As the 2024 presidential race gets underway in Venezuela, political violence by pro-government armed groups has intensified, in the latest iteration of a strategy that has served the ruling party well in past elections.
So far this year, InSight Crime has counted at least 13 attacks against opposition leaders. The attacks come ahead of presidential primaries on October 22 that will determine the candidate who will run against President Nicolás Maduro in next year’s elections.
In one of the most recent incidents, on August 16, men allegedly from armed pro-government groups known as colectivos attacked several campaign events held by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the state of Apure. The attacks left 39 injured.
María Corina Machado, the candidate leading the polls for the opposition primaries, has also been targeted by alleged colectivos. In July, armed groups blocked the road to Guárico state, located in the center of the country, to prevent her visit to the region.
Additionally, the headquarters of opposition political party Vente Venezuela in the states of Táchira and Guárico were painted with messages threatening Machado. The graffiti had tags from both the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), a binational guerrilla group that operates in Colombia and Venezuela, and the Venezuelan criminal gang Tren del Llano. The ELN has denied any involvement.
InSight Crime Analysis
Lacking popular support, the Maduro government has turned to a tried-and-true strategy: employing electoral violence by armed groups to secure victory.
The Venezuelan government has long had connections with criminal groups, as InSight Crime detailed in a recent investigation. These hybrid armed groups, such as the colectivos, play a key role in ensuring victory for the ruling party, leveraging territorial control and coercing the population. Polls indicate that more than 85% of Venezuelans rate Maduro's administration negatively, up from a 70% disapproval rating during the last presidential elections in 2015.
In past elections, InSight Crime has seen how these criminal actors promote the campaigns of government candidates and assert control in their territories to push people to vote for Maduro’s ruling party. On election days, they threaten poll workers, sometimes even taking over polling stations in rural areas.
Local politicians in Táchira’s Seboruco municipality who asked to remain anonymous told InSight Crime how during the 2021 regional elections, the ELN closed voting centers and ordered people to vote for the government candidate. Other politicians and journalists reported similar interference in Táchira by the ELN.
The support of these groups has a price. In exchange for colectivos ensuring votes, public officials reward them with resources and aid. For example, in the 23 de Enero neighborhood in Caracas, Mayor Carmen Meléndez rewarded colectivos that supported her 2021 campaign by building sports facilities and a community garden.
Many of the cases of electoral interference and violence reported this year have been attributed to individuals known to be pro-government, but whose membership in a specific armed group could not be confirmed.
But InSight Crime’s research into electoral violence in Venezuela has shown that hybrid armed groups employed a similar approach in the 2021 regional and local elections. Colectivos used intimidation, repression, sabotage, and threats against opponents to minimize and dissuade their participation in elections.
These groups also physically attacked opposition leaders and their supporters. Prominent incidents occurred in 2021 in the state of Zulia, where one person was killed, and in 2017 in Táchira, where two people died. "In times of elections and protests, the flow of money to colectivos increases,” a political scientist who asked to remain anonymous told InSight Crime. Between now and the 2024 elections, they added, we will likely see increased activity by colectivos seeking those funds.