Photo: Chicago Tribune retrieved

Luis Bravo, not his real name, has lived in Catia, a low-income area in western Caracas, for 12 years now, and he has no choice but to obey the rules imposed by Maduro’s paramilitary groups. Colectivos control food sales, extort store owners, handle CLAP delivery lists and decide who buys bread at bakeries.

In places like the 23 de Enero neighborhood, also in western Caracas, they have security cameras and radio communications, just like in El 70 sector, in El Valle. They have bullet-proof vests and tear gas canisters, as in Cotiza, Catedral and Altagracia, north of the city right beside the Ávila; their motorcycles, the way they dress and their use of police jargon have become telltale signs of their trade, and the impunity it carries.

They’re inside public hospitals. They’re embedded in every social and political structure in Caracas.

Colectivos control food sales, extort store owners, handle CLAP delivery lists and decide who buys bread at bakeries.

Some of their leaders claim to work for the people but, according to Bravo, “that’s just a front for drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. They have the monopoly of trade and they say they’re the neighborhood’s ‘security.’ Their members are former police officers and local criminals, that’s why they have all those guns. We’ve even seen them bossing the police around.”

During a mandatory broadcast last March 11th, Maduro called for “active resistance” as an answer to the political upheaval that began with Juan Guaidó’s path to the transition, and accentuated with the nationwide power blackouts. Maduro’s ordered the “peace squads” to defend the revolution.

On March 22nd, the “active resistance” began. Protests erupted in almost every working-class sector and in many eastern neighborhoods in Caracas, demanding water and electric power. Streets were blocked in Catia, San Martín, La Vega, El Paraíso, La Candelaria, Coche and the Fuerzas Armadas avenue, where the colectivo “5 de Marzo” operates.

“5 de Marzo,” by the way, is the same group that, back in 2014, clashed with CICPC detectives during the Manfredi building raid, scarcely 13 blocks from Miraflores Palace. The CICPC accused them of being gang members and extortionists and, during the crackdown, their leader José Odreman, and Carmelo Chávez, leader of the colectivo “Escudo de la Revolución,” were killed.

After that, dealings between these groups and security forces turned sour, and they mostly avoid each other. Now, when the regime wants to repress demonstrations in slums (the very ones that first-world leftists deny happening,) it doesn’t send the National Guard, it sends paramilitary forces and the Special Actions Forces (FAES,) who usually have their faces hidden. “We know they’re colectivos because they move through the sector with ease. They point the way for the FAES,” said Clavel Díaz (not her real name,) inhabitant of the 9th Street of El Valle, controlled by the colectivo “Nueva Era,” a sort of syndicate that decides everything, from who’s going to become a mototaxista to who will get the CLAP. The colectivo “Divino Niño” also has influence in the area.

Now, when the regime wants to repress demonstrations in slums, it doesn’t send the National Guard: it sends paramilitary forces and FAES.

On March 31st, a group of armed civilians, some of them with covered faces, repressed protesters with gunfire and tear gas in Catia. Two people were injured, one of them shot through the leg. The criminals weren’t punished. That same night, Maduro said that “social movements, colectivos, civilian-military UBCh and the militia will defend peace in every neighborhood, of every block.”

According to Provea, 50 people have been murdered in the context of protests this year, 14 of them by armed civilians.

An investigation of the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict says that colectivos exist under the judicial figure of foundations and civil associations that used to include Bolivarian Circles, which had 2.3 million active members back in 2000.

Nowadays, armed civilians are even in public administration. “The regime supports them and in exchange, they neutralize demonstrations,” says Bravo. “They get a lot of help from local informants nested in the UBCh and CLAP networks, they mark protesters and dissidents. Everyone’s exposed.”

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