“Interim President” Juan Guaidó has returned to Venezuela, having defied a travel ban and met with several regional leaders including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Now the entire country is holding its breath in preparation for what everyone assumes will be his arrest by the forces of Nicolás Maduro, who continues to occupy the presidential palace and has maintained the support of top military commanders. Fears of civil war and outright foreign intervention are on the rise. If serious fighting breaks out, paramilitaries known as colectivos will be a force to reckon with. Up to now, they have been seen as loyal thugs of the Maduro regime. But in an exclusive interview with one of their leaders, we discovered that allegiance may not be absolute.
CARACAS, Venezuela—“There are things I would say if I had more freedom, if I were outside of the country. But I am not, so I will not answer your question.”
I had just asked Gilberto, one of the most senior colectivo commanders in Caracas, what he thought of Nicolás Maduro’s leadership and future, and I'm taken aback by the almost reckless honesty of his non-answer.
We are 20 minutes into this, perhaps my most unexpected interview during my four week stint in Venezuela, and I can feel myself holding my breath on every question, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It feels absurd, to say the least, that I am sitting here speaking to the head of a colectivo syndicate days after I was brutally attacked by colectivos near the Colombian border. Having traveled from Caracas to Tachira State to report on the attempt by the opposition to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid into Venezuela, my team of two security personnel and myself were attacked by colectivos, the paramilitary group once armed and funded by the late Hugo Chávez. We were forced down on the ground with guns pointed to our heads.
It was without a doubt one of the more traumatic experiences of my life and, after being robbed of everything from cameras to ibuprofen, I returned to Caracas seeking to meet a colectivo in order to confront not only the people who had caused me this harm but also the institution of the colectivos that had come to impact Venezuela and its people in a fundamental way over the past two decades.
One doesn't just meet a colectivo, but rather goes through many layers of contacts and channels in order to get a “maybe” that might become a “yes.” In my case, there were three degrees of separation between me and the colectivo, and after finding the right fixer and conferring with my security detail I set out to interview Gilberto carrying a list of question and very little else.
“We are being watched right now, and it is better to assume that they know everything than to hang your hopes on some idea of anonymity.”
Linda is my fixer’s contact and she carries herself with a layer of toughness that I sense is a cover for something much more vulnerable and insecure, despite the many tattoos and the language, every sentence out of her mouth sprinkled with profanity. We meet at the main town square in the neighborhood where the colectivos have their base and, as I would later realize, an intricate and substantial security apparatus.
Linda has met with this commander before and, as she herself puts it, developed a level of trust, and without her saying it I understand that she is jeopardizing more than trust by bringing me, a stranger, straight into the lions' den.
“Just be calm, he may try to intimidate you but that's just a test. Stay calm and don't push him if he refuses to answer a question. Remember, he’s the boss.”
That is quite the understatement. Gilberto runs the colectivos as a military leader and is ultimately responsible for each member and the communities they control. Not unlike the mob bosses of old, the colectivos mix violence with community organizing and engage in an intricate protection scheme where every level of Venezuelan society is either profiting from or suffering under their rule.
Knowing that I in the past week have made waves throughout Venezuela by speaking up against the colectivos and, for the four weeks prior, been doing almost everything the Maduro dictatorship cracks down upon, it is not without dread I book this interview. Inside, I am wondering if these colectivos know who I am or if I am walking into a trap that I myself have laid, and even though I keep these thoughts to myself my nerves are clearly on display as I try to light a cigarette while we wait for the call that will tell us that the colectivos are on their way to pick us up.
“No, no, no, nunca.”
I hear my security guy José raise his voice, something the tranquil man rarely does.
When he comes over to me he informs me that the colectivos have told him that Linda and I must come alone, without backup or security, as a sign of good will.
José is clearly rattled but, with a calm I do not really possess I tell him that I assume the risk and that we will be fine, and back before he knows it.
José knows me by now and he can tell that I'm far from at ease, so he snaps out of his worry and starts giving me instructions in his characteristic monotone.
Don't react if he puts a gun on you.
Don't have your phone out.
Don't go with him to a 2nd location.
He pauses and ends with a nerve chillingly transparent “you’ll be fine, mija, tranquilo,” and I leave my most trusted companion behind as I walk down the road toward the unknown.
Linda and I are ushered inside a garage-style building by two young men wearing the typical colectivo jackets, in a dark camouflage with the specific colectivo branch name on the sleeve. They are smiling but distant and, once we get inside, I am surprised by the juxtaposition between the almost rural office location and the high-tech security screens that are covering two of the walls inside the humble shack.
Gilberto greets Linda with warmth and then nods at me, pointing to a chair in front of his desk, and when I sit down I am hyper aware of my surroundings, like an animal that prepares to be attacked.
“Don’t be scared, but I will take something out now,” Gilberto says and produces a compact Uzi from behind his desk. I laugh nervously because what he just said is absurd, considering what is now in front of me, but I manage to crack a joke about the Middle East that apparently is to Gilberto's liking. I relax into the chair, just a little, and reading the room I make the judgment call to forgo the list and the video and instead start a conversation.
I ask him to explain what the colectivos are and what, in his opinion, their role is in today's Venezuela, and Gilberto gives me what I read as a standard answer about fighting for the people and protecting society from corruption, criminals and infiltrators.
I try to decipher his face, deciding if I can push just a little, and when our eyes meet I decide to go for it, telling him that most of the people I have met are afraid of the colectivos, and terrorized by their presence.
Do they have reason to be afraid, I ask, and if so, why?
“Of course we need to inspire respect and, to some extent, fear. We are a clandestine force whose job it is to clean up Venezuela, how could we possibly do that if people doubted our ability to enforce, to police and to do what is necessary when no one else can or will?”
It strikes me as an honest answer, surprisingly so, and inadvertently I raise an eyebrow when he says it, making the colectivo commander smile and nod approvingly.
“Imagine the FAES before there was a FAES [Special Action Forces of the Venezuelan National Police]. We go into areas where no one else will go and we take care of criminals that everyone else fears too much to confront. That is what the colectivos are and why we are needed.”
So, what is your name, Gilberto asks, all of a sudden, and for a split second I consider lying to him in an attempt to avoid a nasty and possibly dangerous confrontation. But my gut tells me not to, that this man already knew who I was and what I had done long before I walked through that door and that the only viable way forward in this curious relationship is to show this colectivo commander the respect of not lying to his face.
And which country are you from again, he adds, now almost jokingly, an almost comical moment were it not for that chill down my spine.
We look at each other for barely two seconds but those seconds contain more truths than many entire conversations.
“Ok,” Gilberto says and smiles, “That's nice.”
And we both know. We say nothing but we know and all of a sudden a strange trust has been established between us. I passed the test by both recognizing that it occurred and speaking the truth when tempted to lie and from now on, the mood has quite clearly shifted. My leg that was trembling for the better part of 15 minutes relaxes along with the rest of me and from now on Gilberto and I chat, while his soldiers watch with careful curiosity.
I want to know how he feels about a possible international intervention in the Venezuelan crisis and whose side the colectivos would fight on in a war.
“We are always on the people’s side, so it would be one thing to fight the Americans but our own people, in a civil war, that is a whole other matter.”
What does that mean, though, I push, where do your loyalties lie, and Gilberto shifts a bit in his chair before answering
“Mira, look, the colectivos do not belong to a political party. We believe in Chávez revolution but we are not political, we are a military group, fighting for the good of Venezuela.”
It's not a satisfactory answer so I shift methods, saying that I will list things I believe and that way Gilberto can give me a yes or no or nothing at all.
“The colectivos will outlive Maduro.”
“Whoever the leader of Venezuela is in a few months time, they will have to either negotiate or go to war with the colectivos.”
“You use deadly violence against civilians to control the population under orders of Maduro.”
"Mira, listen, let me explain something to you.”
Gilberto sighs while I hold my breath, thinking I may have overstayed my welcome.
“We weed out bad elements. Criminals, violent people, drug runners and destructive forces in society. We protect the community, we don’t terrorize it.”
I'm quiet, because I'm not entirely sure how vehemently I dare disagree, and Gilberto immediately picks up on my hesitation.
“Tell me something. If I take you with me out on one of our operations, or perhaps a big demonstration, and I ensure your safety and protect your life with my own, what would you think of me?”
“I would trust you.”
It's an immediate, honest answer, perhaps too honest for my own comfort.
“Exactly,” Gilberto says and leans back in his chair.
I'm not exactly sure what was established just then, but I do feel as if we touched upon some shades of gray that had previously gone undiscovered.
The colectivos can be both culprit and savior in this story, in this society, as it is one with far too much crime, corruption and hardship to be subject to logic or simplicity.
If someone saved my life I would trust him, regardless of his other failings or facets, and if I were a Venezuelan living in the poorest barrios of the country, completely at the mercy of powers much greater than me, I would probably cling to comforts and safety wherever they came from and whatever was asked in return.
The important thing to remember is that, despite their sometimes ruffian style and appearance, the colectivos are not a gang, but a paramilitary entity that is paid for and supported by the Maduro government. Their actions are not erratic and their hierarchy not arbitrary, and when they strike they do so with strategy in mind, rather than short-term plans.
Gilberto tells me that the colectivos are everywhere, in every layer of society, and that that's part of the reason why they have achieved such longevity and power.
“Wherever you would swear there isn't any colectivos, I guarantee you there will be colectivos. We are present in the courts, the legislature, the schools and the corner shops. Absolutely everywhere.”
Gilberto goes on to say that the colectivos don't just ride around exacting their own brand of justice, but that they also run community centers, sports clubs and provide food and other forms of aid to the needy in their communities. And if someone infiltrates the area, even if it’s other colectivo fractions, he makes sure the outsiders are shown the proverbial door.
I feel as if it is time, so I go for it, and tell him briefly that I was robbed by colectivos near the border and ask if they also are part of his organization or if they are guerrilla, a more heavily armed entity with ties to the Colombian Farc.
“They are colectivos,” he says without elaborating, and the issue is left hanging as I hurry to move out of what I feel may be dangerous territory.
We engage in some small talk and every once in a while I have to remind myself that this man is the leader of a violent criminal entity, because in all honesty, I am finding myself liking Gilberto and being almost too relaxed in what are objectively tense circumstances.
I look around the room and see clues to his personal life. A wife and children, a plaque for having completed a course in martial arts and two heart-shaped frames with his parents’ faces smiling back at us.
“Why did you let me in here?” I ask him, almost without thinking.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the colectivos seem to treat journalists like enemies of the state, so why would you let an enemy inside your sanctum.”
Gilberto seems to think about it and then tells me that he tried it once and realized that if he can make journalists understand that there are not one kind of colectivos, but that the issue is more complicated than that, he could accomplish something good and bridge a gap between the people and the colectivos.
“Some colectivos are bad, they use too much violence or maybe they steal, but most of us take our mission very seriously. We are protectors of the state, not thugs and criminals.”
I know one of the journalists who first interviewed Gilberto and he is currently in jail for the crime of investigative journalism and I wonder how Gilberto really feels about the increaslingly totalitarian state that feeds him, given that Maduro at this point gives fewer interviews than the leader of his clandestine paramilitary group.
“I won't speak about him or comment on this leadership, I will only comment on my own.”
Part of the mask is back again, the one that was there initially, but I feel as if I am getting to the heart of it all, just as my time is about to run out.
“I love this country, and as a colectivo I am willing to bleed and even die for it. If we are attacked, we will fight and we will win, but we do not seek conflict with the opposition, the journalists, or the public.”
I really want to tell him what happened to me, about the violence and humiliation of that day, and demand to know in what way the actions of those colectivos constituted national protection. But I don’t, because I am scared, and that itself is an answer to some of my questions.
I like Gilbert, but I fear him. There is a level of understanding between us, but my head is pounding with the stats of the mayhem that the colectivos leave in their wake. I’m not at all sure I got what I came here for.
“I will try and get you your things back.”
Gilbert tells me this with a serious face and a tone that implies that he will make it happen.
“If these colectivos that took your things belong to my fraction, they will face consequences. They are under orders not to steal, and if I find out who they were I will make sure you get your things back and that they are punished for what they did.”
I’m completely dumbstruck by his words and, before even reflecting, I say, “Thank you.”
It’s the second time in a week that I thank a colectivo. The first was when I was let go after having been held at gunpoint for half an hour, cold steel against my neck and images of my family flashing before me. When the man in the mask finally released me, counting down from five while shooting in the air, I said "Gracias” and ran to save my life.
More than anything else, those words stuck with me after the attack, because they represented utter humiliation. The colectivos had held me captive, stolen everything I owned and put a gun to the back of my neck and I showed them gratitude for not taking the only thing I could not get back. I was not sure I would ever forgive myself for showing such weakness and yet here I was again, thanking a colectivo for showing me kindness when he was ultimately in control.
It’s like Gilberto had said. If he takes me under his wing, shows me the face of danger and guarantees my safety, I will trust him. We become bound together by these actions, his and mine, and what remains between us is an odd mix of dependence, hardship and complicated human psychology.
We agree to meet again in a few weeks, as I accept his offer to go on a raid to see the inner workings of the colectivos. When I had met Linda on that square almost two hours ago I would have thought I would be running from this compound, thankful to be alive and ready to return home, but instead I linger, filled with new questions and emotional turmoil, knowing that I had only peeked at the intricacies of this deeply fractured society.
Gilberto and I do agree on one thing, and that is that he is not a thug. Had he been, this would all have been so much easier and my story on the colectivos would be written as an up and down hero vs. villain narrative.
But, as I have realized over the past four weeks, Venezuela has many colors but none of them are black and white. Gilberto clearly detests Maduro, and the society he believes he is protecting with this violent militia is one that does not include Maduro or the rest of the government he views as having defiled the Chávez revolution.
The colectivos, among other paramilitary groups working in Venezuela, are biding their time during this crisis, waiting for Maduro to be cast out and make room for other powers. In the larger story of this broken country, Guaidó and Maduro are temporary players whereas the colectivos seem to be here to stay.
We are escorted back and when I get to the car my most trusted companion jumps out of it, unable to hide his relief.
“It’s been two hours, Annika. I told myself I would give it another 30 minutes and then I would go break down every door to come look for you. I can’t believe you talked me into this.”
I hug José, hard, as much for my own sake as for his and offer him a cigarette for the nerves.
“So, what did you think of him?” he asks me as we share our vice, and he looks me in the eye to determine if I’m really as okay as I claim to be.
“I liked him. God help me, but I liked him.”
I’m expecting José to fly off the handle, but he doesn’t. Instead he nods as if I am finally understanding something he has been trying to explain.
“Some are good, some are bad, and most of them are both.”
I nod as if I get it but I don’t, not really, and as we get into the car I keep wondering if I did my job, if I managed to get answers or simply overplayed my hand.
A few days ago I was face down on the ground while a colectivo held a gun to my head and today I sat next to one of my own volition, and left after shaking his hand. I leave the colectivo-controlled town confused, not knowing if I won or lost. Perhaps my experience is emblematic of this country; there are no absolutes, no black and white, just people moving on a scale through shades of gray and methods of survival.