During a government protest in Plaza Venezuela in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, a group of leather-clad, heavily armored motorcyclists thunder through the crowds, brandishing handguns and swinging clubs at protestors.These scenes were common during Venezuelan protests in 2014, where pro-government colectivos swept into protestors with a mandate to intimidate and repress.
Colectivos are broadly defined as nonhierarchical groups who work toward a common goal. In much of Latin America, colectivos have often referred to peaceful, solidarity-based organizations In Matagalpa, Nicaragua, el Colectivo de Mujeres (The Collective of Women) hosts women empowerment workshops and plans marches for an end to domestic abuse. And in Jalapa, Mexico, el Colectivo por La Paz (The Collective for Peace) seeks justice for missing loved ones and pushes for a halt to senseless violence. Many of these groups advocate for progressive issues, but in contrast to their activist collective-action-focused counterparts, colectivos in Venezuela have adopted a new role.
In Venezuela, colectivos are not activists banning together for a common good. Instead they are armed, pro-government groups acting as little more than paramilitary forces. As the autocratic, populist government of President Nicolás Maduro collapses, the cohesion that collective organization is usually intended to foster has instead been marked by partisan coercion. As major economic and humanitarian crises wrack the country, these armed groups have warped Venezuelan civil society into outlets of abuse and crime.
These colectivos have taken control of territories throughout Venezuela, especially in the city of Caracas. Enforcing Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian brand of socialism, they attempt to provide security and relative normalcy to their closed communities under the partisan banner of chavismo. They frequently patrol and regulate currency and goods under a presumption of colectivo justice and protection, sparing their communities from the crime and inflation that plague the rest of the country. However, this stability does not come without a cost. Painted on a wall in the Caracas colectivo of the Alexis Vive Foundation, the mantra “A country is built working, not criticizing,” serves as a gentle but clear reminder that members and the “beneficiaries” of their control are under the thumb of the government.
Supporters of the opposition are often targeted by colectivos, like during the 2014 protests. The Maduro regime encourages their actions and they often collaborate. Regime security forces and colectivos engage in severe beating and unlawful detainment and indiscriminately shoot protestors, acting as tools of oppression for the government against dissenters.
Performing as almost a parallel security force for the government, many of these groups’ illegal acts are deliberately overlooked, adding to the country’s high levels of crime. They receive funding from the government for their support, but many of them also benefit from illicit commerce and activities.
Colectivos have taken advantage of the country’s instability to turn a profit. In a country where food shortages have caused the average Venezuelan to lose 24 pounds in the last year, they have gained influence over local food distribution. With a population desperate for food supplies, they can sell packages at an inflated price. In addition to leveraging the demand for basic goods, powerful colectivos are heavily involved in the drug trade, extortion, and illegal gambling. More than anything, these organizations are defined by the violations of human rights they have committed through their frequent use of force.
Within the bleak shadow of the Maduro regime, Venezuela’s collectives are the opposite of what many have come to see colectivos to be—a tool to solve collective action problems and provide or protect public goods. These bastardizations of collective activity for the purposes of repression and illegal gains serve as yet another reminder of the state’s many failures. For as long as internal problems plague the country, the poison of Venezuelan colectivos will be alive and well, threatening not just social peace today but also potentially the reconstruction of Venezuela’s social fabric in the future.