HomeInvestigationsThe Future of Venezuela's Hybrid State

The Future of Venezuela's Hybrid State


The evolution of a hybrid state in Venezuela, combining governance with criminality, has helped President Nicolás Maduro hold on to power, even as his government has spent years battling near-constant crises. But today, that panorama is slowly beginning to change, and Maduro's hybrid state is changing with it. 

The direct threats to Maduro's power -- mass protest movements, the Venezuelan political opposition, and the geopolitical efforts of international opponents -- have not disappeared. But they have receded, losing the momentum that at one point seemed destined to unseat him. Similarly, the main indirect threat -- economic breakdown -- remains. But it has lost its urgency. While the prognosis remains poor, the economy is at least stable relative to the desperation of the peak crisis years. 

*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.

These changing dynamics require new strategies if Maduro and the Chavista political movement are to turn survival into consolidation; strategies to bring about the lifting of international sanctions, the reactivation of the oil industry, and to quiet questions about the legitimacy of Venezuela's elections and Maduro's government.  

Such objectives will be difficult to achieve as long as the rampant corruption, criminality, and overt subversion of the democratic process that helped keep the president in power are so evident. And there are no signs that Maduro has any intention of changing the kleptocratic and authoritarian nature of his regime. Indeed, to do so could leave him even more vulnerable. 

An analysis of his strategies over the last two years suggests Maduro is aware of this, and he is trying to bring about a hybrid state that is more reliable, easier to control, and more low profile -- but no less criminal. 

As InSight Crime explored in the first chapter of this series, How Criminal Groups Helped Fill Venezuela's Post-Chávez Void, the hybrid state in Venezuela has three main pillars: hybrid armed groups, which systemically cooperate and coordinate their activities and strategies with the state; hybrid governance, where armed groups and criminal networks work together with the state to govern spaces and impose social control; and hybrid economies that combine state and criminal control of resources and supply chains. Below, we highlight the most recent trends in each of these areas and look forward.

Hybrid Armed Groups 

In February 2023, InSight Crime published the Venezuela Organized Crime Top Ten, ranking the most powerful criminal organizations in Venezuela. Each of the top five could be considered either full hybrid groups or at least cooperative groups with hybrid characteristics, while the bottom five are among the main targets of current security operations. This is likely no coincidence.  

An analysis of current security strategies suggests the most trusted hybrids are growing stronger, while the Maduro regime is attacking other organized crime groups with the full power of the security forces.  

SEE ALSO: Maduro's El Dorado: Gangs, Guerrillas and Gold in Venezuela

This has been evident in the use of mega-operations: massive security deployments of hundreds and even thousands of heavily armed police and soldiers against gangs such as Tren del Llano, the Wilexis gang, and the El Koki gang. And it has been evident in the military campaigns targeting previously allied guerrilla groups such as the ex-FARC mafia's 10th and 33rd Fronts, and, as reported in Chapter 4 of this investigation, the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación – FBL). 

In contrast, the groups that offer the most benefits to the regime, such as the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and Tren de Aragua, have largely been left untouched, despite ranking as the country's biggest security threats.  

Meanwhile, the growing criminality of Venezuela's original hybrids, the colectivos, has been met not with force, but with attempts to control and co-opt these groups, as revealed in Chapter 2 of this series, Maduro's Peace Defender Squads Are Anything But Peaceful. 

This trend is likely to continue as Maduro seeks to bring more order to Venezuelan organized crime, to ensure the benefits of hybrid status are only enjoyed by the most useful and trusted partners. His biggest challenge in doing so may prove to be in areas where criminal groups that have become targets of the national government have formed hybrid relations with local state actors, setting up internal conflicts between different branches of the state.  

Hybrid Governance 

Recent years have seen the Maduro government steadily work to row back on many of the original forms of hybrid governance, which were based on negotiated agreements resulting from the weaknesses of the state.  

Many of the "Peace Zones," where security forces withdrew in exchange for gangs reducing violence, have been reclaimed, with massive security operations breaking the stranglehold of gangs such as the El Koki gang in the Cota 905 neighborhood of Caracas, the El Conejo gang in the Aragua municipality of Tejerías, and the various gangs of the Valles del Tuy region in the state of Miranda. 

SEE ALSO: Brutal but Futile: Venezuela's Anti-Gang 'Mega-Operations'

In the penitentiary system too, the control of gang bosses, known as pranes, has been broken in multiple prisons by the implementation of the "New Prison Regimen." The program imposes stricter controls on prison life, curbing both the power and the economic opportunities of inmate gangs. While pranes still control almost 60% of the prison population, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP), the state can keep those that remain in check by threatening to impose tougher conditions or transfer them to prisons under the new regimen. 

However, where such agreements strengthen the state, they have been left in place, as in the case of Tren de Aragua's control of the San Vicente Peace Zone and Tocorón prison, covered in Chapter 3 of this investigation. Furthermore, criminal governance in areas under the control of hybrid allies, above all the colectivos and the ELN guerrillas, is deepening. Armed groups now play a central role in imposing social and political control, and capturing economic resources. 

Hybrid Economies 

Hybrid economies have proven a double-edged sword for the Maduro government. On the one hand, they have been a critical way of channeling resources to the hybrid armed groups and state-embedded criminal networks whose backing Maduro has needed to stay in power. But in doing so, they have often undermined the functioning of the state, with severe political and social repercussions. 

There are signs the government is now seeking to curb the most damaging of these economies and rein in some of the state-embedded criminal networks behind them.  

There has been a huge rise in operations against fuel smuggling, a trade usually controlled by corruption networks that severely impact both the functioning of the economy and the day-to-day lives of the population. In the first five months of 2023 alone, authorities reported fuel seizures that were already three times higher than in the whole of 2021, according to InSight Crime's monitoring of media reports and official sources. 

There has also been a surge in arrests and operations against scrap metal trafficking, which has seen state-embedded networks benefit from the looting of industrial sites, which the government needs in operation if it is to reactivate the oil industry. In the first five months of 2023, authorities have reported seizing 187.1 metric tons of scrap, compared to 59.7 metric tons in 2021, according to InSight Crime's monitoring. 

In contrast, hybrid economies without such high costs, like black-market sales of subsidized goods and profiting from public services, have largely been left untouched. 

Maduro's biggest challenge, and his main strategic objective, is to control the most lucrative hybrid economy: the gold trade. Here, developments over the last year suggest the government is once again seeking to impose state control over the country's primary gold mining hub, the state of Bolívar.  

Multiple sources interviewed by InSight Crime, including local miners, journalists, and residents, describe how security operations have targeted both adversarial and previously cooperative armed groups while leaving those with more hybrid-style relationships untouched. While the overall objective of the operations remains unclear, the armed forces have also been displacing informal miners and taking more direct control of mine sites, while sources talk of new mining companies arriving in the area. 

It remains to be seen whether the mining gangs known as sindicatos can be kept at bay -- and whether, this time, the government can find the capital and technical expertise to set up a legal gold trade less dependent on armed groups.  

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