Several Venezuelan pro-government political patronage networks, colloquially known as colectivos, unexpectedly canceled a protest scheduled for Oct. 23 in Caracas. The colectivos intended the event to be a mass demonstration protesting the death of five members of the March 5 colectivo, including the group's leader, Jose Odreman, during a police raid in western Caracas on Oct. 7. Allegedly, threats against the marchers by unspecified Venezuelan officials caused the demonstration to be canceled. Separately, on Oct. 22, one person was killed and another injured during shooting between members of unidentified colectivos in northern Caracas.
The colectivos have been a constant pillar of support for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela for more than a decade. The current colectivo landscape is a fusion of urban guerrilla groups with social patronage networks created during the presidency of Hugo Chavez and armed organizations built to safeguard the president against potential challenges from the opposition or other parts of the government. The colectivos have played a key role in dispersing protests over the past decade, most recently during the unrest in early 2014. Particularly given the stress Venezuela is under and the potential for social instability in the year ahead, any shifts concerning groups of largely undisciplined gunmen bear close watching.
Although the cause of the Oct. 7 killings remains unclear, they clearly signal a growing division between some of the colectivos and the government. One possibility mentioned in an unconfirmed report is that a corrupt local police official targeted the March 5 colectivo for displacing a criminal gang. Separate reports suggest the clampdown came because of Odreman's persistent involvement in extortion, homicide and other crimes. Although some of the colectivos are undoubtedly involved in criminal enterprises, cracking down on such activity clearly entails some risks, such as reducing the colectivos' loyalty to the government and sparking clashes with the very security forces the government depends on to maintain order. Ultimately, the Venezuelan government's possible loss of key auxiliary security forces amid growing economic uncertainty and possible upcoming unrest depends on how many colectivo members in Caracas and nationwide sympathize with the March 5 colectivo.
It is also possible that the government deliberately targeted the March 5 colectivo. According to a Stratfor source, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro does not favor keeping the colectivos armed. The government has sponsored disarmament initiatives, but these initiatives seemingly have not been widely applied to colectivos yet. However, official reactions after the incident, including those of Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres and Investigative Police Director Jose Serralta, suggest the government is trying to distance itself from the Odreman colectivo. Both Rodriguez Torres and Serralta refrained from referring to the group as a colectivo, and instead claimed that Odreman and others were members of a criminal group and not a political organization. On Oct. 22, the Fabricio Ojeda Socialist Communicators' Front, a propaganda diffusion group loyal to the government, spoke against the planned Oct. 23 protest, calling it an attempt to weaken Rodriguez Torres politically.
A crucial question will be whether the colectivo was targeted (whether by local police or the government) because of its alleged criminal actions or for another reason. Some of the colectivos enjoy the patronage of top Venezuelan officials. Deliberate action by Maduro against one of these groups would at least have some political consequences and could indicate a wider struggle against other factions within the ruling party. Both Rodriguez Torres and National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello were responsible for arming and organizing some of the colectivo groups in 2001 and 2002. Cabello is suspected of retaining links to several of these groups. However, local officials from the Libertador municipality, where many of the colectivos are located, likely interact more frequently with the groups. Odreman's colectivo is known to have publicly associated with organizations likely sponsored by Cabello and with the Libertador municipal officials.
Although the colectivos are only one part of the Venezuelan political establishment, their open defiance against the central government is clearly unusual. The actions against Odreman's group could indicate a struggle between government figures, or could be a more localized action. If the latter is true, then the fallout from the Oct. 7 killings will likely subside. However, if the killings were politically motivated, they may be a catalyst for further splits within the colectivos that could have far-reaching consequences within the Venezuelan government. The picture isn't clear yet, but the anomalies that have arisen thus far give us good reason to watch this closely.