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The wild card in Venezuela: Armed Chavistas

Friday - 3/8/2013, 4:34am  ET

FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2010 file, a mural depicts an image of the Virgen Mary holding a baby Jesus and a machine gun on a wall in the La Piedrita area of the 23 of January neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela. On alert, and some apparently on edge, are hundreds of well-armed toughs spread through the hills of metropolitan Caracas who have been blamed for strong-armed intimidation of political opponents of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez and worse. As Venezuela ponders the next steps after Chavez's death Tuesday, the late leader's most uncompromising, and radical supporters make up a menacing unknown in a country brimming with guns and afflicted by the world's second-highest murder rate. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

FABIOLA SANCHEZ
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- The banner just inside the poor neighborhood in western Caracas reads, "Loyal to Comandante Chavez." The guard at the gate ensures no one enters without permission -- not even the police.

The "23 of January" redoubt is home to a small army of pistol-toting young men who see themselves as guardians of President Hugo Chavez's "socialist revolution." These die-hard Chavistas say there is no way they will let Venezuela's "oligarchy" and its alleged Washington patrons return to power.

Beating back the opposition "would cost us blood, sweat and tears, but they won't be back," said Carlos Torres, the guard at the gate.

If Chavez's populist state is indeed threatened by domestic and foreign foes as claimed, this is the defense. On alert and, in many cases on edge, are hundreds of well-armed toughs who belong to such shadowy "collectives" as La Piedrita, which have been blamed for strong-armed intimidation of political opponents and worse.

For such Chavez supporters, Monday's call by Communication Minister Ernesto Villegas to be "on a war footing" was clearly heard.

They are the most visible face of an unknown number of armed cadres loyal to the government, groups unrelated to the 125,000-member national militia that is affiliated with the armed forces. As Venezuela ponders the next steps after Chavez's death Tuesday, the late leader's most uncompromising and radical supporters make up a menacing unknown in a country brimming with guns and afflicted by the world's second-highest murder rate.

What's especially dangerous is that Venezuela's law enforcement authorities generally leave them alone, human rights and opposition activists say.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, named by Chavez to be his socialist party's presidential candidate in elections should he die, has been claiming for weeks that opposition leader Henrique Capriles has been "conspiring" against Venezuelan democracy.

Over the weekend, and then just hours before he announced Chavez's death, Maduro claimed Capriles was plotting with far-right U.S. putschists and "fugitive bankers" against the government.

Chavez himself long used just such tactics and rhetoric. Opponents said he stoked xenophobia while letting his lieutenants turn their partisans into armed civilian shock troops.

Maduro also expelled two U.S. military attaches for allegedly trying to recruit Venezuelan officers for "destabilizing projects," proof enough for Torres that Washington, the chief importer of Venezuelan crude oil, is trying to sabotage the revolution.

"The CIA is trained in this sort of thing. It has contributed to the toppling of governments and spilled blood in Central America and South America," he said.

"But they will be up against the people here. Just let them try to meddle and there won't be another drop of oil for the United States."

La Piedrita and a group known as the Tupamaros were around long before Chavez first took office in 1999. They form part of an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 "colectivistas" who live within eight miles (12 kilometers) of the Miraflores presidential palace, said Rocio San Miguel of the non-governmental watchdog group Control Ciudadano.

Under Chavez, both bands grew while other motorcycle-circulating toughs arose, all loyal to the charismatic former paratrooper.

While such groups perform community service projects, painting buildings, repairing elevators and cleaning streets, some have been videotaped flashing weapons in public. Gang members have also been recorded committing crimes, only to disappear into their protected territories, stymieing police pursuit.

"There is something of a tacit agreement that the police don't enter," said Luis Izquiel, a criminal lawyer who coordinates the security commission of the MUD opposition coalition.

There is no proof such groups receive arms and training from the government, though some critics accuse officials of funneling weapons to them.

The country is swimming in what the government has estimated are about 6 million firearms, some 90 percent of them illegal. It is unclear how much of Venezuela's violent crime is politically motivated, how much financially.

"What is certain is that the collectives have for years had military-grade weapons and have committed some crimes with complete impunity and it appears this has happened under the complicit view of government authorities," Izquiel said.

Pro-Chavista collectives vary in their zealousness.

Jesus Bermudez rode in a pickup truck with four black-bereted militants of the Tupamaros collective Wednesday amid the outpouring of grief that filled Chavez's funeral procession through central Caracas.

"We have an enemy who will never rest. Nor will the revolutionaries rest," he said.

Bermudez didn't discount using violence to defend Chavismo, saying that "the revolution can't just be about speech," but the 37-year-old added that if Capriles were to win a snap election expected to be called shortly, his group would respect the result.

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