The colectivos emerged from political patronage networks created early in the presidency of Hugo Chavez. In April 2001, Cabello was serving as Chavez's chief of staff, and current Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres was the head of the Directorate of Police Intelligence Services. Chavez tasked the two of them with creating what became called the Bolivarian Circles — community-level organizations responsible for identifying local concerns for the presidency in order to target resources and generate widespread support for Chavez.
The colectivos of Caracas were among the support bases of the original Bolivarian Circles. During his tenure, Chavez complemented the Bolivarian Circles with other institutions, including the Bolivarian militia, a volunteer militia that helped Chavez insure himself against the possibility of a military coup by setting up alternate and competing armed groups.
The Bolivarian Circles were established nationwide in 2002, and all of them participate in community organization, social activities and some political activities. The most politically active of the colectivos have grown up around the Bolivarian Circles' support bases in the Barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas. These groups, which have emerged at different times over the past decades, included La Piedrita, Montaraz, Simon Bolivar, Los Tupamaros, Alexis Vive and the Carapaica movement. These are the groups that are linked most closely to violent harassment of political dissenters. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela has never publicly ordered the colectivos to attack political opponents, but the colectivos routinely have emerged during periods of political confrontation. For example, the colectivos escalated attacks on opposition protests in 2002 and 2003 and have played a key role in the recent unrest.
The Power Behind the Colectivos
Ultimately, the colectivos are loyal to the patronage networks Chavez constructed. However, after Chavez's death it seems fairly clear that Cabello and Torres likely are playing key roles in operational control of the groups. Cabello in particular appears to have close connections to these organizations — not only because of his role in setting up the Bolivarian Circles, but also because of his open and direct links to La Piedrita from at least as early as 2002. He was known to associate with the head of the Bolivarian circle of La Piedrita, Lina Ron. Ron was an extremely prominent community activist and strong supporter of Chavez who played a key role in Caracas populist politics until her death in 2011. Cabello attended her funeral, and there were consistent rumors that he was a key pillar of support for Ron. Moreover, according to unconfirmed reports, Cabello is thought to have struck a deal with Los Tupamaros for his successful 2010 campaign as legislator for Monagas state — a negotiation that was necessary because of Cabello's strong ties to La Piedrita, which was at the time in conflict with Los Tupamaros.
However, Cabello is too high profile to maintain daily operational links to the colectivos. A number of lower level politicians could serve as intermediaries to the colectivos, though those links are largely obfuscated. Cabello's military academy classmate and former intelligence chief Eliecer Otaiza, who helped to arm the colectivos in the early 2000s, is currently a councilman for Libertador municipality, but his current involvement with the colectivos is less clear.
The most visible intermediaries between the national government and the colectivos are National Assembly legislator Freddy Bernal and political activist Juan Barreto. In 2001, opposition politicians accused Bernal, the former mayor of Libertador municipality (which is where Barrio 23 de Enero is located), of using government funds to arm and deploy colectivos. Bernal later received help from Ron (and possibly Cabello) in earning a second term as mayor in 2004. Bernal is frequently found at local political events in Barrio 23 de Enero and openly donated 100 motorcycles to community groups there in February 2013. Barreto also received help from Ron in raising votes for his campaign to become mayor of Caracas' Capital District in 2004. Barreto now leads the Redes movement, the official governing body of communal councils, colectivos and other social organizations throughout Venezuela.
Colectivos as Political Tools
The colectivos are a key tool for intimidating dissenters. However, the use of gangs to intimidate opposition members has its limits, as can be seen in Maduro's statements during the past several days. Maduro has declared that violence is not in keeping with Chavez's vision, and although Maduro decried alleged acts of violence by the opposition, the real message was to the followers of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and the colectivos.
The information available suggests that there was a great deal of confusion associated with the deaths that occurred Feb. 12, but clearly the colectivos were heavily deployed around the opposition protests. There have been relatively few acts of violence and no deaths since those confrontations, so it is possible that the government, whether through Cabello or as a result of Maduro's public exhortations, has reined in the colectivos for the moment. In most of the photos we have seen, the National Guard and police seem to have been handling the protests since Feb. 12, indicating that the colectivos may have restrained their actions. It is possible that Maduro has somehow undermined Cabello in pulling back on the colectivos, but there is a very good chance that there is simply too much political danger for Maduro to sanction their use. Too much violence would cause the Chavistas to lose public support, and deploying the colectivos may simply introduce too much risk to the situation.
Despite dueling protests by the government and opposition in Caracas on Feb. 18 — with reports that gunmen on motorcycles shot and injured eight protesters in Valencia and intimidated demonstrators in Merida — the colectivos have remained relatively calm. Thousands of opposition members accompanied opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez as he surrendered to government authorities. This major presence of opposition protesters did not attract the attention of colectivos, as the Feb. 12 protests did, suggesting restraint by either the government or the colectivo leadership. Instead, the government's official response to the opposition protest was a mass demonstration by thousands of oil sector workers — part of a series of pro-government marches nationwide. The government probably chose this strategy because it is less likely to spark domestic backlash than relying solely on the colectivos to contain the protests.