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Armed Civilian Bands in Venezuela Prop Up Unpopular President

An antigovernment protester threw back a tear-gas canister fired by the National Police. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Caracas and other cities demanding elections in Venezuela.

CARACAS, Venezuela — The bikers thundered up in a phalanx of red jackets and dark clothes, some with faces covered, revving motorcycles before a thousand protesters in Caracas. They threw tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd. Then, witnesses say, they pulled pistols and fired.

Someone fell. Carlos Moreno, 17, lay sprawled on the ground, a pool of blood around his head.

“His brain matter was coming out,” recalled Carlos Julio Rojas, a community leader who witnessed the fatal shooting in Venezuela’s capital on Wednesday.

The uniformed men who shot Mr. Moreno were not government security forces, witnesses say. Rather, they were members of armed bands who have become key enforcers for President Nicolás Maduro as he attempts to crush a growing protest movement against his rule.

The groups, called collectives or colectivos in Spanish, originated as pro-government community organizations that have long been a part of the landscape of leftist Venezuelan politics. Civilians with police training, colectivo members are armed by the government, say experts who have studied them.

Colectivos control vast territory across Venezuela, financed in some cases by extortion, black-market food and parts of the drug trade as the government turns a blind eye in exchange for loyalty.

Now they appear to be playing a key role in repressing dissent.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Caracas and other cities demanding elections in Venezuela. Galvanized by a ruinous economy that has left basic foods and medicines scarce — as well as a botched attempt by leftists to dissolve the country’s congress last month — they present the largest threat to the country’s rulers since a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 2002.

Mr. Maduro has responded by sending National Guardsmen armed with water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. But alongside the security forces, experts and witnesses say, are the enforcers from the colectivos, who engage in fiercer and often deadly intimidation.

“These are the true paramilitary groups of Venezuela,” said Roberto Briceño-León, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a nonprofit group that tracks crime.

The presence of the colectivos hardly ends with demonstrations on the streets.

As rising foreign debt and falling world oil prices have depleted the Venezuelan government’s coffers, it has increasingly turned to colectivos as enforcers. From labor disputes with unions to student demonstrations on university campuses, colectivos are appearing almost anywhere the government sees citizens getting out of line, Venezuelans say.

Eladio Mata, a hospital union leader, says he was shot last year by colectivo members when negotiations deadlocked with the University Hospital of Caracas.

Mr. Mata said he had arrived to the front door of the hospital to find colectivo members blocking it. They were called, he said, by the hospital management. Staff members tried to help him force his way through, he said, but a colectivo member shot him in the back. He was then dragged into an operating room for emergency surgery.

“In this country, it’s prohibited to dissent,” Mr. Mata said.

Dr. Oscar Noya, a tropical infectious disease researcher, said his laboratory had been vandalized almost 30 times by colectivo members, who had destroyed equipment and taken electrical cables.

Dr. Noya said he believed the vandalism was ordered because he publishes information on infectious disease epidemics that the government does not report, particularly the spread of malaria.

Dr. Noya said his repeated complaints to the authorities had been met largely with silence and that the colectivos had “reached a level of total impunity.”

Experts say the colectivos date to the early days of Mr. Chávez, who originally conceived them as social organizations to advance his vision of a Socialist revolution to transform Venezuela’s poor neighborhoods. Many had their own names, flags and uniforms. The government eventually handed them arms and security training as well, deploying them as a separate militia.

As the groups became more powerful, they exerted their own influence independent of the government, most notably in controlling organized crime like drug trafficking in Caracas barrios.

Their power was so great that some even clashed with the police in 2014, part of an effort to oust an interior minister who had sought to curb them. More recently, others have fought deadly shootouts with soldiers in military operations to stop organized crime.

Today, the groups control 10 percent of towns and cities in Venezuela, according to Fermín Mármol, a criminologist at the University of Santa María in Caracas. Mr. Mármol said the deep left-wing ideological bent of the groups means they will defend Mr. Maduro at any cost.

“If tomorrow the revolution loses the presidency, the colectivos will immediately change to urban guerrilla warfare,” the criminologist said.

The colectivo bands have been accused of repeated attacks on journalists covering their activities in the streets. However, in rare interviews in the past, group leaders have denied criminal activity and said they primarily defended the leftist cause.

Despite their attacks against dissenters, for some poor Venezuelans, the colectivos are a source of order that people have come to accept.

On Thursday, in the neighborhood of La Vega, a working-class Caracas area roiled by protests, residents looked on as a band that they identified as members of a local colectivo stopped at a traffic circle during a patrol.

Haide Lira, 58, an administrative assistant who lives on the edge of the neighborhood, said clashes between protesters and the colectivos had startled residents. Her sympathies were drifting away from the protesters. “You don’t push out a government this way,” she said.

Of the colectivos, she said: “They put order where there is disorder. It’s true, they are armed civilians, but what can you do in this upside-down world of ours?”

But their attacks on protesters have traumatized many demonstrators in Caracas, like Mr. Rojas, who witnessed the death of Carlos Moreno, the teenager.

The demonstrators, he said, had tried in vain to save Carlos, pushing his limp body onto a motorcycle to be taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Some of the crowd tried to pursue the assailants, but were restrained by others who said it would be useless, witnesses said.

Mr. Rojas, who works with opposition politicians, said he had become used to the attacks, which have long been a fixture of his activism.

“They attack your neighbors when they are in food lines and are identified as opposition members, they attack store owners by making them pay extortions, they attack bakers by taking away part of their production which they later sell on the black market,” he said. “They are not true collectives, or political actors — they are criminals.”


(c) 2017 The New York Times

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