Venezuela's National Assembly launched a commission to investigate the role of government-backed militias during recent, widespread deadly protests, while calling on the army to disarm these criminalized groups known as "colectivos."
Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly voted on April 25 to condemn the government's policy of arming colectivos, and announced the creation of a commission that will have 30 days to investigate the role of these "paramilitary" groups in protestors' deaths, according to a press release by the legislature.
Originally formed as community support groups rooted in leftist political ideologies, colectivos have grown increasingly criminalized under the governments of late President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro.
This trend was laid bare during protests that have shaken Venezuela in recent weeks following the now-reversed decision by the government-controlled Supreme Court to strip the National Assembly of its legislative powers. Several news outlets, including the New York Times and the BBC, reported on colectivo members violently intervening against government protestors and allegedly killing several demonstrators.
In October 2016, then-Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz had already threatened to send the civilian militia groups to counter anti-government protestors. And in January 2017, in yet another step toward empowering colectivos, Maduro had announced that the government would arm and train civilians, supposedly to fight crime.
Given the impunity that colectivos enjoy due to their relationship with the government, the National Assembly's commission will also evaluate the responsibility of several high-ranking officials in recent events, including the president, the vice president, the interior minister and the head of the intelligence branch of the national police.
The elected officials also called on the military to "fulfill its constitutional duties," effectively demanding that the institution disarm the colectivos.
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Given the executive's control of the entire state apparatus apart from the legislative branch, the National Assembly's decision to launch a commission will most likely have little concrete impact on the colectivos, at least for the time being. But the move suggests the opposition will insist on the dismantling of these civilian militias in the case of a political transition, raising questions about the future repercussions for Venezuela's criminal landscape, in which colectivos are deeply embedded.
The trend of criminalization among colectivos is not a recent phenomenon. Nor is their use by the government against protestors. In 2014, news reports had already pointed out their suppression of anti-government demonstrators. Yet that same year, colectivo members and law enforcement agents had also violently clashed. According to the New York Times, the confrontations followed an attempt by authorities to crack down on these groups, which the government believed had become too powerful.
Not all colectivos are equally involved in criminal activities; some continue to act solely as community support groups. But the criminalization of many colectivos has reached such extents that a number of communities traditionally supportive of colectivos have now come to fear them.
Such is the case of residents living in 23 de Enero neighborhood in Central Caracas -- a former bastion and a powerful symbol of Chavismo before it was won by the opposition. InSight Crime was told by residents during a recent trip there that the colectivos are now active in extortion, drug trafficking (either selling drugs or taxing drug sales), smuggling of contraband food and other goods, and operating illegal casinos.
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"There are cameras everywhere. They watch everything we do ... They have the whole community terrified. That's the only word: terrified," said one resident.
"The sale of drugs here is horrible," said another, who added that youth gangs, which Venezuelans refer to as "la hampa comun," never come to colectivo-controlled areas, implying that it must be the colectivos selling the drugs.
"They [colectivos] talk about inequality and the revolution and I don't know what else, but they sell food and supplies here at very high prices," a resident told InSight Crime.
At night, many colectivos set up checkpoints to control the movement of cars in and around 23 de Enero, residents said. They also reportedly run at least seven casinos, which are illegal in Venezuela, in different parts of the barrio.
Maduro's political position is growing increasingly fragile; dissent has begun to appear within his own administration. And despite mounting evidence of the colectivos' involvement in criminal enterprises, they are becoming an essential tool for the government to maintain its grip on power. However, given the colectivos' deep ties with the current government, it appears inevitable that the opposition will demand their dismantling in the event of a political transition.
In such an event, there is no certainty as to what course of action colectivo members would take. But it is a distinct possibility that many could evolve into purely criminal organizations dedicated to maintaining control of lucrative illicit economies.
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In addition, the opposition's current campaign against the colectivos may be defining for the future of Venezuela's criminal landscape, because the military now appears to be the only force capable of taking down these powerful militias.
Alejandro Velasco, an associate professor at New York University and the author of the book "Barrio Rising," told InSight Crime via email that the creation of the commission was a sign that colectivos had become "a major bargaining piece for sectors, especially of the military, to negotiate a place within an eventually transition."
In other words, taking down the criminalized colectivos now appears to have become a non-negotiable condition presented by the opposition in the case of a political changeover, which gives the only institution capable of doing so by force, the military, considerable leverage -- even as elements of the armed forces arguably remain Venezuela's main criminal actors.