March. 27, 2013 -- 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.
If Capriles were to win the election, the colectivos fear that their power to enforce their laws and keep drug traffickers at bay would be jeopardized. Although Capriles does not mention the colectivos by name and has pledged to keep social welfare programs in place, the colectivos don't believe him. They feel his wealthy background and previous statements that he would privatize certain sectors of the economy are signals of his intent to cut social spending.
The colectivos became important managers of social programs under the Chávez administration. They run health clinics as well as several education initiatives, with funds which they receive from the government. When they are not patrolling they neighborhood with their guns, they run after school sports programs, and have even managed to get some roads paved in the shanty towns that surround the public housing projects of 23 de Enero.
But critics say the colectivos have transformed these social programs into political tools for the Chávez government.
"They do talks, forums and they indoctrinate very young kids into Marxism. The government finances all this. But if you don't agree with them they will shut you out from most of the social programs until you give allegiance to the (socialist) party," said Ennio Cardozo, a professor of political science at Venezuela's Central University.
Such influence over social programs makes it difficult for Capriles to find many supporters in areas controlled by the colectivos.
Many residents of neighborhoods like 23 de Enero, where the colectivos have a strong presence, also say they support these groups because they have managed to cut down crime, even if they have done so in a heavy handed way.
"They are better than the police and the military who are just the big drug dealers. They help bring some order to the community," said Helga Romero, a resident of 23 de Enero who said that she will vote for Nicolas Maduro and hopes Maduro will continue to let the colectivos do their job.
The opposition however, has made electoral inroads in working-class neighborhoods that are not controlled by colectivos.
Ruth Rojas, a housewife from La Candelaria, blames the current government for allowing the violence in her neighborhood to continue. She said that, in the upcoming election, she'll vote for Capriles.
"Crime is horrible. Here, they kill for fun. You go out with your phone and they take it away from you. They grab you and take everything you have. There are no laws. The laws here are garbage," Rojas said.
If a Capriles victory were to occur, it could result in serious friction between the new administration and these vigilante groups from the 23 de Enero. Their members are well-armed, which could mean fierce clashes with any future administrations who attempt to take away their privileges.
"We had been oppressed for over 500 years and [autonomy] is not going to end with the 14 years of revolution we have had. We have to keep this process alive with our blood and now more than ever because our president is gone," said Perez.
The colectivos are also not entirely satisfied with the local socialist leadership, and some are already thinking about running their own candidate in the Caracas mayoral election that is coming up later this year.
But at the national level, they are eager to keep the arrangement as it is, with the government allowing them the leeway and funds to run their own patrols and social programs.
Evelio Arrieta, a member of the colectivo Tupac Amaru who also works in the local government, is confident that all the members of Chávez's coalition, colectivos included, will unite under Maduro if he wins the election--and that Maduro will respect the autonomy of the colectivos.
"We just want [socialist officials] to respect the bases of the [colectivo] movement," Arrieta said. "This is a government that is in power because of these [sorts of] social movements."