11 August 2019

Maduro’s Revolutionary Guards: The Rise of Paramilitarism in Venezuela


Abstract: The government of Nicolas Maduro has increased its reliance on armed non-state actors as Venezuela’s political and economic crisis deepens. Paramilitarism developed under Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, as a result of the erosion of the military, expansion of corruption and criminal networks in the government, and the devolution of state power to local loyalist groups. Colombian guerrillas have developed ties with the Venezuelan government and armed ‘colectivo’ groups as they expand into Venezuelan territory. As a result, the Colombian guerrillas have taken over state functions in parts of the country and have a vested interest in supporting the Maduro regime. Expansion into Venezuela has enabled the Colombian guerrillas to carry out attacks in Colombia and withstand blows from Colombian security forces, which could undermine future prospects for peace negotiations.

Armed non-state actors are propping up Nicolas Maduro’s government as Venezuela faces the worst political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. International news media have highlighted the role of colectivos, a catch-all phrase for armed pro-government civilian groups,1 using lethal force against civilian protesters. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the colectivos were key contributors to the killing of 5,287 people by the pro-government forces in 2018.2

In addition to the colectivos, Colombian left-wing guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, or EPL), and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) are expanding their presence in Venezuela, forging close ties with the Maduro regime and pro-government groups, and recruiting Venezuelans into their ranks.3 The expansion of Colombian guerrillas’ networks in Venezuela bolsters them to carry out attacks in Colombia, as illustrated by the ELN’s car bomb attack on the General Santander National Police Academy on January 19, 2019, which Colombian authorities labeled a “terrorist act.”4 The Colombian guerrillas’ ideological affinity and transnational criminal networks with pro-government forces in Venezuela effectively make them paramilitary groups with a vested interest in supporting the Maduro regime.

Paramilitarism arose in the early years of Hugo Chávez’s presidency (1999-2013).5 Chávez set the stage for paramilitary groups to ensure that he and his “Bolivarian Revolution” would remain in power. This article outlines how from the beginning of his presidency, Chávez eroded the hierarchy of the military, bolstered loyalist militant structures that run parallel to traditional military and political institutions, and allowed transnational criminal networks to expand within the government. The article also outlines how Maduro (2013-present) has reinforced these practices to remain in power as the national crisis worsened.6 The development of the colectivos, a main component of Venezuelan paramilitarism, and their relationship with the government is also analyzed. Finally, the ties between the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas and the implications of Venezuelan paramilitarism for regional security are discussed.

Defining Paramilitarism
Defining the term “paramilitary” can be difficult due to the informal usage of the term and varying academic definitions. Paramilitary groups exist across different countries, ideologies, and systems of government. Julie Mazzei, a U.S.-based researcher on paramilitary groups, defines paramilitaries in the Latin American context as “political, armed organizations that are by definition extra-military, extra-State, non-institutional entities, but which mobilize and operate with the assistance of important allies, including factions within the State.”7 Mazzei further adds that “paramilitaries are offensive, not defensive in nature; their very purpose is to eliminate those who are perceived as threatening the socioeconomic basis of the political hierarchy.”8 Paramilitarism can be considered as the “subcontracting” of the state’s monopoly of violence to non-state actors.9 In Venezuela, the groups that exemplify this definition of paramilitarism are the colectivos, the Colombian guerrilla groups present in Venezuelan territory, and other pro-government armed groups.

Paramilitarism is often considered as a sign of state weakness, with localized groups taking over state functions in areas that have been neglected.10 However, states with strong militaries also employ paramilitary groups; paramilitary groups can use irregular tactics not used by conventional security forces and create plausible deniability for human rights abuses and war crimes.11 In authoritarian regimes, paramilitaries can provide an effective means of conducting surveillance over their civilian populations and repressing political dissidents.

Paramilitarism has been common in contemporary Latin American history. Throughout the Cold War, governments in the region often employed paramilitary groups to fight left-wing insurgents. Chávez received inspiration for paramilitary groups from Panama’s Dignity Brigades (local civilian militias trained in insurgent tactics).12 Right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia with close ties to political and economic elites fought against the anti-government guerrillas.13 The paramilitaries have often targeted social activists and community leaders and have drawn funds from illicit trafficking.14 After the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), the country’s largest coalition of right-wing paramilitary groups, was disbanded in 2006, many paramilitary groups continued operating illegally and financing themselves through transnational criminal activities.15 In Nicaragua, turbas sandinistas—armed pro-government civilian groups that closely resemble Venezuela’s colectivos—have been repressing protesters and targeting dissidents since mass protests against Daniel Ortega’s government began in 2018.16

The Erosion of the Military and the Proliferation of Criminal Networks
In Venezuela, the erosion of military institutions through politicization and corruption under Chávez and Maduro helped lay the groundwork for paramilitarism.17 Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Venezuelan military regularly intervened in domestic politics.18 Fears among “Chavistas”a that the military would oust Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution” from power were almost realized in the 2002 coup attempt.19 Additionally, a politically independent military may resist orders, as demonstrated when Chávez ordered the military to put down mass demonstrations prior to the 2002 coup attempt.20 Increasing corruption and politicization within the military not only ensured its loyalty to Chávez’s government, but also weakened the military’s ability to deter the creation of parallel armed groups that can counterbalance it and carry out extrajudicial activities on the regime’s behalf.21

After winning the presidency in 1998, Chávez promoted a “civic-military union” that would integrate the armed forces into society and his broader political project.22 Chávez passed “Plan Bolívar 2000” in 1999, which put the military in charge of various social and economic programs and gave military officials more political influence and greater access to public funds.23 Military officers were both promoted to higher ranks and appointed to public offices based on loyalty to Chávez’s party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, or PSUV), while dissident senior officers were discharged.24 The military command structure became more dispersed as the number of regional and local command centers grew.25 As a result, the military’s leadership would, by 2019, balloon to “as many as 2,000 admirals and generals… as much as twice the top brass as the U.S. military – more than 10 times as many flag officers as existed when Chávez became president.” 26 Like his predecessor, Maduro further expanded the appointments of military officers to public office positions, including to the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).27

As part of his vision of the civic-military union to make “every soldier a citizen and every citizen a soldier,” Chávez promoted incorporating the populace into a “Bolivarian National Militia.”28 Chávez claimed that this militia would be integral to defending the nation and the Bolivarian Revolution from foreign powers, especially the United States.29 Maduro claimed that the Bolivarian Militia had 1.6 million soldiers as of December 17, 2018.30 However, members of the militia are, for the most part, not professionally trained soldiers; militia members featured in training videos are often civilians of middle and senior age.31 Local militia branches are often informally incorporated into local colectivo groups as colectivo members are often enlisted into their ranks.32 Militia members also allegedly help the regime conduct intelligence and counterintelligence on the general population.33

Criminal networks within the armed forces proliferated under Chávez and Maduro.34 These networks, often collectively referred to as the “Cartel de los Soles” (Cartel of the Suns), first became public in 1993 when two National Guard generals were investigated for their involvement in drug trafficking.35 Since then, top military and government officials have become actively involved in drug trafficking and other forms of illicit financing.36 Senior military officers and government officials have built relationships with Venezuelan and Colombian drug trafficking organizations, including colectivos, Colombian guerrillas, and other transnational criminal organizations.37

Devolution of Power to Communal Organizations and the ‘Colectivos’
The devolution of state authority to local community organizations empowered paramilitary groups throughout Venezuela, including the colectivos. Venezuelan paramilitarism takes a strong inspiration from Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, or CDRs) and the Rapid Response Brigades. The CDRs, in theory, are grassroot communal organizations meant to encourage openness and public participation in local governance.38 In practice, the CDRs serve as the eyes and ears of the Castro government and maintain surveillance on dissidents.39 The Rapid Response Brigades, local militias consisting of members of the Cuban Communist Party and its controlled social organizations, are deployed alongside regular Cuban security forces to repress protesters.40 However, the colectivos and other Venezuelan paramilitaries differ from the CDRs and Rapid Response Brigades in having greater autonomy from the state, less formal organization, and more pronounced criminal characteristics.41

Chávez’s government supported community organizations for social outreach and to devolve state functions to local levels. In 2001, Chávez established the “Bolivarian Circles” in order to build grassroot support for his movement. The Bolivarian Circles provided social services and allow local communities to address socio-economic and political concerns.42 Additionally, the Bolivarian Circles had a direct line of contact to the Presidential Office for requesting resources.43 Chávez’s opponents immediately compared the Bolivarian Circles to Cuba’s CDRs.44

Pro-Chávez leaders allegedly provided the Bolivarian Circles with arms to attack anti-Chávez protesters before and during the 2002 coup attempt.45 The Tactical Command for the Revolution (Comando Táctico de la Revolución, or CTR) was formed in response to growing anti-Chávez protests; among the CTR leadership was Freddy Bernal, then mayor of Caracas and an important organizer of the Bolivarian Circles.46 As protests outside of the Miraflores Presidential Palace grew, General Manuel Rosendo, the commander of the Venezuelan military at the time, received word from Captain Michael O’Bryan, Rosendo’s personal assistant, and Vice Admiral Bernabé Carrero that Bernal had been ordered by the Minister of Defense to arm Bolivarian Circles members with rocks, sticks, and knives to intimidate protesters.47 As protesters marched toward Miraflores, hundreds of Chávez supporters and Bolivarian Circle members gathered alongside National Guard troops assembled for Chávez’s defense.48 Video footage from April 11, 2002, shows known Chávez supporters and members of the Bolivarian Circles firing pistols at protesters with live ammunition from Llaguno Bridge.49 A total of 19 people were killed during the events of that day.50

The Bolivarian Circles became the basis for what are now called colectivos, a term originally used for left-wing urban guerrillas in the 1960s and 1970s.51 In 2006, the colectivos were incorporated into communal councils, local institutions meant to serve as grassroot alternatives to municipal and state governments.52 Despite their stated democratic intent, the communal councils were tied to the central government and often became rife with political favoritism and corruption.53

The term “colectivo” refers to Chavista armed groups that vary in terms of size, organization, methods of operating, and arsenals.54 Many colectivos trace their origins to events before Chávez’s rise to power, such as left-wing insurgencies and urban guerrilla movements in the 1960s.55 b Colectivos often espouse far left-wing ideologies that are more militant than the PSUV’s party line.56 Many colectivo leaders are members of security forces and often commit crimes in the open with impunity.57

Colectivo groups often preside over entire neighborhoods in the place of state authorities.58 The 23 de Enero neighborhood in Caracas, an emblematic Chavista stronghold, is controlled by up to 46 colectivo groups.59 The abolition of the Caracas Metropolitan Police in 2011 left the colectivos as the de facto authorities in many neighborhoods.60 The colectivos provide social services and control economic life in the communities over which they preside.61 The Colectivo Alexis Vive in 23 de Enero has even issued its own currency in order to deal with national hyperinflation.62 The colectivos raise funds through criminal means, including drug trafficking, gambling, extortion, kidnapping, and selling scarce supplies on the black market.63

Security forces and colectivos often operate jointly. Video footage of anti-Maduro protests from 2014 to 2019 regularly show the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) and Bolivarian National Police (PNB) allowing colectivos to physically assault and fire live ammunition at protesters with impunity.64 Colectivos have also worked alongside the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, or FAES), a PNB unit notorious for extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.65 c In addition to repressing protesters and dissidents, the colectivos also worked alongside security forces in Operation Popular Liberation (Operación Liberación del Pueblo), a series of police raids in urban centers throughout Venezuela since July 13, 2015, meant to combat crime that have resulted in civilian massacres and human rights violations.66

Despite their support for the Maduro government, colectivos still maintain autonomy from the PSUV and have even taken action at times to oppose it. Indeed, many colectivo members are openly critical of Maduro’s handling of the nation’s crisis.67 In 2010, the Moviemiento Revolucionario Carapaicas (simply known as the Carapaicas)—one of the most well-armed colectivos in Caracas—released a video accusing the government of deviating from the Bolivarian Revolution and called on Chávez to dissolve the government and military.68 Tensions between the colectivos and security forces came to a head in October 2014 when several colectivo members and leaders were killed in police raids.69 Multiple colectivos called for the resignation of the Minister of the Interior and head of Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, or SEBIN) as a result of the incident.70 Maduro placed Freddy Bernal in charge of police reform to help quell tensions.71

Bernal has remained one of the most influential PSUV figures among the colectivos since 2002. As the head of the Local Supply and Production Committee (Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción, or CLAP), Bernal coordinates food distribution with local colectivos.72 Bernal is also a commissioner in the SEBIN.73 Appointed as “protector” of the state of Táchira on the Colombian-Venezuelan border in 2018, Bernal founded the “Border Security Colectivo.”74 On February 23, 2019, members of the colectivo shot at civilians with live rounds in San Antonio del Táchira to prevent humanitarian aid from crossing the border from Colombia.75

Colombian Guerrillas as Venezuelan Paramilitaries
The proliferation of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela is a development of paramilitarism under Chávez and Maduro. Despite the government’s official denials of any relationship, the Colombian guerrillas have built close political, ideological, and criminal ties with the military, government officials, and colectivo groups, allowing them to operate throughout Venezuela with little impediment.76 Venezuela gives Colombian guerrillas sanctuary from Colombian security forces as well as opportunities for illicit financing and recruitment.77 In return, the Colombian guerrillas have a vested interest in supporting the Maduro regime and may act to defend it if needed. Indeed, the ELN has already claimed that it is ready to come to Maduro’s defense from foreign intervention.78

Colombian guerrillas provide several advantages to the Maduro regime as paramilitary forces. Having spent decades operating along the porous Colombian-Venezuelan border,79 the Colombian guerrillas have access to transnational criminal networks in the region and extensive know-how for illicit trafficking. The Colombian guerrillas also have more combat experience and are better organized than paramilitaries of Venezuelan origin.80Their expertise in guerrilla warfare tactics can enhance the capabilities of domestic pro-government groups. Colombian guerrillas have allegedly provided training for multiple Venezuelan armed groups. FARC computers confiscated in 2011 revealed that the FARC provided military training to hundreds of members of the Carapaicas, Tupamaros, and the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación, or FBL).81 d According to the Táchira-based human rights NGO “Fundación Redes,” FARC dissidents have joined and are commanding the Border Security Colectivo.82 e

The ELN is reportedly present in up to 13 Venezuelan states.92 Colombia guerrilla groups and the FBL employ approximately 15,000 Venezuelans along the Colombian border.93 In addition to illicit trafficking, the ELN has forcibly taken over illegal mining operations from local criminal groups with the support of the government, including operations in the mineral-rich “Orinoco Mining Arc.”94 Colombian guerrillas actively recruit Venezuelans who are often desperate for food and income. According to Colombian military officials, up to 30 percent of guerrillas in eastern Colombia and 10 percent nationwide are estimated to be of Venezuelan origin.95The ELN established five radio stations in Venezuela to promote its ideology and conducts outreach at Venezuelan schools in order to attract young recruits.96

In some areas in Venezuela, guerrillas have reportedly taken over functions of the state. The ELN taxes local residents and businesses in areas it controls for protection from local criminal groups.97 The ELN also provides local communities with weapons, political education, military training, and food supplies.98 Fundación Redes found that Colombian guerrillas distribute food supplies through the government’s CLAP program in 39 municipalities.99 The ELN often enforces its rules ruthlessly to keep local communities under its control, including conducting executions for petty crimes and consuming drugs and alcohol.100 Local community leaders who opposed the ELN have also been killed.101 Multiple massacres in mining towns have been attributed to the ELN and its quest for territorial expansion in Venezuela.102


Paramilitarism in Venezuela will have long-lasting consequences for the entire region. Transnational criminal networks will continue operating throughout Venezuela with the Maduro government and its paramilitary groups acting as intermediaries. As tensions with Colombia and the United States grow, the Maduro government may provide greater support to Colombian guerrillas under its auspices. The crisis in Venezuela also increases the risk of armed groups obtaining coveted weapons and military equipment, including the 5,000 Russian Igla-S portable anti-air missile systems that the Venezuelan military has stockpiled.103

The expanded sources of revenue and recruits from Venezuela enable the ELN and other Colombian guerrillas to escalate attacks on Colombian targets and withstand the brunt of Colombian security forces, as exemplified by the ELN’s car bomb attack on the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogotá on January 19, 2019.104 The Domingo Laín Front, the powerful ELN division responsible for the attack, operates between the border of the Colombian Department of Arauca and the Venezuelan State of Apure.105 Colombian intelligence believes that the Domingo Laín Front’s leadership is headquartered in Apure.106 Additionally, the suicide bomber in the Bogotá attack is alleged to have taught bomb-making skills to other ELN members in Venezuela.107 Former FARC members disillusioned with the Colombian peace process and FARC dissident militias are turning to Venezuela as a refuge.108 Therefore, Colombian guerrilla activity in Venezuela will continue to frustrate future peace negotiation attempts and counterterrorism efforts in Colombia.

Uprooting paramilitary groups will pose a significant challenge for any post-Maduro government. Indeed, many pro-government groups have sworn to start insurgencies if Chavismo is removed from power.109 Venezuela ranks the lowest in Latin America on the AS/COA and Control Risks’ Capacity to Combat Corruption Index in terms of legal capacity as well as democratic and political institutions.110 With weak and heavily politicized institutions, the ties between paramilitaries and security forces will not disintegrate quickly or entirely. As the economic situation remains dire, it is unlikely that any government could take back control of all territories controlled by paramilitaries and provide the economic support and security that local communities need. While some paramilitaries may be willing to reach an agreement with a new government to disband, groups with stronger ideological convictions and deeper involvement in illicit financing will more likely remain resistant. CTC

Ross Dayton is an analyst at Control Risks and specializes in global security and threat analysis, with regional focuses on Latin America and the Middle East. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Control Risks and its affiliates. Follow @rdayt_

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