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 red, the colour of the ruling party, and adorned with portraits of Chávez, Che Guevara and, in one instance, a large painting of Jesus Christ brandishing a Kalashnikov alongside a decorous Virgin Mary with an equally menacing weapon.
So what went wrong? How did the colectivos mutate from protectors to oppressors? Angel Cacique is a member of the Social Christian Party of Venezuela, which has been part of the country’s political fabric for many decades. He says “During the 1960s, the police presence in areas like 23 January was sparse. The colectivos became Ajusticiadores (people who take the law into their own hands). A few members of the colectivos started dealing drugs and acquired weapons; this is when it all started going downhill.”
Rodrigo Torres is a former colectivo who has abandoned his former life and is looking forward to a new one. “With Chávez things changed dramatically [for the colectivos] and they became all-powerful.” He sweeps his arm over the entire area. “The first thing he did when he came to power was to take whatever was left of the Metropolitan Police out of here.” Rodrigo says that Chávez was reciprocating the help he received from the colectivos in coming to power in 1998.
“Colectivos only [continue to] exist because they have strong business links with the ruling party and some of them even work for the government,” says Rodrigo. “It is an open secret that a police commissioner leads a double life as a colectivo. He leaves his police uniform behind and dons a mask to become the feared Commandant Murachi of the Carapaica Collectivo.” Carapaica is one of the biggest and most dangerous colectivos; its masked members have acquired a reputation for ruthlessness. In August 2002 in a show of strength, the Carapaica attacked the metropolitan police offices in broad daylight with heavy weapons and then called an open press conference where they spelt out their plan of control for the city. “As though they were telling people about their plans to increase agricultural produce,” quips Rodrigo.
Rivalry among colectivos has resulted in the splintering of groups and a manifold increase in kidnappings, burglaries and murders. Every common thief who joins a colectivo is given a weapon.
The government has denied links to the colectivos and has blamed the violence on class discrimination promoted by the previous government. Yet the opposition party has recognized the seriousness of this social problem. After boycotting the elections in 2005, a fractured opposition has come together for the first time to fight the next presidential elections in 2012. Maria Corina Machado, 43, became the deputy for Miranda state in Caracas in the recent assembly elections. A strong critic of Chávez, she is seen by many as a presidential candidate. On the colectivos, she said: “It is a problem because 90% per cent of murders in this country go unsolved. A strong impartial judicial system is what is needed, not one that sides with criminals.”
Yet even with a dramatic change in policy and enforcement, the country would take some time to reach a state of relative normality—where a person could walk down the street without the fear of getting killed around the corner.