“They keep an eye on the transportation and the water. When something is damaged, they work with officials and fix it. They control the gas stations," said a resident of Alí Primera Socialist City, a housing development in Barquisimeto, capital of the Venezuela's state of Lara.
The resident isn’t talking about civil servants, nor workers from the state water company, Hidrolara. They’re talking about members of the colectivos, the name given to the militant civilian groups that suppress political opposition to the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
In Alí Primera in the last few years, as in other neighborhoods across Lara, colectivos have privatized the basic services of the 4,000 families living there. Enabled by corrupt political actors who permit them to earn a tidy illicit income in exchange for carrying out orders, the colectivos are now the de facto service providers to many state-built housing developments in Lara.
What is happening in Lara is no coincidence. As Venezuela’s economic crisis continues, colectivos are consolidating their control of these essential services. And in Lara, a vital electoral campaign ground, controlling these areas means controlling votes.
Colectivos Control Basic Goods
InSight Crime interviewed community leaders, politicians, journalists, former colectivos members, and residents in Lara, where the colectivos have a particularly strong presence. All speaking under condition of anonymity, they explained that these groups have deepened their control over almost all necessities for life, right down to the most basic: water.
SEE ALSO: Maduro Relies on ‘Colectivos’ to Stand Firm in Venezuela
The colectivos control the opening and closing of the water pipes of the state-owned company, Hidrolara. This gives them the power to decide which streets and houses receive water and which do not. And they use this criminal control to profit both from low-income areas and wealthier ones.
"They have a deal with the companies that sell water," a social leader from the El Ujano community, west of Alí Primera, explained. "They close the pipes so that people have to call for water, which can be US$6 to $10 per 500-liter tank, depending on the area.”
At the same time, the colectivos offer neighboring landowners clandestine water connections to the pipes that should be supplying the housing complex. Prices are between US$50 and $80 per connection, according to local sources.
The colectivos are also involved in the distribution of subsidized food, in conjunction with the Local Supply and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción - CLAP), which administers food aid from the government, and Hugo Chávez Battle Units (Unidades de Batalla Hugo Chávez - UBCH), patriotic groups under the direction of the ruling party, which are supposed to defend Chavismo.
Among the most lucrative control colectivos have in Lara is over gasoline. As in other states where gas is often scarce, gas stations that sell at a subsidized price (a liter of gasoline costs US$0.004, as opposed to the normal price of US$0.50 per liter) have come under the supervision of colectivos. In Barquisimeto, members of these groups have a hand in the running of almost all subsidized fuel stations, where they charge a fee to drivers for allowing them to skip long queues.
They also control the public transportation used by the sector's inhabitants. Each bus is charged a fee to enter social housing projects and pick up passengers, residents said.
But the colectivos have also harnessed their power to go beyond controlling services -- they also control the spaces residents live in.
In projects built by the government's Misión Vivienda (Housing Mission) program like Alí Primera, many inhabitants do not own their property and can be evicted if their properties are left empty for extended periods. The colectivos monitor which apartments are uninhabited, and on several occasions have appropriated properties left empty for too long. One resident told InSight Crime that housing institutions have granted title deeds of these apartments to the colectivos, allowing them to rent and sell the homes.
From Social Fighters to Criminals
In the past, colectivos were rooted in community organization. But as Venezuela's economic crisis has worsened, any remaining community intentions the groups had have disappeared.
"Today's colectivos are matraqueros (extortionists),” a former social leader of a Lara colectivo told InSight Crime. “Yesterday's were social fighters. Now they behave like thugs -- some want to be businessmen, and others want to be security guards.”
SEE ALSO: The Armed Groups Propping Up Venezuela’s Government
This change has benefited local pro-Mauro politicians, who have used colectivos to attack opponents and enforce control in Lara’s most impoverished areas. As a result, authorities in Lara tend to tow the government line.
Aside from enforcement, colectivos also act as an effective campaigning body during elections.
Such dynamics are evident in the Ana Soto neighborhood of Barquisimeto, the most populous neighborhood in the country, which can decide the destiny of a presidential election. There, the "Comuna Taroa" colectivo, one of the largest in the state, operates.
Members have threatened Ana Soto residents with the withdrawal of public services and provisions if they do not vote for pro-government candidates. According to multiple community members, the colectivo has also taken inhabitants to voting centers against their will, and prevented the centers from closing, against the orders of the electoral authority.
However, with the colectivos loyalty now bought rather than given, their support of ruling politicians is no longer certain: As for-profit groups, their actions are contingent on the benefits they receive from those in charge. And recently, the colectivos have been less active in many parts of the state, several sources noted.
"The colectivos have lowered their profile because their leaders promised them cars, gasoline, and money, and they didn’t deliver," said a social leader from Barquisimeto.