.

“If there has been an exemplary behavior, it has been from the motorized colectivos who are with the Bolivarian revolution,” Vice President Jorge Arreaza said recently, in a reference to Mr. Chávez’s political movement.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a Caracas organization that studies social unrest here, said colectivos attacked nearly a third of the protests staged in March. And human-rights groups have collected detailed testimony from witnesses and victims nationwide.

José Calderón, 56, said he saw colectivos and National Guard troops fight the antigovernment residents of a Caracas neighborhood as they threw debris down on them from high-rise apartments. “What I saw was that about 70 members of the colectivos showed up with guns, shooting in the air,” he said, calling it a rampage.

Marino Alvarado, head of the rights group, Provea, which is compiling reports on the colectivos, said the groups have been “detaining people, firing off tear gas, shooting at protesters and against homes—and with the cooperation of the state’s forces.”

Tracing their origins to the urban leftist guerillas of the 1960s, armed civilian groups faithful to Venezuela’s populist government grew in power under Mr. Chávez, who was accused by opposition leaders of arming civilian groups in his 14 years in power.

There are now in Venezuela roughly a dozen major armed civilian groups, with 2,000 to 3,000 members, said Javier Ciurlizza, Latin America director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that does in-depth reports on conflicts world-wide, including here.

In the 23rd of January neighborhood, a district of Soviet-style apartment blocks named after the date in January 1958 when protesters toppled the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the colectivos are known for patrolling darkened hallways and the maze-like streets. The groups’ devotees include people like Gisela Agostini, 71, a retiree who lauded colectivos for organizing a choir, a bookstore and “all sorts of services.”

But the International Crisis Group says the colectivos have other, more controversial roles, serving as vigilantes and pressuring residents to ensure that the 23rd of January district remains a bedrock of government support.

“They are political operatives,” said Mr. Ciurlizza. “And their main contribution is not just beating up the opposition, but controlling poor neighborhoods.”

The groups, though, can be erratic—sometimes embarrassing the government. There have been turf wars between the Tupamaros and another group, La Piedrita, or “Little Stone.” Mr. Pinto, in fact, said he was shot several times in a botched hit by a rival.

In 2009, colectivos stormed the headquarters of a television channel and threw tear-gas canisters. That same year, the head of La Piedrita, Valentin Santana, threatened opposition leaders in a newspaper interview and took responsibility for a tear-gas attack on an opposition party.

Under Mr. Chávez, though, the groups always fell into line. Rocio San Miguel, who directs the Citizen Control policy group, which studies the security services here, said she wonders whether Maduro’s government has the same ability, particularly now that the groups are increasingly active.

“All paramilitary groups in Latin America have always turned against their own people, their own government,” said Ms. San Miguel. “And that has been proven by the last 100 years of Latin American history.”

—Juan Forero contributed to this article.

Write to Ezequiel Minaya at