Urban guerrilla groups like La Piedrita, the Tupamaros and Lina Ron’s motorizados have been hogging all the media attention recently.
These groups mask their criminal activities by donning the false mantle of Marxist revolutionary purity and proclaiming their fealty unto death to the Bolivarian revolution and President Hugo Chavez.
Only a handful are publicly notorious, usually because they attack a target, issue a communiqué, talk with a reporter or post photos on the Web of their “revolutionaries” in masks and brandishing weapons.
But there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of these groups in Caracas and other cities.
Tupamaros chieftain Jose Tomas Pinto claims there are “at least 70 groups” like La Piedrita just in 23 de enero.
Pinto is a known congenital liar and criminal; it’s very possible he could be exaggerating.
But he could be telling the truth: it’s a historical fact that 23 de enero has been a hotbed of Marxist radical revolutionary splinter groups since the 1950s.
It’s impossible to estimate with any accuracy how many armed groups exist in Caracas. It can be inferred from thousands of daily news reports published by the major Caracas dailies over the past decade, plus Interior and Justice Ministry reports, official police data, studies and statistics generated by NGO’s, etc. that there could be several hundreds of active gangs in the Greater Caracas area.
The vast majority of these are small street gangs, numbering perhaps 6-12 men (and not including females associated with make gang members). Gang members tend to be very young (24 is ancient), usually live in the same section (calle or callejon) of a barrio, know each other since childhood, and hang out together socially and for self-protection against other gangs. Their “territory’ tends to be very small.
For example, Caracas Gringo has personally observed numerous gunfights between well-armed rival youth gangs in Petare’s La Bombilla and La Alcabala barrios, which lie directly behind the Makro hyper-market in La Urbina. The best vantage point for watching the gangs shoot it out in these two barrios is the upper parking deck at Makro. In both barrios, gangs which control the upper parts of the barrios shoot it out several times a week with gangs that control the lower parts of the barrios. And this pattern repeats in every one of the more than 100 individual barrios that comprise the Petare mega-slum.
Not all gang members are necessarily career criminals, though in their teen years many may commit crimes. But the social and economic environment in which the gangs thrive is a breeding ground for all sorts of criminal enterprises. As a result, gang-related crime activity is a given in practically all cases.
Crimes typically committed by the barrio gangs include extortion, burglary, armed robbery, drug trafficking, loan sharking, motorcycle theft (motorcycles being the primary means of transportation of young male barrio residents), etc. Although their leaders deny it, notorious groups like the Tupamaros, La Piedrita and Lina Ron’s thug bikers engage in all of these criminal activities. And the Tupamaros led by Pinto, very particularly, are an ongoing criminal enterprise in which elements of the Metropolitan Police are actively involved.
Pinto’s curriculum includes a stint as commander of the Metropolitan Police after the political violence of April 11-14, 2002. Pinto, who is described as “a very evil man” by people who know him personally, reportedly hired hundreds of new “officers” with criminal backgrounds. Explicit job requirements included loyalty to President Chavez – and loyalty to Pinto. The armed thugs camping for several weeks now inside the empty building where the offices of the Greater Caracas Mayor are located reportedly are Metropolitan Police officers associated with Pinto’s Tupamaros.
It’s natural that many of the gangs should have radical Marxist agendas. The poverty and very high unemployment of the barrios fosters political radicalism. Moreover, radical revolutionary Marxism has always been present in the street gang culture. Poor Venezuelans love democracy, but their worldview (understandably) also tilts left ideologically, and culturally they prefer strong leaders.
Since the 1950s, Marxist revolutionary currents have always flowed strongly in the barrios (and in the armed forces). Several generations of poor Venezuelans were raised since the late 1950s in two parallel “education” systems: the state’s formal public school system, and the informal revolutionary “schools” which exist in every barrio in Venezuela and function virtually through social and family networks. President Chavez is a product of the Marxist revolutionary schooling which has existed in Venezuela for longer than even Douglas Bravo has lived.
The Tupamaros came out of hiding after Chavez became president, as did many other gangs claiming Bolivarian revolutionary motivations to justify their criminal activities. But the Chavez regime didn’t really focus resources on its potential street resources (ie gangs) until 2001, when the president created the Bolivarian Circles, which were funded by the regime and coordinated personally by then-Vice President Diosdado Cabello.
Not all Bolivarian Circles are armed street gangs. But there are groups which call themselves Bolivarian Circles, but function as the regime’s political street enforcers and draw a salary from the state. These thugs also serve the revolution by repressing public dissent among the poor in many barrios (it’s a myth that the majority of poor Venezuelans supports Chavez). Petroleos de Venezuela’s security department (PCP) has financed the regime’s street enforcers, and so did Juan Barreto and Freddy Bernal while they served, respectively, as mayor of Greater Caracas and Libertador district. In fact, many of the hundreds of “unemployed workers” protesting this week against Antonio Ledezma were, in fact, paid regime street thugs who lost their monthly stipends when the Ledezma was elected Greater Mayor of Caracas in November.
The Tupamaros are active in barrios across the city. Caracas Gringo also confirmed in 2008 that self-declared Marxist revolutionary groups like the Alexis Vive Commando, Lina Ron’s biker thugs and La Piedrita have infiltrated many of their members into large hypermarkets and supermarkets like Magro, Exito, Excelsior Gamma, Central Madeirense, etc. It’s unclear if these infiltrations are deliberate and coordinated. After all, as a member of the Alexis Vive Commando who worked at Makro told Caracas Gringo in September 2008, “I need a job, I have the right to work, and my activities outside work are my own business.” However, the following day he was shot in the upper left chest during a gunfight with several Tupamaros in 23 de enero.
Over the past decade, the Chavez regime forged an implicit social and political compact with Venezuela’s criminal elements. Many commercial activities that other countries would consider criminal have been legalized by the National Assembly, and reforms to the Penal Code have made life easier for people who commit crimes, especially if they are poor.
But Chavez also forged an explicit alliance with gangs like La Piedrita and the Tupamaros. For example, La Piedrita’s leader, Valentin Santana, was officially condecorated by Libertador district when Bernal was mayor. La Piedrita also owns a military transport truck, and reportedly has a large arsenal of weapons normally associated with police SWAT groups or the army. Lina Ron’s group also was given cash, motorcycles and weapons on bernal’s watch. And Pinto’s stint as commander of the Metropolitan Police shows how close the Tupamaros are to the Chavez regime.
However, since 7 February Chavez appears to have stepped in deep s**t and now confronts a potential revolt among large gangs which for years have been his most loyal street enforcers.