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 Chavez, 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 (Ejercito de Liberation Nacional, or ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberacion, 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 Chavez's presidency (1999-2013). (5) Chavez 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, Chavez 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 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. Chavez 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 Chavez 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 Chavez 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 Chavez 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 Chavez'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, Chavez promoted a "civic-military union" that would integrate the armed forces into society and his broader political project. (22) Chavez passed "Plan Bolivar 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 Chavez'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...