A water tower in Catia with Hugo Chávez’s face on one side and the face of Lina Ron (founder of the Venezuelan Popular Union party and symbol of La Piedrita, another well known collective) on the other © Richard Snyder 2014

A previous version of this article was published at Anthropoliteia.net

Speculation about the participation of armed citizens in “policing” the cycle of protests that began in February has raised questions about the relationship between these citizens, the government, and state security forces.

In my first post in this series I looked at how officers from the National Police view the role and actions of the security force that is playing the most active role in policing Venezuela’s protests: the National Guard. Regrettably (and despite their own relatively extensive training in human rights) National Police officers strongly support the National Guard’s presence precisely because they are not encumbered by human rights regulations like the police are.

In this post I look at an even more complex relationship: how the National Police view the actions of what officers, the media, and many Venezuelans refer to as “the collectives.”

Journalists have suggested that police are working in collaboration with the collectives to repress protestors (see, for example, Wall Street Journal , BBC, and Al Jazeera). And in May Human Rights Watch published a report which, though carefully avoiding the term “collective,” suggested that the police and “armed pro-government groups” were collaborating.

But National Bolivarian Police (PNB) officers describe this relationship quite differently. For them, their relationship to the collectives is one structured not by collaboration but competition for territorial control, access to arms, and even state protection.

In fact, ever since the Metropolitan Police in Caracas participated in the 2002 coup against Chávez, police officers have felt that the government trusts the collectives, who came out in support of Chávez during the 48-hour coup, more than the police to work the protests.

The emergence of the collectives

The history of the collectives is complicated, hyper-sensationalized, and politically charged. Most collectives have supported the Chavista governments and the Bolivarian Revolution. They originated in poor sectors of Caracas, many in the western barrios of Catia, but have spread out to other urban centers across the country. Some collectives vociferously protect what they see as their right to be armed.

Starting in the late 1970s some barrio residents began organizing collectives in the poor neighborhoods where they lived. The collectives engaged in a variety of activities (educational, social justice, and political organizing), but one of their principal objectives was to fulfill policing functions within their own communities.

From the perspective of their organizers, the collectives were a way in which to respond to the violence employed by the liberal democratic state against its own citizens (see Ciccariello- Maher, 2013). Mostly male barrio residents organized into armed groups to protect their communities from drug trafficking and from the police and military, who frequently entered poor neighborhoods employing strategies of an invading army.

Under the Chavista governments, the relationship between the collectives and the state has taken a different turn. Hugo Chávez himself had a love/hate relationship with the collectives, sometimes calling them the vanguard of the revolution only to later call for the arrest of individual members.

But the actual relationship between state actors and collectives is unclear. And, in the absence of concrete information, rumors and speculation abound.

Journalists’ portrayals of the collectives as the main catalyst of current violence taps into long-standing middle class fears of the barrios, which are populated by poorer darker-skinned residents of the city.

A representative of the Tupamaros, one of the most recognized collectives in Caracas, recently critiqued the opposition for utilizing the collectives as scapegoats, allowing them to project responsibility for the violence generated by middle and upper-class protestors onto the barrios.

Living and working in the western section of Caracas, I have heard multiple contradictory descriptions of the relationship between the collectives and the state. Some people assure that the collectives are completely autonomous from the state, willing to defend it as long as government leaders support what they consider to be the precepts of the Bolivarian Revolution. Others suggest that the government has become an active supporter of the collectives—arming them, funding them, and even founding new ones across the country.

However, everyone seems to agree that the relationship between the police and the collectives remains contentious and antagonistic.

The police, the collectives, and the protests

Police officers’ accounts of the collectives can be more or less summed up as follows: Though collectives are not regulated nor directed by state actors, they are protected by them, as is their use of lethal force.

Almost all of the police officers I know who work in popular sectors of the city have a story about arresting someone who was then later released because “they were a member of a collective.”

A popular story among PNB officers, of which I have heard multiple versions, involves the nephew of Cilia Flores, the First Lady and former president of the National Assembly. Most versions tell how PNB officers attempted to arrest Flores’ nephew, a member of a collective, for carrying an illegal and unregistered weapon. But efforts by officers to “do their job” ended in 11 PNB officers going to jail and the nephew being released less than 24 hours later, picked up from the police station by members of his collective.

While this story could well be apocryphal it provides insight into how officers’ perceive the collectives’ as well as their own relationship to the government.

Curious as to what officers meant when they used the word “the collectives,” I asked an officer one day who they were. He replied, “the collectives are groups organized by the state…to counteract any kind of situation that represents a danger to the government, to counteract the protests for example.”

When I asked another officer if he had seen collective members at the protests he replied: “The collectives have more control in the East (where most of the protests have occurred) than we do…they are there to monitor the situation…and we are prohibited from touching them or doing anything to them.”

This statement is both unsubstantiated and inaccurate; the National Guard and the PNB have more manpower, resources, and equipment with which to “control” the protests. Yet this idea—that the collectives rather than the police are in control—was repeated numerous times in conversations I had with officers. Thus, while inaccurate, it succinctly captures the power officers perceive armed citizens holding vis-à-vis their relationship to state actors.

From the perspective of many police, the current protests reaffirm what was already a commonly held belief within the PNB: The war between state security forces and armed civilian groups that began decades ago is now being won by the latter.

Many police officers feel that they are not only competing with the collectives, they see themselves as being supplanted by them.  And this is not because the collectives have succeeded in challenging the state, but rather because they have become increasingly connected to it.

This perspective on the government-collective relationship is well captured by what sociologist Javier Auyero has called the gray zone of state politics: the space wherein distinctions between state and non-state actors become blurred, where the lines between the legitimate and illegitimate deployment of coercive force bleed into one another.

All officers I know agree that collective members are present, armed, and ready to act at protests. Nevertheless, there is disagreement between officers over whether or not the collectives have, thus far, actually intervened in the protests; and this lack of consensus among officers evidences just how difficult it is to ascertain the role that armed pro-government citizens (members of collectives or not) have played in policing the protests. But officers generally agree upon what collective members’ presence means to them: they represent possible catalysts of violence that officers are not capable of controlling (or according to their narrative allowed to control).

The point here is not that the officers’ accounts of the collectives should be taken as “the truth.” Yet they do point to a tension within the government’s approach to citizen security that officers regularly confront. The government has backed police professionalization and measures to regain the state’s monopoly on use of force. However, there has been a long-term tendency for the government’s emphasis on citizen participation to spill over into issues of security, threatening that same monopoly.