The Chavista Colectivos are violent and controversial groups, linked to the governments of Nicolas Maduro, and the late ex-president Hugo Chávez. They are defended by the government, as groups loyal to the so-called Bolivarian revolution.
However, this is not how the opposition and a part of Venezuelan society that has experienced the fear generated by their actions, see them.
Some go around hooded, others with their faces uncovered, but everybody with weapons and using the color that identifies them: red and the image of Hugo Chavez embodied somewhere in their clothing or that of Che Guevara. The opposition describes them as violent groups that the government armed to spread fear in the community and attack political dissidents.
In the student protests of 2014 and 2017, the colectivos also acted to stop demonstrations against ruler Nicolas Maduro in barrios of Venezuela.
These groups began to take the lead in repression, agitation and propaganda duties during the Hugo Chavez administration, but their history goes back further, with the links that the Chavista governments always had with Cuba and the Castro brothers.
Although the Chavism tried to present them as groups that defend the revolution under political principles, their actions were far from diplomatic and removed from democratic values. They went more to arms. And today, they turned into groups that terrorize the communities.
These are some of the most representative leaders of the so-called Chavista collectives:
1.- Jose Pinto, leader of Tupamaro
He is part of the Tupamaro Movement. He has been linked, since before Chavism, to the so-called 23 de Enero colectivos formed in the 80s. In the 1970s, Pinto spent a long stretch in jail, eight years, for his role in the kidnapping of William Niehous, a U.S businessmen executive who was eventually freed, in a bloody rescue by Venezuelan police, after prolonged captivity. Pinto was close to the former president, Hugo Chávez, who always supported him and allowed him to promote the Tupamaro Movement in the country. Although he raised in that neighborhood, he had to leave because of his confrontations with the leader of another Colectivo, Valentin Santana, of La Piedrita.
Pinto defines himself as a Marxist, a Leninist, and has linked with these armed groups. With the support of Chavez and Maduro, he held elected and is currently a member of the Legislative Council of the Vargas state. He was arrested in mid-June after the Public Prosecutor Office issued an arrest warrant for his alleged participation in the murder of a 16-year-old boy.
2.- Valentin Santana, leader of La Piedrita
La Piedrita is the other big Colectivo in 23 de Enero, a territory it shares with smaller, and less violent, Alexis Vive, and were, until recently, Tupamaros also had a sizable presence. They claim to be the armed wing of the revolution created by Hugo Chávez.
The leader of the group, Valentin Santana, was at one point a security guard at UCV, the Venezuela largest university. Santana assured in an interview with CNN in 2019 that his group was willing to take up arms to defend the government of Nicolas Maduro if an armed intervention takes place in Venezuela.
“We will use our weapons to defend the Bolivarian revolution, write that down,” he told the CNN reporter at the time. At some point, Chavez himself asked that Santana be arrested in 2008, but nothing happened.
In that opportunity, Chávez said: “He (Santana) says he is the leader of a group called La Piedrita, and say that they did throw tear gas bombs at I don’t know who. He says something more serious, much more serious than if they get such a person and that they are going to kill him. I called the prosecutor and urged her to take action. The State will act, we will act, he is a criminal,” said Chavez in a video. Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega turned her back on chavism in 2017 and is now a critic of the Maduro regime.
3.- Jose Montilla, leader of the colectivo Ali Primera
Ali Primera was a folk singer who gained fame in the 60s as a protest singer much in the vein of Bob Dylan, but with a tropical Venezuelan swagger. So, they named the Colectivo as the folk singer.
However, they engage in violence against Maduro enemies. And its leader, Montilla, is linked to groups specialized in attacking, persecuting and robbing journalists, opposition leaders, as well as citizens, to stop and sabotage demonstrations against Nicolas Maduro.
In 2019, Montilla was arrested for his participation in violent acts and on weapons charges in Barquisimeto, Lara state. He was later released, and there were no charges filed against him.
4.- Freddy Bernal, leader of the Frente Motorizado Bolivariano
A motorizado in Venezuela is a man who rides a motorcycle. Freddy Bernal is a former policeman turned failed coup organizer. However, his ability to organize motorized men into colectivos in support of Chavez and Maduro has proved extremely valuable for both administrations, rewarded with top government positions.
In 2018, Maduro named him the position of the protector of Tachira state, with power over the elected governor.
He is known for leading armed civilian groups that sow panic in the community and repress protests against Nicolás Maduro. He has also taken it upon himself to persecute and intimidate journalists. His radius of action is the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Bernal has been linked to Chavism since he participated in the failed coup led by Hugo Chavez in 1992. Opposition sectors point out that he received the responsibility by the Chavez government, and now by Maduro, to gathering and lead the groups throughout the country. Bernal claims that the civic-military union has helped keep Chavismo in power.
5.- Robert Longa, leader of the colectivo Alexis Vive
The group is made up of students, workers, and farmers. However, it also is located in 23 de Enero, where there are no factories or fields to work in, only subsidized housing projects teeming with people.
The group became known in 2007 after shooting up the façade of television channel Globovision, which at the time broadcasting information and reports against the government of Hugo Chavez. Globovision years later realigned itself with the Maduro regime, owned by Raul Gorrin, a man wanted in the U.S for money laundering charges.
A similar armed attack repeated against the headquarters of Fedecamaras. Longa defines himself as one of the defenders of the communes and the theory of giving power to the people, promoted by Hugo Chavez in his early days.