Caracas has become one of the world’s most dangerous places to live. Behind a smokescreen of respectability, once charitable organisations called colectivos are now terrorising the city’s population through extortion and hard crime. Government officials either turn a blind eye to the behaviour of the colectivos or become their collaborators. Heavily armed and entrenched in the drug trade, ostensibly promoting the country’s Bolivarian revolution and swearing their allegiance to Hugo Chávez, colectivos control the lives of some of the city’s poorest communities.
Fifty-six people were murdered in one weekend last year when armed men on motorcycles with alleged links to colectivos went on a shooting spree. Victoria Molina’s son was shot in a taxi when he refused to step out of the vehicle. “Colectivos were good when they started out; they talked to the politicians on our behalf, brought water pipes to the community…” Maria’s voice trails off, rising again in anger: “But now money and power has corrupted them. They have sold their souls to the devil.”
Colectivos began as voluntary organisations in the early 1960s, envisaged as independent groups that could convey the concerns of local people to state representatives. They were actively involved in the provision of amenities, schooling and employment. Living in uncertain times and ruled by capricious politicians, committed leaders of these social movements, mainly from the poorest areas of the country, truly believed that they could bring about dramatic social change. For a brief period these notions of empowerment caught the imagination of the people. “They used to do things for us where the government failed,” says 76 year old Jose Ramirez who lives in a densely populated barrio in an area called ‘23 January’. He points to a crumbling building and says that it used to be a school built by the colectivos.
Ramirez’s barrio is one of the most impoverished areas in Caracas, and home to many colectivos. In the 1950s a large residential complex was built here—9176 flats in 38 super-blocks. Gradually, however, these and the surrounding slums fell into the hands of colectivos. Entire areas are gated off and controlled by gangs with sophisticated security apparatus and serious firepower. Houses are painted…