An increase in the number of reports of illegal invasions of homes and commercial establishments in Venezuela during the pandemic has revealed the ever-widening criminal portfolio managed by militant civilian groups known as "colectivos."
In early January, residents of El Recreo, a neighborhood in the Libertador municipality of Caracas, opposed an illegal incursion by colectivo members, armed civilians that act as paramilitary groups and receive support from the government, El Pitazo reported. The groups were reportedly seeking to take over apartments in a residential building.
Carlos Julio Rojas, a journalist and community organizer in northern Caracas, documented the effort to repel the colectivos on his Twitter account. The invasion was the latest in a string of actions by government and police officials to take over properties, according to Rojas, who alleged the invasions were organized by Erika Farias, the mayor of Libertador.
In September 2020, he warned that the “government of Nicolás Maduro and Erika Farías, who sponsors the colectivos...giving them government and even police support to commit their misdemeanors, are directly complicit in this new wave of invasions.”
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According to figures collected by Rojas’ organization, 53 invasions of this type were reported in the Libertador municipality in 2020, of which 40 were executed during the COVID-19 quarantine period that began in March of the same year.
"Last May, they invaded the Padrón building...which contained four companies with over 60 employees. What will happen to those employees? These places were shut because of the lockdown and the colectivos came and took over," Rojas told El Diario.
"These invasions are part of a criminal enterprise that relies on the complicity of state agencies. Despite the fact that illegal property occupations are a crime in Venezuela, the colectivos operate with impunity, occupying residential or commercial properties to turn an illegal profit," Fermín Mármol, a criminal lawyer and teacher at Venezuela's University of Santa María, told InSight Crime.
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The phenomenon of illegal invasions intensified in 2015 and 2016 as many Venezuelans migrated abroad due to the country's economic crisis. Numerous residential and commercial buildings were abandoned, only to be claimed by government forces and colectivos.
Last November, Iris Varela, vice president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, publicly endorsed the confiscation of properties from those whom she said had "betrayed the country" by migrating abroad.
And while it has been claimed that these properties would be used for Gran Misión Vivienda (Great Housing Mission), the country's social housing program, El Estímulo spoke with residents of Caracas who said their homes had been directly turned over to friends and relatives of officials.
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According to media investigations, this practice could be a way for the Maduro government to reward sympathizers, including members of colectivos.
According to testimonies from local residents, members of the colectivos have also been renting such properties out and extorting the owners of remaining apartments.
While colectivos were created with the task of defending and upholding the principles of the Bolivarian Revolution, the groups have become de facto law enforcement in certain neighborhoods, using their territorial control and firepower to enter a number of criminal economies.
With Venezuela's economic crisis causing these groups to lose government funding, property invasions may be serving to prop them up. Colectivos in Caracas already extort shop owners and distribute and resell subsidized food boxes from Local Committees for Supply and Production (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción - CLAP).
For the time being, these illegal property incursions are mostly concentrated in and around Caracas. But the consolidation of colectivos elsewhere has seen this phenomenon begin to be replicated in other parts of the country, such as Lara.