Monday, November 03, 2014

A brief history of "colectivos"

Colectivos can be this tacky...
With the recent murder of representative Serra and the summary dismissal of Interior Minister Rodriguez Torres "colectivos" have assumed durable front news status. Heck, there is even a Wikipedia page on them, which is curiously critical considering the constant work that the regime propaganda machine does to edit permanently unfavorable comments in the people's encyclopedia page.

Still, that page is lacking on significant background and historical development, and could be neutered soon. Thus a blog post may be of help (1).

Colectivos today are a paramilitary force, based mostly in Caracas extensive slums and popular old districts (e.g. 23 Enero) where they reign supreme (2). From there they can descend on the city, execute whichever action they want or are requested to do, and retreat to an intricate network of small narrow alleys where police and army fear to thread. In addition, in those slums (ranchos or barrios), they make a basic living controlling anything, from governmental "social" programs of distribution to drug trafficking. They also happen in other cities of Venezuela but Caracas is their stronghold now.  How did this come to happen?

The story of colectivos is a progressive evolution of pro Chavez organized militants which were deliberately armed and motorized to inspire fear against opposition protests and upon which the regime eventually lost control.

The very origin comes as early as the 1998 campaign when I could see by myself the motivation in San Felipe, watching locals refurbishing a dilapidated house into a campaign headquarter, a block away from my home then. Chavismo has always had a motivated component that was relatively easy to herd through the following years into anything Chavez wanted.

... this threatening....
We can pinpoint the original precursor of colectivos to the Bolivarian Circles (Circulos Bolivarianos) creation in 2001. Already by then in spite of his electoral victories it was clear that an opposition to Chavez would exist, something quite traumatic and unacceptable for the narcissistic personality Chavez was. As a bland imitation of Cuban CDR were these circles created which were meant to promote patriotism and chavista motto in small neighbor groups of a dozen folks or so. By 2003 the political evolution had evolved and Chavez needed something more substantial and organized than the loosely organized fabric of these BC. But the experience had brought a few lessons for the regime. First, the BC were the place for the initial testing and recruiting of more hardcore supporters, those that should be trained in hit forces. Also, the BC were the first experience in financing such supporter groups and it became clear for the regime that buying loyalties was not something too difficult to do.

The next step came probably late 2001 when more hard core militants started to be equipped with motorbikes. This was very useful to the regime as quickly a hundred or two bikers could be summoned anywhere in Caracas to protest any opposition activity or media (Globovision was many times besieged by such hordes). A prime example was Lina Ron, who came to fame in September 2001 supporting the WTC blowing up by Al Qaeda by protesting herself in front of the US embassy in Caracas. Another aspect was supporting these nascent assault sections through informal street work. This was convenient because it was easy to place them in many areas, they were "working" in groups in informal systems and thus easily called upon. This was the time when "buhoneros" took over major downtown areas of Caracas, in particular the Sabana Grande Boulevard that they wrecked over time. (3)

We knew that motorizados had arrived as a force to reckon with when the mayor of Caracas Bernal himself led motorbike gangs in April 2002 to intimidate opposition venues like the RCTV network where his acts were duly filmed for posterity. But that 2002 attempt against Chavez changed that dynamic.

In 2002 Chavez learned that no matter what he could never fully trust the Venezuelan army (forgetting I suppose that no Venezuelan president ever did, never mind that Chavez himself was the 1992 coup monger of infamy). Lina Ron and Freddy Bernal would not be enough to secure his hold. Sure, it was important to develop their potential but this was not going to be enough, at least in the vision of the time. From then on he slowly but surely started building militias, unarmed at first but progressively given some type of access to weaponry. The culmination of that militia development was in 2007 when the constitutional referendum failed. One of the objectives was in fact to bring into the constitution the figure of the militia as an open counterweight to the armed forces. Needless to say that part of the defeat of 2007 was probably due to the army actually counting the vote as it happened and forcing Chavez to accept the result. The defense minister of that time was never herd of afterwards when he was replaced.

But that was not all. After the natural fading of the BC, the limited social reach of motorizados and the like, there was a need to a more structured control, that would bypass the legal constitutional frame work of governors and mayors. In 2006 Chavez created the consejos comunales (communal councils) which were elected assemblies of citizens that at first had the upper hand over legal authorities on some activities.

.... or this resolved beating up journalists, e.g..
Consejos Comunales was the thing chavismo had sought for years. The nature of their public debate through "direct participatory democracy" was an easy way to monitor dissent since this one was detected early, and thus erased or forced into discretion. That there were bigger organizations than the BC, going as far as ruling over a few thousand folks, allowed them to be financed directly in a way that favored its leadership politically. And finally, when a consejo communal is formed it needs to first be registered with the government, and sure enough if non chavista folks presided that registration was refused and henceforth funds would not be coming. Blackmail, and extortion, and close surveillance at a single stroke!

However the consejos comunales whose objective is primarily political are yet to be given a formal and legal system for their control. Thus there is still today a certain anarchy in their workings and this favored the final arrival of colectivos.  The main aim of consejos comunales, militias, bolivarian circles, is a bring in the vote, along a public sector employee which is also mobilized for elections (electoral fraud committed by any of the mentioned actors). And that is where the final cleavage between colectivos and the rest of chavismo organizations happened.

If the bring in the vote actions were shared, the retribution was not the same. It is important to note that since 2006 two new factors have appeared: food shortages and drug trafficking. Motorbikes and informal vendors, the origin of colectivos when combined with radical politicians issued from old guerrilla or recent BC, were uniquely suited to manage this booming business. They had the mobility of the motorizados to bring their traffic anywhere, the network of buhoneros to distribute things for a profit, with the resolve and excuse of being "revolutionary" at the level of "el pueblo" and not the bolibourgeois plutocrats getting rich by ransacking the public coffers. Thus the colectivo sees its actions in a bring in the vote system as a retributive service in addition of the political duty, whereas the other group saw it as payment time for Chavez for all the largess dispensed by him in between elections. A small nuance perhaps but a psychological one of importance: colectivos are self sustaining sovereign pro Chavez groups, they do not feel dependent on him, and even less on his heirs (4). One notable thing is that they exert patronage at their whims, and associate with whomever they please in the regime, be it important or not (the case of Serra, e.g.).

And thus the continuous accretion that formed these colectivos over a decade, from political activist of 1998-2002, to the successive layers of regime sponsored hard core bikers and informal vendors (motorizados and buhoneros), to which you may add disgruntled militia seeking more leeway, political operatives seeking more influence. Certainly when food and drug traffickers became important, they hired colectivos as needed, though in all fairness not all colectivos are rotten to the core though most probably are. You need to also keep in mind that Venezuelan scandalous overcrowding of prison and the traffic inside in drugs and weaponry also has had some impact on these colectivos, providing them with the violent leadership required.

Thus is the historical background of colectivos, original civil organizations that were made to evolve into paramilitary structures that Chavez himself could barely control but served him well to scare opposition, in particular at election time. Now that Chavez is gone, no one can control them, and you know why. Colectivos, storm troopers, assault sections, actos de repudio promoters, ... same difference

If I am wrong, prove me wrong.


1) you can consult in Spanish mythic pages on the subject of colectivos like Roland Denis in Aporrea. But of course any and all of the visions on colectivos do have a definitive bias, so fresh in history they are.

2) there is no clear date as to colectivos foundation. Forms of colectivos existing during the guerrilla times of the 60ies became extinct but the name survived as in Venezuelan Spanish it conveys the sense of collective interest of a certain population group. You speak for "the collective" not for yourself. In fact, their leaders today in general do maintain a rather modest profile not wanting to outshine their followers even if in practice they may have even a right of life and death...  I would say that the new version of colectivos appeared after the failed crisis of 2002, either as a spontaneous reaction for revolutionary leftist defense or a deliberate reinvention by the regime. I think the later was the most important factor, at least as soon as it saw small colectivos assemble.

3)  in fact for speed in their mobilization, motorbikes were again allowed on the main highways which has created today a major circulation problem, amen of crime as motorizados have no trouble robbing folks trapped in traffic jams on the highways. One should remind the infamous case of looting a truck crashed in the highway over the dead body of the driver that no one bothered dealing with. Bikers arrived even with passengers to help out in the looting, and were not afraid to confront authorities when they arrived on the scene.

4) Chavez himself on occasion complained abut how unruly some colectivos were: Lina Ron, Alexis Vive, La Piedrita. But unruly for Chavez meant not obeying him rather than being unruly which for him was never an issue in the calculated anarchy that the regime has sponsored.


  1. Excellent recap. The brownshirts seem to be a common tool used by dictatorships. The colectivos are similar to the ton ton Macoutes in Haiti.

  2. Haven't they heard of tactical pants?

  3. The clash between Colectivos and Military is inevitable. The two clash over control of drugs and trafficking anything subsidized. The Colectivos are thugs, always have been always will be. They are criminals who will act as criminals and crime will be a major issue unless a single crime boss can control them (was Chavez all separate entities fighting for larger kingdoms now). The fallout is a populous who fear to walk the streets cannot find basic goods and blame the government. The government's only mechanism to real in the massive trafficking and fear is the army. The Colectivos grow stronger and follow less of the gov'ts desires by the day as the laws do not apply to them. The two are on a collision course which will result in bloody street battles that will drive fear in everyone and runs the risk of uniting the Colectivos under a single leader that would oppose the gov't.

    Canadian looking in

  4. This is excellent, Daniel. This is one of those posts that reminds us how lucky we are to have your analysis & research on Venezuela.

    It's also important to point out that some of these colectivos have roots in the urban guerrilla movements of the 1970s. One really interesting document of this is the award-winning novel Calletania (1992) by the Caracas novelist Israel Centeno (b. 1958). (Not available in English yet, and pretty hard to find these days in Venezuela, though the 2008 Spanish edition is available on Amazon.)

    1. Thanks for the compliment. Looks like my staying away for a while paid off mentally :-)

      I have not insisted on that link to 70ies urban guerrilla path because I do not think the link is that direct.

      First, the 60ies and 70ies urban guerrillas as they were came from a genuine stand alone political movement. That is, there may have been some financing from Marxist countries but still, they were autonomous,

      Second, they all died in the 80ies and not enough survivors can be found to justify the blooming (?) of today's colectivos, 20 years after.

      Third, this time around the state has been in large part the promoters of that guerrilla paramilitary stuff, the first example where a government sponsors what is supposed to be its strong opposition but that become its paramilitary support.

      I think that many a member of colectivos of the 60ies 70ies would not be caught dead in a colectivo like La Piedrita.......

      Note: I am not saying that there is more influence from those years than giving the name, just that we should be careful before tracing direct links.

    2. Boludo Tejano8:00 PM

      I think that many a member of colectivos of the 60ies 70ies would not be caught dead in a colectivo like La Piedrita.
      Such as Teodoro Petkoff.

  5. Anonymous7:15 AM

    Hi Daniel, nice to read you. I would like to add a concept for sense of clarity. The "colectivos" are a mimic of germans "Rolltruppen" during the Nazi Regime. These were motorized (motos and light transport cars) and his task was the fast action against urban targets. They were effective in terms of frighten adversaries and common people who was neutral. They have nothing to do with "Bolivarian Circles", this were mere mob organized to activate on time. The "colectivos" have a permanent activity until any sign of opposition disapear...
    To the ends of "Socialism" keeping in Power they appeal to all know "terrorism" means. The term "Terrorist Dictatorship" is nonetheless an Oxymoron but never as useful as in the Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaragua states...

  6. I would just like to suggest and submit to general consideration that the "collectivos" were one of many entities that formed and evolved out the structural distortions imposed by revolutionary change. The revolution by necessity had to insulate itself from the resistance of entrenched opposition who maintained control of cities and governorships. Chavez needed to centralize authority to gain full control, but then he needed agents to execute his directives away from his command center. That is not easy to do quickly and maintain effective control. Agents had too much freedom to do what they pleased and they took advantage of the opportunity. It wasn't necessarily planned or designed or modeled after Nazzies. They probably evolved into being much the same way as in Nazzi Germany.


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