In March 2019, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro created a new wing of the Bolivarian Revolution political movement, the Peace Defender Squads (Cuadrillas Defensoras de la Paz). The squads, known by the acronym Cupaz, were tasked with guaranteeing peace in Venezuela. But four years later, the Cupaz have spread across Venezuela, and they are anything but peaceful.
The Cupaz network was launched in 2019 as Maduro’s grip on power seemed at its most tenuous. A new wave of mass protests was sweeping the country at home, while abroad, countries were flocking to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s claim to be the “interim president” of Venezuela. And from the start, the government made clear the Cupaz were intended as a response to this threat.
“The Cuadrillas Defensoras de la Paz was born as a product of the brutal, criminal, and terrorist onslaught carried out by the fascist right wing in Venezuela and supported by US imperialism to overthrow the Bolivarian Government and take control of the wealth of the homeland,” the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV) said in a press release that accompanied the launch.
But while the PSUV touted the Cupaz as a citizen volunteer force to act as a bulwark against the “terrorist actions of the opposition,” in reality, it has acted as an armed group deployed to control the population.
The Cupaz have been used to repress protests and political opposition to the PSUV with violence and intimidation, deployed as shock troops to fight criminal gangs, and have been assigned control of criminal economies that exploit local communities. In the process, they have emerged as the latest evolution of Venezuela’s hybrids – illegal armed groups that work at the service of or in coordination with the state. And with this evolution, the gap between the state and these armed groups has narrowed more than ever before.
The Colectivos: the Cupaz Petri Dish
Although public officials have never acknowledged it, the Cupaz were clearly based on Venezuela’s original hybrid armed groups: the colectivos.
The colectivos emerged in the 2000s when a disparate network of grassroots left-wing political groups was trained, financed, and armed by the state, then given orders to defend President Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution from all and any enemies.
First, Chávez and, later, his successor Maduro, used the colectivos to impose social and political control over communities, and to repress the political opposition, often through violence.
The colectivos systematically coordinated their actions with the state. Members joined the ranks of state forces such as the notoriously abusive police Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – Faes) or took up government posts, rising as high as national ministerial positions. At the same time, government and security officials joined the ranks of the colectivos.
But as Venezuela was rocked by a storm of political and economic crises after Maduro took power in 2013, the nature of the colectivos began to change.
The crisis-wracked Venezuelan state needed their help more than ever, especially to repress the mass protests that threatened to drive Maduro from power. But the economic crisis had left it near bankrupt, and it could no longer afford to keep the colectivos on the payroll.
The solution was to allow the colectivos to criminalize. The government offered them control of black markets for subsidized food, cooking gas, and gasoline, and it turned a blind eye as some groups set up extortion rackets, or got into crimes such as robberies, kidnapping, and microtrafficking.
While some colectivos held the ideological line, many others began to look and act more like criminal gangs.
“We are a mafia here,” said one colectivo leader in the Caracas neighborhood of 23 de Enero, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “Being in a colectivo gives you more power, more money, more opportunities. Being in a political party means being part of the system, but being a colectivo is working on a whole other level.”
For him, this power has corrupted the new generation of leaders.
“Those in charge now are pieces of shit. They take cocaine, they are drunks, they are the scum of society, and they fuck with everyone in the name of the colectivos, in the name of the revolution,” he said.
The Cupaz have incorporated both the parastatal and criminal characteristics of the new generation of colectivos. But while the colectivos were becoming unruly, the Cupaz offer the state direct control.
After the 2019 launch, the ranks of the new Cupaz units were filled with existing colectivo members alongside local government officials, PSUV militants, and, most of all, current and former security officials. All follow a direct line of command that begins with the highest echelons of the PSUV and continues down through local governors and mayors.
“They don’t have any ideological formation, they have been created because [the state] needs a group that will follow orders,” said a former colectivo leader in the state of Lara, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
Bringing Order to the Colectivos
In the four years since the launch of the Cupaz, the network has spread to ten states in Venezuela, according to InSight Crime’s monitoring of the group.
In each of these states, the different Cupaz units share certain common characteristics. They dress in their state-issued, black Cupaz uniforms, often with government-supplied guns and even motorcycles. They control subsidized gas stations and food distribution – both lucrative black-market rackets. And they provide security to state actors and interests while repressing opposition political activity.
But exactly what the Cupaz are -- and what their objectives are -- varies from region to region.
In the capital city of Caracas, colectivo members and residents in communities they control described to InSight Crime how the Cupaz have been used as an umbrella to group together existing groups.
“The creation of this group was the way they found to homogenize the colectivos,” said Carlos Julio Rojas, coordinator of Frente de Defensa de Caracas, an organization that resists colectivo property invasions in central Caracas.
One Caracas colectivo member, speaking on condition of anonymity, described to InSight Crime how colectivos or their members have joined the Cupaz network, while still acting independently.
“The [Cupaz] is organized between all of the colectivos,” he said. “The line of command comes down from above, but then we decide which orders to act on and which not.”
In Venezuela’s other major hub of colectivos, the state of Lara, the Cupaz are not coordinating between existing colectivos, but are instead absorbing or even displacing them.
One resident of the Alí Primera Socialist City in Lara’s capital Barquisimeto, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, described how the Cupaz appeared to replace the fractious 4F colectivo that had long controlled the public housing development of 4,000 families. Today, the Cupaz are a part of daily life.
“The Cupaz are the ones with the most power because they have taken control of public services,” she said. “They walk around with handguns, they live in the urban development, and they are in charge of security. When there have been security operations in the development, they are the ones who have entered first on their motorcycles.”
As well as providing the social control offered by the traditional colectivos, the Cupaz in Lara also act as an information gathering network for the repressive arms of the state, according to a former police commander in Lara, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
“The function of the Cupaz is to do intelligence work and report it to the Sebin [Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional)] and the Faes,” he said.
In other parts of the country, this parapolice role has become the Cupaz’s main function. And in some places, the power that grants them has seen Cupaz groups cross the line into obvious criminality.
The Cupaz and the Gangs
While Lara and Caracas are renowned for the social control of the colectivos, in the Valles del Tuy region of the state of Miranda, it is violent criminal gangs that have long ruled over communities. And when the Cupaz first appeared in the region in 2020, it was as a state-sanctioned alternative to this gang rule.
The police “carried out about four operations, killing the gang leader in one of them, and the famous Cupaz arrived when they had finished throwing out the gangs,” said a community leader in the city of Charallave.
“When they arrived, they took control of everything. There would be heavily armed Cupaz members stopping you to check your identification,” added the leader, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
The pattern was repeated across the region, with the Cupaz helping drive out gangs, then occupying the spaces the gangs left behind. While some residents describe how the Cupaz became less aggressive with the communities after the initial incursions, for many, the new reign was worse than the old one.
“The Cupaz in the Mata de Coco [neighborhood] managed to eliminate the gangs, but now they have started to charge residents for ‘security,’” a local journalist in Tomás Lander, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime.
“Residents prefer the gangsters to the Cupaz because they didn’t demand money. The gangsters were in their own world. They didn’t bother the community,” she added. “What the Cupaz do is demand and demand. It is ‘take what is yours and make it mine.’”
The strategy of replacing the gangs with Cupaz has also fanned fears of violence after the region’s most notorious gangster, Deiber Johan González, alias “Carlos Capa,” fired warning shots in the Cupaz’s direction.
“If they deploy Cupaz in Colina, they are going to be attacked until we have killed all their people,” Capa said in a voice message that circulated on local WhatsApp networks in March 2023. “If the people accept the Cupaz, then they won’t be able to move around, not even the children, because there will be lead flying everywhere.”
The Criminalization of the Cupaz
For the time being, open conflict between the Cupaz and Carlos Capa’s gang in Valles del Tuy has yet to break out. But in other regions, the risk the Cupaz pose to communities is not that they will be caught in the crossfire of their conflicts with gangs, but that the Cupaz are becoming a gang in their own right.
In the state of Anzoátegui, political and community leaders who spoke to InSight Crime anonymously for security reasons described how armed Cupaz members have been stalking rural areas.
“They are criminal leaders in the south of Anzoátegui,” one community leader said.
At night “they set up roadblocks in farming and ranching zones, and extort and threaten people,” he said. “And in the day they go to the farms to extort people. The police do nothing, and people are too scared to report it.”
The sources who spoke to InSight Crime were uncertain whether the impunity enjoyed by the Cupaz was because they are working with local police, or whether the police were too intimidated by the heavily armed Cupaz squads to act.
But either way, the warning signs are clear. Like the colectivos before them, the Cupaz may be tempted by the path of criminalization.
Anzoátegui is not the only state where such warning signs are evident. In Lara, too, there are signs of the Cupaz slipping out of the control of their state masters.
“The Cupaz have overstepped the boundaries in security actions, and what they are doing is usurping functions. There are several who have been charged by the courts with usurpation of functions, aggravated crimes, theft,” said the former police commander.
For the moment, the Cupaz remain the ideal all-purpose tool for the Maduro regime: a hybrid armed group that can be directly controlled by the state, and which can be deployed against any challenge to the state’s power – whether from specific threats such as criminal gangs and the political opposition, or the amorphous risks of social and economic breakdown.
However, the warning signs from Anzoátegui, Lara, and elsewhere make the risks of this strategy clear. As with the original colectivos, there is a danger Maduro’s Frankenstein could lose control of his new hybrid monster.