MS Risk Blog

Venezuela’s President Maduro and the Colectivos

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Amid the Presidential conflict in Venezuela between de facto President Nicolas Maduro and self-proclaimed Interim President Juan Guaido, the pressure on Maduro seems to hold steady. On 30 April, Guaido called on the military to rise against Maduro and oust him. Maduro later claimed to have thwarted the attempted overthrow. The military leadership still appear to be loyal to Maduro, however, there are a number of reports detailing military desertions to Guaido. But Maduro has another ace up his sleeve. He is increasingly relying on a trusted, parallel security structure set in place in the early 2000s by former President Hugo Chavez. The ‘Colectivos’, a group of armed leftist gangs who functions as government “enforcers”, have on several occasions proved valuable to the preservation of the socialist order through their use of force to beat down on the opposition, and is continuing to show its significance. On 2 April 2019, the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared the Colectivos as terrorist groups. The threat of Colectivos is likely to, to some extent, impede the moral and ability of citizens to protest. It is probable that the Colectivos is a factor to Maduro’s ability to remain in power and is almost certainly a part in the fight against the new uprising that started 30 April. However due to their relatively small numbers, the Colectivos is not likely to have any decisive influence and if the military leadership turns against Maduro, the Colectivos will likely easily be subverted.

The appearance of Colectivos and their loyalty to the President is no coincidence. In 2002, after former socialist President Hugo Chavez successfully thwarted an attempted coup d’état, he realized the need for new security structures in the country that could counterbalance the army. He turned to the “Bolivarian Circles”, grassroot movements set up to support the 1999 Bolivarian Revolution. They had proven valuable in beating anti-government protests. After the coup, the Bolivarian Circles became known as Colectivos. In 2006, they were granted legitimacy and real influence. The Colectivos, consisting of some 5,000-7,500 people nationwide, engage in a multitude of activities. Some are genuine, like bookshops, summer camps and study groups, but they also engage in kidnappings, robbery, extortion and drug dealing seemingly with impunity. In the midst of the current economic crisis, they have even started trafficking food and medicine. There is little doubt about government ties with the Colectivos. There are several reports on the Venezuelan government funding the Colectivos’ activities and some Colectivos have formal links to the government. Further, certain members of Colectivos work for the Venezuelan armed forces. In some parts of the country, the Colectivos even have some state powers and act as a form of police. It is also reported that the government directly arm the groups.

The Colectivos is arguably a factor as to why Maduro has managed to cling to power. Former Minister of Correctional Services Iris Varela has said that they were a “fundamental pillar in the defense of the homeland”. On several occasions, they have been on the frontline against anti-Maduro protests. In the 2014 anti-government protests, the Colectivos were a big part in violently subverting the uprising, completely without impunity. Their role was repeated in the 2017 demonstrations, where they were, according to the New York Times, “key enforcers” for Maduro. They did, in one instance, storm the opposition-controlled National Assembly and assaulted lawmakers.

Following Guaido’s presidential challenge at the beginning of this year, the Colectivos have had several roles to play. In February, there were several reports of Colectivos reinforcing the border between Venezuela and Colombia amid the attempts to deliver humanitarian aid. They allegedly attacked people on both sides of the border and fired weapons at crowds. On 1 April, as he announced the electricity rationing following the devastating blackouts in the country, President Maduro called on the Colectivos to “defend the peace of every barrio, of every block”.

The fact that Colectivos are not official security forces has both positive and negative consequences for the government. By instilling fear in the opposition, the Colectivos can quite effectively thwart protests and demonstrations in a way the regular armed forces cannot.  Because they are a paramilitary group, not officially controlled by the government, they can, with a little encouragement, do things that a government cannot officially endorse. A Venezuela expert said that “They fulfill the classic work of paramilitaries, doing violent security tasks that security agents in uniform would be held accountable for”. But the government ties are, nevertheless, obvious, and if Maduro encourages and deploy the groups to overtly, he risks further damaging his already tainted reputation.

The relationship between the Colectivos and the government seem to be on the decline, both due to the economic crisis making funding difficult and reported discontent with the Maduro leadership, but the loyalty of the Colectivos does seem somewhat intact. The survival of the Colectivos largely depends on keeping the socialist regime in power. If Maduro falls, and Guaido comes to power, the groups will likely face massive pressure to disarm and disband. Thus, for the Colectivos, fighting to keep the regime in place might be purely out of self-preservation and an ideological belief in the Bolivarian revolution rather than loyalty to Maduro himself.

No matter why they fight, the Colectivos are a valuable, if risky, asset of the Bolivarian revolution and Maduro’s government. As they can do things that regular armed forces cannot, with impunity, the Colectivos can be used as a tool to instill fear within the opposition. Indeed, they are almost certainly an asset, however not a decisive one, in Maduro’s ongoing subversion of the new uprising starting on 30 April. But their reputation of brutality makes them a risky asset to employ for Maduro. With the international community scrutinizing the Venezuela situation, the more directly Maduro encourage the Colectivos, the more hits his reputation takes.