What is the shape of the armed civil organization groups that oppose the government?
Currently, there are no known armed groups in opposition to the government beyond the infamous adventure that caught the attention of the public debate in Venezuela during May, which chose the beaches of Macuto as its stage and was essentially foreign. Beyond the armed issue, it is even difficult to affirm that there is a unified opposition within the country.
Let’s explore the intention behind the question elaborated from an international instance: Is there an armed resistance against the government within the national territory?
The answer would be “currently, there is none known”. Unless you want to explore what happened in the context of some very minor demonstrations that turned violent in 2014 and 2017. This must be considered with precaution so as not to equate massive peaceful protests with particular groups that were clearly violent, or make generalizations within the latter. So, one must be careful not to criminalize the legitimate protests that took place in those two years.
Starting with this warning, it is possible to identify some very small groups, especially in 2014, of young people with garments that lower-class Venezuelans usually cannot afford: helmets, glasses, gloves, and protective equipment, besides basic training and response capabilities amidst public disorder, possibly guided by the advice of army men, retired police officers, or former guerrilla fighters. This could also have happened spontaneously, but some degree of logistical support could be observed in some cases. In others, homeless kids were utilized to confront the police and participated in violent protests. This type of actor was identified by the official narrative as an agent of imperialism.
A provocative question could be raised: Can we say the same of the protests in Chile or Colombia? In these events, there is always a diversity of actors, but just as legitimate protests in Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia in 2019 should not be attributed to Maduro and the Cubans, the Venezuelan protests cannot be attributed to the US; that would be a deep disrespect and a slap in the face for the people. This does not mean that these countries do not collaborate or promote some actions, but the determining factor in the demonstrations is the citizen at the frontline.
We have also observed isolated cases of people who shot against security forces, set illegal checkpoints, or blocked streets with barbed wire, causing deaths and accidents. 43 people died in result in 2014. In at least four cases the responsibility was attributable to the security forces; in 25 the participation of armed civilians who attacked the protesters was denounced. Ten victims were police officers.
This contrasts sharply with the experience of 2017 when 163 deaths were reported – four times more than in 2014. Two of the victims were lynched by protesters who identify with a sector of the opposition, under clear racist and classist traits, and later used by the government to criminalize all the opposition and divert the attention from the deaths caused by the police. When we analyze the fatalities that occurred during this period, we count at least one victim for each day of conflict. 37 percent of the victims died at the hands of the State security forces, while 22 percent were assassinated by armed civilians who attacked the protesters. In contrast, seven officers died, representing just 4 percent of the victims.
We had another set of protests in January 2019, which occurred between January 21 and 29, in which there was greater participation of people from working-class neighborhoods and barrios. 45 people lost their lives, which is about six people per day. No casualty amongst security forces was reported. However, we can observe that, as time goes by resistance of the protesters seems to be met with an increasingly lethal and systematic response from State security forces, who use the working-class neighborhoods and barrios as training grounds in the absence of protests.
In a whole different level, an emblematic armed resistance against the government was organized by Oscar Pérez, a police officer and member of the Bureau for Scientific, Criminal, and Forensic Investigations’ (CICPC) special forces, through individual actions during 2017, more of a propagandistic nature than proper warfare. No one knows the number of casualties during his operations. It is reported that his group, made up of about six people, was executed in January 2018 after surrendering through social media. Public forensic evidence supports this theory. Everything indicates that the armed clash was staged by the government. After these deaths, a wave of arrests was unleashed, affecting more than 30 people, some of them just relatives or acquaintances of the deceased.
On the other hand, there are hundreds of military officers detained in deplorable conditions under charges of conspiracy. Their lawyers and several NGOs have denounced torture and ill-treatment against them. Among the most emblematic cases are those of Captain Caguaripano and Corvette Captain Acosta Arévalo, the latter of whom lost his life in the custody of the military intelligence agency (DGCIM), becoming the fifth political prisoner to die under this circumstance.
Finally, it is important to highlight that one of the first ‘laws’ emanating from the government-controlled National Constituent Assembly was the Anti-Hate Law, which criminalizes protests and any dissent against the government or its representatives. This law applies to anyone who dares to make public complaints against any public official or their relatives.
This is the general panorama of the opposition resistance in terms of armed resistance against the government. There is no way to make a comparison between opposition forces, almost non-existent within the country, and the armed hegemony of those who currently control the state apparatus.