An armed and masked gang on motorcycles surrounded the office of the national police in Caracas last week, demanding freedom for a member who had been arrested. The twist-this paramilitary group, like many others, is sponsored by the state itself. When neighborhood associations become extortion rackets.
The proliferation of armed groups that skirt the edge of the law is made worse by the fact that the state is doing nothing about them. Indeed, the state fuels the anarchy, with political justifications and also by supplying the groups with people, material and financial backing.
Thus warns Roberto Briceno Leon, head of the Venzuelan Observatory on Violence(OVV), in the aftermath of the seizure of the PNB national police headquarters by members of a collective from the Twenty-Third of January district earlier this week. The armed group was demanding that police free one of its members, who had been arrested for criminal possession of a firearm.
Briceno Leon underlined that the collectives in Twenty-Third of January were not created by the Chavez state, but developed among people who were trying to improve living conditions in their communities.
“Nevertheless, they have emerged from an internal struggle over the control of territory and whether to get involved in illicit activities. Among them were groups which were organized to stop drug trafficking, but in the end these same groups took over the trafficking business, with the excuse that they would be a source of financing for their social and political struggle.”
Jose Quintero, head of the Procatia neighborhood association, for 37 years a community activist in the district, traces the problem to the rise of Bolivarian Circles [workers’ councils]. “When they started to get funding from the government, the disputes for power increased, and citizen participation in public administration got put on the back burner.”
Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma said that he ended up working jointly with Twenty-Third of January collectives in building reconstruction and renovating sporting and cultural facilities. “But Chavez’s bellicose rhetoric ended up being very freely interpreted by every group, and they degenerated into paramilitaries,” he said.
“There have been cases where the CIPC national police trace a telephone call to try to track down a kidnapping victim, but end up with their hands tied, unable to act, because the victim is in one of the areas where the state’s security forces are prohibited from going,” says Briceno Leon.
Although real activists are involved in some of the collectives, the OVV director says, their taking the law into their own hands delegitimizes them. In his opinion, the most serious issue is how the government has fueled their belligerency. “We have seen how their leaders sit down for formal meetings with ministers and deputies. We all remember the case of the United Socialist Party parliamentary deputy Robert Serra, with a group of armed children. There is really clear complicity here,” says the sociologist.
For his part, Ledezma underlines the government’s inconsistencies. “On the one hand there are punishments, with a law against carrying weapons, while on the other hand these collectives are permitted to carry guns, and ignore the rules.”
“It’s not fair that the state offers nothing but these two extremes, either doing nothing at all, or killing indiscriminately. You either get the constrained hand of the national police, who get humiliated by the collectives, or you get the killing hand of the National Guard, who go out to fight the mafia with the methods of warfare. What should be in between is the social compact, the rebuilding of living together and the respect for the law. “
The Most Prominent Groups
La Piedrita. Got its start in 1999 among security guards in the El Observatorio area. Historical leader is Valentin Santana, former head of security for the Central University of Venezuela; he is currently being sought for suspected involvement in a homicide. In 2007, La Piedrita took final shape as an independent collective after a long struggle in the Twenty-Third of January neighborhood with Jose Pinto’s Tupamaro group. 50 Activists. Has absolute control of the El Observatorio neighborhood, and displays its military vehicles and equipment.
Alexis Vive. Formed in 2002 after the death of Alexis Gonzalez Revette, head of a group that operated in the Monte Piedad area. Calls itself a Marxist-Leninist group dedicated to social work. Formally, it is a foundation that carries out commercial transactions with branches of the state. Has about 25 activists. In 2005, split off from the Simon Bolivar Coordinator and has since made shows of force such as blocking the streets in Agua Salud. Has organized indoctrination programs and weapons classes for minors.
Montaraz. Founded in 2005. Member of the Simon Bolivar Coordinator. Main leader is Alexis Noguera. Has about 20 activists. Operates in Cano Amarillo and El Calvario. Has received bureaucratic support via mayoralties and ministries.
Since 2000 Caracas and some states in the interior have seen a policy of squatting in houses and offices, promoted by collective groups and organizations sympathetic to the government of former president Chavez. The Association of Owners of Urban Buildings has said that 22,000 buildings around the country have been squatted since 1999, of which some 950 buildings, houses, sheds and lots in Caracas remain illegally occupied.
One of the most emblematic occupations is that of Confinanzas tower, better known as “The Tower of David”, squatted since 2007 by more than a thousand families and controlled by armed groups who keep order among those who live there.
When state security forces try to punish people linked to an armed group that supports the regime, they themselves are threatened. Last year there were at least three incidents like this.
In November of 2012, a collective from Twenty-Third of January tried to seize the western headquarters of the CICPC national police to demand that authorities release Adinson Perez, who was being held on suspicion of homicide. In April of 2013, the Ho Chi Minh collective tried to seize the headquarters of the PNB national police in El Amparo because one of its members was being held for having an illegal weapon; the same happened this week at the headquarters of the PNB national police on Sucre Ave.
Three months ago, several collectives took over a number of butcher shops in the Catia neighborhood, and, by force, obliged the shopkeepers to sell their products at set prices. The owners, preferring to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, say they are victims of ongoing extortion: “They ask us for money in exchange for protection. If we don’t pay, they rob us and threaten to kidnap or kill us. Most recently, once a week, they have been asking us to give them 10 kilos of meat, as a contribution to the venture.”
Edgar Lopez and Thabata Molina
22 Jul 2013