CARACAS — It’s been five months since 35-year-old opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s rightful president. Since then things haven’t exactly gone to plan: Not only has he tried and failed on multiple occasions to take down President Nicolás Maduro, he’s put Venezuela’s fearsome pro-government militias — better known as colectivos — on high alert.
Most colectivos formed in the early ‘90s when residents of working class neighborhoods organized and implemented defensive tactics to secure their barrios from state repression. When Hugo Chávez became President, he legitimized the colectivos, giving them resources and gaining their loyalty. They’ve never lost their devotion to Chavez, in fact they’ve extended it to his embattled successor. Over time, they’ve also become intertwined with the government’s security forces, and today play a crucial role in keeping Maduro in power.
Since Guaidó came into the picture, colectivos like Fuerza Motorizada have been acting as an unofficial police force — monitoring opposition rallies.
“When the Venezuelan opposition starts making noise, we go out there on intel runs. Just one or two of us having a quick look around,” said Hendry Carvajal, leader of one Fuerza Motorizada’s subgroups. “But when things get hectic, the entire Caracas chapter activates. That means 2,000-3,000 motorcyclists out in the streets.”
But colectivos aren’t limited to street patrols. The group Alexis Vive controls the better part of the neighborhood 23 de Enero, the largest pro-government stronghold in Caracas. It’s members are fiercely loyal to Chávez. Using a mixture of intimidation and indoctrination, they make sure the neighborhood feels the same way too. And just in case, their surveillance cameras keep watch while a radio station spouts pro-government propaganda.
"Juan Guaidó is such a traitor and such a suck-up. He thinks he can come and make something of himself in Venezuela and be president, and that we'll accept that, ” said José Lugo, leader of the Alexis Vive colectivo.
"We're going to launch the war of the people. And they won't know who is shooting at them."
This segment originally aired June 26, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.