Venezuela is experiencing its worst unrest in more than a decade. In response, the ruling socialist party let loose a level of force unprecedented in its history.
Some of the scariest images were seen on Feb. 19, as a week of protests against corruption, endemic crime and an ongoing economic crisis devolved into violence.
National guard troops raided buildings sheltering student demonstrators as motorcycle-riding militias stormed through the streets attacking protesters and firing live rounds.
At least eight people have died. More than 100 more have been injured. On Feb. 21, one motorcycle rider—not a militia member—was killed by a wire strung across a road, presumably set by protesters to ambush the bike gangs.
It’s bad. And it could get worse. Whatever happens, the militias are a reality the demonstrators will have to face. But who are they? And what’s their relationship with the government?
There are lots of urban paramilitary groups in Venezuela. Known as colectivos, the militias are based in the capital’s sprawling slums and combine self-defense with radical left-wing politics.
One of the largest slums, known as 23 de Enero, is believed to have around 2,000 armed militia fighters. The groups occasionally war with each other and the left-wing militant group known as the Tupamaros. Another group, the Secretariado Revolucionario de Venezuela, includes dozens of colectivos under its banner.
Some groups are hardcore supporters of the government, others do so with reservation. Members have long harassed opposition protests, driving past demonstrations on motorcycles and throwing fireworks or firing off the occasional live round. Militia fighters have been both praised and condemned by the government officials, at different times.
On Feb. 15, Pres. Nicolas Maduro—the successor to the late Hugo Chavez—said he does “not accept violent groups within Chavismo and the revolution.”
But other statements have been more equivocal.
On Feb. 19, which saw some of the worst violence, Maduro rationalized the use of paramilitary violence as a form of collective self-defense. “They have armed themselves in the past and have organized to protect their community,” he said. “If there is someone in these groups guilty of a crime, they should go to jail. I do not accept the demonization of these groups.”
But critics allege the militias double as paramilitaries. The militias are “repressive mechanisms that at the sight of the international public opinion do not compromise the government,” Carlos Raul Hernandez, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela, told El Universal.
In this sense, the militias can attack the opposition without the government taking the blame for injuries and loss of life. The militias operate with a great deal of autonomy. It’s just that government doesn’t seem very interested in stopping them.
According to Human Rights Watch, the government “has tolerated and promoted groups of armed civilians in the country” and “has not taken effective steps to disarm them.”
On Feb. 21, Secretary of State John Kerry said “the Venezuelan government has confronted peaceful protesters with force and in some cases with armed vigilantes claiming to support the government.”
There’s a blurry line between self-defense and aggression. Indeed, some groups are heavily armed, including possessing AK-type rifles, but there’s no evidence they receive weapons from the government. They don’t necessarily need to—Venezuela is awash in guns.
The relationship is also part necessity and part opportunity. Venezuela was a violent, dangerous country before the Chavista movement took power, and the paramilitary groups are not a new phenomenon.
The police are widely seen as brutal and corrupt more likely to rob you than help, so it might seem relatively safer to put your security in the hands of your neighbors. But it’s a poor solution to dealing with one of the world’s highest homicide rates.
Their presence also complicates the opposition’s narrative. Compared to the uprising in Ukraine against Pres. Viktor Yanukovych, the opposition in Venezuela exists in a country that’s much more bitterly divided.
The regime is authoritarian and illiberal, but its strong-hand tactics can also come from the top and from below.