Tension is mounting in Venezuela. Opposing factions are taking to the streets in growing numbers and with increasing frequency, while government and opposition leaders are pointing fingers at each other. Each side ignores the other’s calls for unity and peace, and each blames the other for the violence, which so far has left at least 14 people dead – though some, including the country’s president, claim the death toll is much higher.
In a blame game whose players alternately bill each other as “fascists” and “reactionaries,” two groups have emerged, identified by the other’s side as the faction’s most radical and dangerous element.
They are the colectivos — armed Chavistas on motorcycles — and the guarimbas, who are identified mainly with the students setting up barricades across the country. Myths and accusations abound about both, and each has roots in earlier phases of Venezuela’s political history.
According to outside observers, both the government and opposition are to blame for the escalation in violence.
“President Maduro has been unable or unwilling to curb the armed groups,” an International Crisis Group report stated, adding, “it is also possible that hardliners in the opposition are seeking violence in belief that it would hasten the downfall of the government.”
VICE News correspondent Alex Miller reports in his latest dispatch from Caracas that, depending on who you speak to, the colectivos “are either the defenders of the people’s revolution or a militant moto gang employed by the state.”
The colectivos date back to the urban guerilla movements of the 1960s, and reinvented themselves as defenders of the revolution under Chavez. Opposition protesters see them as thugs on wheels at best, and a well-armed, government-backed paramilitary group at worst. They accuse them and the Venezuelan national guard of causing the deaths over the past weeks.
“The colectivos have become a paramilitary organization, who are regrettably being armed by the government,” an opposition protester at a barricade told VICE News. “The government backs them up, gives them guns, and they are seen as a political movement. The government asks for peace but at the same time they back the colectivos.”
Several government representatives contacted by VICE News did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations.
But not everybody agrees with the opposition. The colectivos are also known for their social work, as well as for taking on drug dealers and other criminals — particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, where many come from, and where the national police won’t go.
“Colectivos are being demonized and presented to be blind followers of Chavismo. They are the boogeyman of the opposition,” George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, told VICE News. “But they are actually full of criticism of the government. They are very revolutionary, but not blindly dogmatic.”
To some critics of the opposition, elements of class and race play into the terror that colectivos are normally associated with. In the opposition-sympathetic media, in particular, the term is abused and applied “to anyone on a motorcycle, anyone wearing a red shirt, anyone too poor-looking or dark-skinned,” Ciccariello-Maher wrote in The Nation.
Leaders of the colectivos don’t deny their access to weapons, but claim to condemn the violence of the past weeks, during which one of their prominent members was also killed. In a heated interview on Venezuelan television, earlier this month, Alberto “El Chino” Carias, leader of the colectivo Movimento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru — the tupamaros — admitted that the group has weapons and is willing to use them.
“If Venezuelan democracy is going to be affected by a coup, like it did in 2002, I will say responsibly, as president of the MRTA, we are going to get out our weapons,” El Chino said. “Nobody pays us, we are revolutionaries by conviction.”
But colectivos have also been accused of scaring people away from the demonstrations — including residents of their own neighborhoods.
“One of my students from 23 Enero, one of the biggest slums, told me there’s a lot of opposition there, but the tupamaros don’t let them protest,” Luis Itanare, a college instructor from outside Caracas, told VICE News. “They tell them, if you go to these protests you can’t come back.”
Others say the playing field is uneven, and dismissed claims that Venezuela could descend into a situation like Syria’s.
“The arms are on one side of the conflict,” a local journalist, who asked not to be named, told VICE News. “It’s very difficult to imagine a civil war here, it would be more like a genocide."
Student protesters have responded to the colectivos, which move largely on motorbikes, by setting up barricades - with trash at first, but increasingly with furniture, barbered wire, and fire. They are the guarimbas that president Nicolas Maduro has directly accused of causing “more than 50 dead” – even though other government officials kept the figure much lower.
“Yesterday, an 84-year-old lady died in eastern Caracas because she was held up at a road block for three hours,” Maduro said at a recent rally. In his personal blog, he also accused the guarimbas of setting dogs on fire.
The term “guarimba” is a throwback to the years of Chavez, who used it to identify opposition groups after a 2002 coup and a 2004 referendum that attempted to unseat him. To some Venezuelans, the guarimbas’ guerilla-style tactics are just an illegitimate threat to a democratically elected government.
“The political map of Venezuela is clearly and affirmatively Chavista,” pro-government blogger Pedro Patino wrote, adding that the ruling party has won political victories in all recent elections, including the latest in December. “Given this simple reality, the opposition has no chance of victory with the destabilizing attempts of the extreme right reactionary guarimbas.”
The students behind the barricades, of course, don’t see that way.
“We are here for everyone,” one of them told the VICE News team in Caracas. “We want to live in a country that is safe.”