Venezuela Election is a High Stakes Affair for Local Vigilante Groups

PHOTO: Members of the Victor Polay Campos colectivo await for Chavez?s casket to arrive in Caracas23 de Enero Neighborhood.

In the Caracas barrio of 23 de Enero, a coalition of armed vigilante groups serves as the de facto security force. It also helps run social welfare programs for a neighborhood overrun by drug dealing.

The vigilante groups, known as colectivos, have a great deal at stake in the upcoming presidential election, which will pit opposition candidate Henrique Capriles against Hugo Chávez's handpicked successor, acting President Nicolas Maduro.

"If [Capriles] wins, he will go after all of the colectivos and cut the social programs. That would be terrible," said William Ortega, a member of the colectivo Monteraz. "We will not let the police come into 23 de Enero and we will risk our lives to defend this area."

There are more than 20 autonomous colectivos in Caracas, and they're mostly centered in 23 de Enero, a community of makeshift shacks and public housing projects that is home to about 100,000 people. Their arsenal of weapons includes AK-47s, handguns and homemade grenades.

These Marxist-leaning groups are firm supporters of Venezuela's current socialist government, and over the past decade, have organized massive voter turnout campaigns that helped Chávez to comfortably win a majority of votes in the areas under their control. On April 14th, they will engage in another such campaign, and every member of the colectivos will be required to bring ten residents to the polls.

"We support Nicolas Maduro, whom we have known since he was a kid. He was a member of revolutionary groups just like ours. We are going to do whatever it takes to win the 10 million votes [that the government is aiming for in this election]," said Lisandro "Mao" Perez, director of colectivo Guerrilla Pedagogica.

But more than just shared ideology aligns these groups with Venezuela's government. For years now, the colectivos have profited from an informal deal that was made with the Chávez administration: They could patrol their crime-ridden neighborhoods and act against local drug dealers, and police would stay out of their areas. Colectivos say the arrangement is necessary because police, who fall easily into alliances with criminals, can't be trusted to do the job.

Colectivo leader Lisandro Perez otherwise known as "Mao" poses in front of a mural of one his heroes, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"We told [the government] to kick out the metropolitan police force because they were very corrupt and they profited from the arms and drug trade. So what was the point of having them when they generated so much of the violence?" said Lisandro "Mao" Perez, director of Colectivo Guerrilla Pedagogica and former chief administrator of 23 de Enero.

At night, colectivos patrol the neighborhood on motorcycles, masked and armed. They also occasionally set up roadblocks to inspect people coming in and out of the neighborhoods.

"When we find out about drug dealers selling around schools we immediately find them and we let them know very clearly that they must leave the area. If they don't leave in 48 hours, then we take them out forcefully," said Lisandro Perez, the head of the colectivo Guerrilla Pedagogica and the former chief administrator of 23 de Enero.

Perez did not elaborate, but it is widely believed that colectivos kill drug traffickers who do not obey their orders.

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