HomeInvestigationsHow Criminal Groups Helped Fill Venezuela's Post-Chávez Void

How Criminal Groups Helped Fill Venezuela's Post-Chávez Void


When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez succumbed to cancer in 2013, a perfect storm of crises was already looming on the horizon for his vice president and successor, Nicolás Maduro.  

The founder and leader of the Bolivarian Revolution was dead. Maduro’s claim to democratic legitimacy came from a special election he won by a razor-thin margin.  

What’s more, Venezuela’s economy was on the cusp of a tailspin that would devastate the population and leave the state near bankrupt. This would feed insecurity and criminality as well as poverty and social unrest, which, in turn, strengthened popular and international support for the political opposition.   

To compound it all, Maduro had neither the popular appeal nor the support from within the Chavista political movement and the Venezuelan military that Chávez had leveraged to maintain unity and ensconce himself in power. 

*This article is part of a five-part series that describes the creation of the hybrid state in Venezuela. Read the other chapters of the investigation, the full report, and related coverage on Venezuela.

Maduro’s response was to build on one of the murkiest legacies of the Chávez era: the converging relationship of the Venezuelan state with armed groups and organized crime. What followed set Venezuela on a unique path of criminal evolution.  

Today, criminal groups and corrupt state actors together form a hybrid state that combines governance with criminality, and where illegal armed groups act at the service of the state, while criminal networks form within it. 

Hybrid Armed Groups: Shoring Up the Revolution 


Adversarial Non-State Armed Groups are in direct confrontation or competition with the state because of their conflicting criminal or political aims and objectives. They may attack or clash with the state, the state may actively persecute the group, or the group may seek to avoid encounters with the state altogether.


Cooperative Non-State Armed Groups maintain mutually beneficial relations with elements of the state that are limited in scope, have specific objectives, and are usually transactional in nature. They make ad-hoc, quid pro quo agreements with individuals or networks within the state that are usually based on the interchange of economic resources, in the form of money or access to criminal economies; and services, such as protection and impunity, provision of goods such as arms or military equipment, access to or control of territories and contracted violence.


Hybrid Armed Groups are organizations whose cooperation and coordination with elements of the state has become systematic and is a core feature of their operations. Their interests and objectives, whether political, economic, or strategic have converged with one or multiple branches of the state on a local, regional, and/or national level. These groups habitually coordinate actions and strategies with their state allies, and there may be a level of integration of personnel, resources, and operations.


State-Embedded Groups are criminal networks whose principal leaders and core membership hold positions within the state. They may leverage this position for illicit gain, or may act illegally to further the aims and objectives of their branches of the state. In their parallel criminal roles, they organize to carry out, control, or systemically exploit illegal activities – either independently or in cooperation with non-state or hybrid actors.

Venezuela’s first full hybrid groups formed in the early 2000s with one overriding purpose: to keep Chávez in power. 

It began with the colectivos, a term applied to grassroots political organizations that spanned the spectrum from armed militants and subversives to social and cultural organizations serving neglected communities.  

Initially, Chávez had moved to integrate these organizations into his political movement through the “Bolivarian Circles” network, which provided state funding to bring these groups together with each other and with the state. After they proved instrumental in mobilizing the popular protests that returned Chávez to power after a 48-hour military coup in 2002, the government took things much further, providing arms, training, and financing. 

“These groups went from being ideological to receiving military training,” said a former army general, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “When you see that the internal threat to the government came from the political opposition, then you understand why they were being trained to fight the opposition.” 

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2022: Maduro Seeks to Be Venezuela’s Criminal Kingmaker

A similar shift took place on Venezuela’s border, where tensions were building with Colombia, which Chávez labeled a “pawn” of his main political enemy on the world stage -- the United States.   

Even before coming to power, Chávez had cultivated political ties with Colombia’s leftist insurgencies: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), as well as Venezuela’s homegrown guerrilla group the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación - FBL). But as relations with Colombia and the United States soured, he made moves to incorporate them into his geopolitical plans. 

What began as ideological support for their struggle evolved into better cooperation and exchanges of resources and services such as arms, supplies, and money laundering, all geared towards shared strategic objectives. 

“It was clear the state was financing or supporting the subversive guerrilla movements so that if at any time there was an intervention, an invasion, they would have an additional armed element that could participate,” said Liborio Guarulla, who was governor of the border state of Amazonas between 2001 and 2017.  

“They installed camps in the border region, and I was concerned about making an official complaint as governor because when I spoke with high-ranking government officials, they all told me the same thing: that this was the order from above,” Guarulla added. 

The rise of these hybrid armed groups in Venezuela was matched by the proliferation of state-embedded criminal networks, a trend driven by the same logic: protecting Chávez’s power.  

Chávez ensured the support of security forces and powerful political actors by granting positions to loyalists, which they use to construct corruption networks dedicated to embezzling state resources. At the same time, he turned a blind eye to the growing involvement of state actors in criminal economies, including the transnational drug trade. 

This process led to the emergence of the most important and powerful state-embedded criminal networks of the Chávez era, the drug trafficking cells collectively referred to as the Cartel of the Suns, for the sun insignia on the uniforms of military generals. 

Hybrid Economies and Governance: Chávez Lays the Groundwork  

In 2006, Chávez won reelection in a landslide victory. He was popular with voters at home and backed by regional allies abroad as left-wing governments took power around Latin America. And he had reshaped the state in a way that rewarded loyalty and sidelined dissent.  

Chávez’s enemies posed a diminishing threat to his power, but in his second term he began to face much more insidious foes -- economic decline and social breakdown.  

Once again, the solutions he turned to would accelerate the development of the hybrid state, leading to the emergence of new forms of hybrid economies to capture resources, and hybrid governance to control ungovernable spaces. 

After oil prices crashed following the global economic crisis of 2008, Chávez sought to exploit the mineral wealth of the state of Bolívar to make up for lost income. His efforts to nationalize the mining sector failed badly, but the informal, gang-controlled mining sector that filled the vacuum left by the collapsed industry offered new criminal opportunities. 

Mining gangs formed, known as sindicatos, and were allegedly patronized and protected by retired General Francisco Rangel Gómez, a former army comrade of Hugo Chávez who was governor of Bolívar from 2004 to 2017. 

“There is a group within the regional government that is arming criminals and assigning them responsibility for certain zones,” said former intelligence officer José Lezama Gomez in an affidavit turned over to the National Assembly in 2016.  

This combination of gangs and gold turned mining into a hybrid economy – part criminal, part state-controlled. 

SEE ALSO: In Venezuela, Prison Gang Chants Support for Politicians

Around the same time, murder rates and predatory crime were spiraling, and Venezuela earned the unwanted distinction of being one of the most violent countries in the world. The violence, above all, affected deprived urban areas, and, most spectacularly, prisons, where reports of prison gangs armed with semi-automatic weapons battling each other and guards shocked the world. 

This time, the solution the government sought was a form of hybrid governance, using organized crime to bring order to the chaos. 

It began in the prisons, where the government ceded control inside the prison walls to gang bosses known as pranes. In exchange for keeping the peace, selected pranes were not only allowed to govern prison life, but they were also granted control over – and allowed to profit from - all movements in and out of the prisons, from visitors, to basic essentials such as food, and even contraband such as drugs and alcohol.  

“They recognized the pranes’ status by negotiating and making agreements with them - the pran is an authority. This offers an interesting view on policy, because with them things work properly,” Mónica Fernández, a former National Prisons Director at the Ministry of Justice, told InSight Crime. 

The ceding of power to the pranes set a precedent: governance negotiated between armed groups and the state for the mutual benefit of both sides.  

Soon, the same logic was being applied outside of prison walls with “Peace Zone” agreements, which saw security forces withdraw from gang-held territories in return for pledges to reduce violence, and, eventually, to disarm. But while the security forces withdrew, the gangs did not, and a new era of criminal governance began for many communities.   

Maduro and the New Hybrid State 

Under Nicolás Maduro, the role of existing hybrid armed groups began to evolve and expand, while new opportunities emerged for groups that were previously adversarial or cooperative to secure the advantages of becoming hybrids. 

When opposition to the new government mounted, the colectivos became Chavista shock troops (grupos de choque) deployed to violently repress the mass popular protests that were sweeping the nation. 

The threats to the Maduro regime also altered its relationship with guerrilla groups. Colombia’s insurgents evolved into Venezuela’s pro-state paramilitary groups and self-declared defenders of the Bolivarian revolution. 

InSight Crime has collected evidence showing both the colectivos and the guerrillas have coordinated directly with the security forces to target common enemies and rivals, even carrying out joint operations side by side. 

“[During the anti-Maduro protests] it was hard to know who was doing these things, who was killing, because the security forces and the colectivos worked side by side, and the colectivos had military uniforms,” said a municipal official in the state of Lara, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. 

Both the colectivos and the guerrillas were also deployed at election times, using a mix of sometimes violent coercion and bribery to mobilize, control, or suppress voters in areas under their control, all for the benefit of the Maduro government.  

Even when international observers returned to the country for the 2021 local and regional elections, the interference of hybrids was evident, especially in far-flung corners, that few observers reached, such as the rural areas of the guerrilla-plagued state of Táchira.  

“[The ELN] came to the voting centers and stationed themselves at the doors, not letting anyone pass who said that they wouldn't vote for the government candidates,” said a local official from the Táchira municipality of Seboruco. “And in the case of Los Ríos, which is their epicenter, they removed the election witnesses and shut poll workers in the centers [during voting].” 

But the functions of hybrid armed groups have not been limited to political repression. And the new generation of hybrids are not just ideological sympathizers, there are also criminal groups with little interest in politics beyond what brings personal gain. 

In Maduro’s new hybrid state, almost anything is possible: Drug traffickers finance public works, colectivos run public services, pranes coordinate prisoner transfers, and gangs have set up charitable foundations that receive state funding for everything from sports programs to medical clinics.  

This ceding of state functions has also allowed the Maduro regime to channel resources and economic opportunities to armed groups, establishing a clientelist relationship. 

This is most evident through the subsidized food program run by the Local Storage and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción - CLAP), whose boxes of essential supplies are distributed, and in many cases, sold on at inflated prices by colectivos, guerrillas, and gangs. And it is at its most extreme with the colectivos, which profit not only from CLAP boxes, but also from their state-sanctioned control of subsidized gas stations, housing, public transport, cooking gas, and even the water supply. 

“[The colectivos] have lost the ideology they had in the beginning, and they have become clientelist in nature,” said a former police chief from Lara, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.  

But the economic opportunities do not just flow from the state to armed groups.  

Maduro’s nearly bankrupt government can only pay only a poverty wage to the security forces whose loyalty is needed to keep Maduro in power. And the pickings from corruption, which was used to keep political allies and high-ranking security officials on side, has dried up. 

The hybrid state offered solutions by permitting state-embedded criminal networks to work with armed groups in criminal economies, and by allowing the rise of new forms of hybrid economies, where legal goods and resources controlled by the state intersect with criminal supply chains. 

Traditional criminal economies such as drug trafficking are cooperatively controlled by state-embedded criminal networks and their criminal associates, with profits divided up or state actors paid a cut to protect and facilitate operations.

Both state actors and criminal groups together profit from new hybrid economies such as scrap metal trafficking, black markets, contraband, and fuel smuggling

“There are not any loyal [military] officials left because those that had a bit of dignity have left, while those that remain are just waiting for their turn to whack the piñata,” said a retired military officer, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “All of the security forces are mercenaries now.” 

The original hybrid economy -- the gold trade -- remains perhaps the most important, and the gold-rich state of Bolívar has become a microcosm of the new hybrid dynamics.  

Under Maduro, Bolívar is crawling with political actors and security forces officials of every rank, some local and others from outside the region, all seeking to profit from gold and aligning themselves with different armed groups involved in mining. Each is out for themselves, and while sometimes they cooperate, at other times, their interests collide. The only rule is that the central government gets its cut.  

“In the mines, the sindicatos are in charge,” a miner in the town of Tumeremo, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime. “But the sindicato is responsible for making monthly payments to the security forces, and there is also a big slice that is sent to the government people.” 

The ever-closer ties between the state and armed groups have also led to a growing overlap of personnel and leadership as both sides began to cross over into the world of the other.  

Some armed groups have moved into politics, launching their family members and associates as candidates or sponsoring their own hand-picked politicians. 

Some launched their own political wings, such as the FBL guerrillas, whose Bolívar and Zamora Revolutionary Movement (Corriente Revolucionaria Bolívar y Zamora – CRBZ) won control of municipalities in the state of Apure and secured positions within the National Assembly.   

The Tupamaros colectivo took this evolution a step further and became a fully-fledged political party – but one backed by the latent threat of armed action.  

“If we are not allowed a space to express ourselves politically then [a return to arms] could be an option. It has not been ruled out,” Tupamaros leader William Benavides told InSight Crime. 

State actors, meanwhile, began to take direct control of armed groups. InSight Crime has investigated cases of police chiefs and local mayors or their associates assuming direct control over gangs, or using them as a clandestine armed wing to carry out dirty work. 

“[The gang’s] social control let them carry out “hidden hand” actions, and the mayor was interested in having them as an armed wing to do his dirty work,” said a former police chief in a municipality in the state of Miranda where such a deal was struck, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.  

“In fact, the mayor doesn’t have police bodyguards. His bodyguards are from the gang,” he added. 

In the most extreme examples, the government itself has become a criminal enterprise. 

This reached its peak in the administration of Zulia Governor Omar Prieto. Prieto and his cronies, in and outside of government, extorted and confiscated businesses. They muscled in on gasoline, contraband, and scrap metal smuggling, using the authority of the office to push out other actors. And they used the police to eliminate rivals. 

“The political project of Omar Prieto as governor was a project of crime in political power,” said a former Chavista political leader in Zulia, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.  

Prieto, however, lost his bid for reelection in 2021, suggesting that even in Maduro’s hybrid state, there are limits to how far political actors can push their criminality.  

Now celebrating 10 years in power, Maduro appears to have ridden out the worst of the storm. The economy, while still struggling, has at least stabilized. The political opposition is weak and divided. Maduro has stacked key national and regional government positions with allies and loyalists. And Venezuela is slowly being integrated back into the international community.   

But to protect this position, Maduro needs legitimacy both at home and abroad. The out-of-control criminality that helped keep him in power represents a possible obstacle to that goal. He is faced with a new challenge: to bring order to the hybrid state he has created. And the question he now faces is whether he can put the criminal genie back into the bottle. 

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