Repression, looting, robberies, and nights full of tear gas and gunfire have become routine for the Altos Mirandinos, isolating entire communities in their own homes for days on end. As the state collapses, new and unexpected actors are coming forward to fill the void. And they are scary.
My parents, who still live in San Antonio, were stuck at home, unable to go out for five full days this week — luckily, they had some stocks of food to tide them over. It just wasn’t possible to get around all the barricades, and even if you could, there are hardly any shops selling anything: everything’s been looted.
Constant clashes have turned the whole area into a kind of ungoverned space, where no municipal or State authority has any kind of control whatsoever. The literature on state failure is clear: this kind of ungoverned space invites irregular groups to step into the void, taking “de facto” control over the area. That’s certainly been our experience back home.
As the state collapses, new and unexpected actors are coming forward to fill the void.
Groups of opposition neighborhood youths started to gel in response to this chaos. They got their start clashing on a daily basis with the security forces. The WhatsAppRoots loves to call them brave, dauntless fighters, and neighbors would help them with food supplies and first aid supplies. But more and more they’re acting like something else: a kind of parallel mob government nobody can control.
In San Antonio de Los Altos, at least, they’ve started treating the vecinos in ways not so different from the infamous chavista colectivos.
I talked to a resident of the O.P.S. buildings on the Avenida Perimetral near the iconic San Antonio roundabout –the core of the National Guard (GNB) and Resistance clashes. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told me about a meeting between the youngsters leading the clashes against the GNB and manning the barricades all over the city; and the community. The meeting was requested by the neighbors of the worst affected areas.
The hoods and masks the kids were wearing made it hard to put names to usually familiar faces.
They wanted to talk about the barricades and blockades. They’ve gotten so extreme that people in many urbanizaciones in San Antonio have just not been able to leave their homes. The neighbors asked these youths to lift the barricades to let people restock, and to allow people in need of medical attention to get to their health centers.
The answer was simple: “no.”
The teens and young men in their early twenties showed up to the meeting, faces covered behind hoods and masks, armed with sticks and improvised weapons.
According to another neighbor, they said they would keep the blockades and keep fighting against the GNB until Maduro leaves. But they also said that they don’t recognize the authority of Los Salias mayor, Josy Fernández (Primero Justicia), or even Governor Henrique Capriles’ authority in Miranda state or the leadership of MUD. They’re a law onto themselves.
What’s scary is that San Antonio is not that big a place: we all know each other. But the hoods and masks the kids were wearing made it hard to put names to usually familiar faces.
Alarmingly, barricades now block off the access to Policlínica El Retiro, one of the few health centers that took care of wounded protesters. It’s the place that tried to save the life of Diego Arellano.
The colectivo attitude
Imagine spending five days shut it at home, without any chance to shop for already scarce food and medicines.
As my old neighbors in Pacheco told me “we did not have enough provisions, so we had to go out on foot several miles to San Antonio’s downtown, but everything was closed.” Suppliers could not come in, so supermarkets, bakeries, and abastos had almost nothing to sell.
The chamos did call sporadic “ceasefires” during the five day siege when bakeries and small stores were allowed to (or rather, ordered to) open. María, another O.P.S. resident told me she was in a bakery in the Perimetral Avenue standing a line to purchase whatever was available when they came.
It was not the GNB or actual government colectivos, but the hooded youngsters from the barricades that came into the bakery, shouting orders to the owners and taking control of the lines and the products being sold.
Like SUNDDE, or CLAPs members, these youngsters took control over the distribution of basic goods in the area, demanding a share for their own benefit “to keep up the fight on the streets.” The thin line between resistance and racketeering seems to be dissolving out there.
I was shocked by María’s testimony, so I kept asking who these kids were.
People describe them as a mixed group of youngsters, ranging from middle class teenagers to the well-known group of San Antonio’s poorer kids who were forced to drop out of high school and get jobs. There’s a persistent sense that there are some infiltrados thrown into the mix, adding fuel to the fire.
The thin line between resistance and racketeering seems to be dissolving out there.
They all have a thing in common, though: they think they have nothing to lose, so they keep their feet on the streets 24/7, manning barricades and refusing the crossing to members of the community, unless they pay up in food, medicines, or gasoline from their tanks (to make petrol bombs.)
Yes they’re victims: of two decades of misgovernment, of social resentment, of hatred, of impunity, of educational collapse, of a lack of political consciousness.
But they’re also perpetrators. They compete to see who’s the most arrecho or who controls the inner-factions in the group, like a Caribbean Lord of the Flies.
They feed from chaos, and chaos is their only plan.
Playing into the government’s hands
Even if the original intentions of these groups were noble, the protest are now as big a problem for neighbors as the repression. They’re the perfect scapegoat. They provide a pretext to attack opposition mayors and governors, even as these groups don’t recognize them as elected officials at all.
They compete to see who’s the most arrecho or who controls the inner-factions in the group, like a Caribbean Lord of the Flies.
Nobody in the opposition wants to talk about it —for obvious reasons. But it’s enormously dangerous, and it could spread. Perhaps Diputados, the same ones marching and choking on tear gas alongside Caraqueños, should be dispatched to their respective districts and exercise some local leadership before things get out of hand.
MUD ignores the chaos in the Altos Mirandinos at its own risk. Mindless radicalism could overrun them, hampering the legitimate effort for civil disobedience against Maduro’s dictatorship.