Blood and Power: The Militia-Corruption Nexus in Latin America
Paul Rexton Kan
In February 2019, on the international bridge connecting the Venezuelan city of San Antonio del Tachira with the nation of Colombia, masked gunmen on motorcycles appeared behind a row of Venezuelan national guardsmen who were blocking humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela. With the support and encouragement of the guardsmen, the masked gunmen began shooting as they rode into the crowd of Venezuelan civilians demonstrating in favor of allowing the aid convoys to enter the country. Although much of the focus has been on how the military, national guard and police are reacting to the opposition’s new found assertiveness, paramilitary groups, loyal to the ruling party and numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have acted as official henchmen of the governing elite. Known as colectivos, these militias have long acted to repress dissent and opposition as a means to ensure the survival of the regime.
Modeled on the Iranian Basij militia, the colectivos have targeted critical media outlets, opposition politicians, and dissidents as well as exerted control over entire neighborhoods and towns. They have operated death squads with the full acquiescence of Venezuela’s intelligence agencies and in partnership with the military. Venezuela’s previous president, Hugo Chavez, organized these paramilitary groups to protect the gains of his self-proclaimed Bolivarian Revolution from the perceived threat of external powers. They rapidly transformed into a force to prop-up the political elite and to preserve the power of the regime. As the crisis in Venezuela continues to burn, the power of the colectivos may decide the whether the corrupt government of Nicolas Maduro endures.
Venezuela is not the only country where militias play a role in governmental corruption. Throughout Latin America, paramilitary violence has long challenged the ability to build durable, accountable and transparent systems of government that work for the common good of all citizens. Indeed, there are several ways that the militia-corruption nexus has worked in the region.
Defining a Militia
Militias are, in many ways, lost among the variety of more systematically examined violent non-state actors. They are often consigned to the “remainder bin” of violent groups who cannot be readily identified as terrorists, insurgents or criminals. Militias may use tactics that inspire fear like a terrorist group, undermine governmental authority like an insurgent or guerrilla organization, or gain illicit profits like a criminal syndicate or gang. Unlike these groups, however, members of militias view themselves in a defensive light, seeing their actions as protecting a specific political, ethnic, tribal, religious or familial group from harm due to political, social or security gaps that the state is believed to be unable or unwilling to bridge.
To fill these gaps, militias rely on violence to deal with threats to their particular constituencies brought about by fractious politics, armed conflict, or violent crime. As “filler forces,” militias act as local guardians that step in to provide political power, public safety, or social autonomy for their particular communities. The formation of a militia is also intended as a short-term measure until the militia and its constituency believe the gaps are sufficiently filled.
In Latin America, militias fill political, social and security gaps with a combination of what H. John Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg call “establishment violence” and what Ariel Ahrem calls a "repertoire of violence.” For Rosenbaum and Sederberg, establishment violence occurs where “acts or threats of coercion [are] in violation of the formal boundaries of an established socio-political order which, however, are intended by the violators to defend that order from some form of subversion.” In other words, militias, paradoxically, will break the state’s norms and laws to preserve the state. A repertoire of violence, according to Ahrem, describes a condition where paramilitary violence is interwoven in familiar and routine power arrangements of a state. If a state has a legacy of militia group formation, it is highly likely to continue regardless of regime type, institutional durability and duration of national leadership. In short, militias can be part of a country’s DNA. In Latin America, with its history of fragile governance and extrajudicial forms of violence, the history of militias is tightly linked to patterns of state corruption that have long endured. In sum, many countries in Latin America have a “repertoire of establishment violence.”
In contemporary Latin America, this repertoire is played out in three distinct ways that demonstrate the militia-corruption nexus: coup-proofing, countering crime and countering insurgencies. These versions of a repertoire of establishment violence undermine key bulwarks against corruption like democratic processes, human rights, the rule of law and individual security.
Political authorities in illiberal and non-democratic states live in abiding fear of losing their grip on power through betrayal of those in their inner circle or by a popular uprising among their citizenry. Political allies, members of security institutions and social movements have toppled many leaders throughout Latin America’s history. To prevent successful challenges to their political authority, many Latin American leaders have used militias to protect the regime. These militias have acted as local guardians by focusing on the narrow priority of defending the ruling leadership and its key supporters against political upheavals.
Militias that are part of a ruling elite’s coup-proofing strategy have acted against the regime’s political opponents by rooting out challengers and critics within the political elite as well as to repress opposition groups in society. Venezuela’s colectivos are clear example of militias used to coup-proof the regime against challenges to the status quo, but they are not unique in the region. Last summer, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega used militias to crackdown on protestors and dissidents who opposed his growing anti-democratic practices and increasing corruption.
The militia-corruption nexus in Venezuela and Nicaragua is visible in a number of ways. First, paramilitary groups undermine democratic practices, human rights and the rule of law by acting with official impunity. These groups have carried out clandestine operations that formal institutions cannot legally undertake. They have conducted campaigns of detention, torture and assassination to forestall any potential activities leading to the upending the power of the ruling elite. Secondly, coup-proofing pours resources into informal institutions that add little to productive sectors of the economy. Militias consume, rather than produce, resources. With the informal, off-the-books, nature of militias’ relationship with the ruling elite, militia expenditures are often paid for with illicit financing, by moving money from government funds or through granting economic benefits to militia members and their financial backers. These activities make transparency of the national economy questionable to foreign investors and international financial institutions.
Militias have also emerged in Latin American countries plagued by high levels of criminal violence. Communities victimized by organized crime and street gangs have formed or supported the formation of vigilante groups that seek to reign in criminals because the police, courts and government are weak or corrupt. These gaps in security allow local guardians to band together to provide a degree of public safety by tackling criminals directly.
However, the actions of militias involved in countering crime are largely unaccountable to the law; they act with little respect for due process and impartiality. Counter crime militias in Mexico and Brazil have taken on a high degree of policing functions including neighborhood patrols, road checkpoints and the gathering of evidence against criminals. In many cases, these militias have delivered their own punishments against those they have identified as criminals rather than turning them over to the police and the court system. Warnings, threats, curfew, fines or restitution, disfigurement, beatings, shootings, exiling and death have all been types of punishments that militias have routinely used against suspected criminals. Although committed to driving out drug dealers and violent criminals from neighborhoods, Brazilian counter-crime militias have engaged in summary executions and “extorting ‘taxes’ on business including cooking gas sales, pirate cable TV and internet networks and minibus transport routes.”
Counter-crime militias engaged in vigilante activities have presented Latin American states with several dilemmas when the activities of militias go awry and run afoul of state interests. In Mexico, the state attempted to co-opt counter-crime militias by “deputizing” them as official adjuncts of the police as a way to control their more extreme impulses. This tactic has often backfired as militia members have become emboldened, rather than constrained, by the their new status and continue to act outside of legal boundaries. In Brazil, the state has confronted and attempted to arrest militia members for being lawbreakers. However, many Brazilian militias were found to be composed of active and retired police officers, further compounding the corruption of law enforcement. The typical response to the state’s attempt to control or contain militias has been paramilitary violence is turned against the authorities, placing police officials in additional danger.
These dilemmas have become especially acute because militias that begin as groups to combat crime frequently undermine governance and state legitimacy. One study found that militias control over a quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan area, meaning that over 2 million people live under the unaccountable authority of militias. Paradoxically, when militias take on criminal groups, increasing levels of crime can result. Citizen support of vigilantism can severely weaken the relationship between the community and law enforcement, a relationship that is crucial to deter, detect and investigate crime. Concerns that reporting crimes to the authorities will be ineffective or viewed as a betrayal of militia members lead many citizens to choose to remain silent about criminal activity or entrust a militia to punish criminals instead. Thus, a fractured relationship can create a vicious cycle of impunity: more crime because of diminished trust in the police spurs more calls for counter-crime activities of militias that the state rarely punishes.
Latin America’s history is filled with insurrectionary movements seeking to alter the status quo. Governments facing insurrections have suffered desertions and defections from their armed forces and have compensated by relying on militias that they have created or coopted. The lack of adequate personnel in the armed forces to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy has often led Latin American leaders to authorize militia activities. For example, the Peruvian congress passed legislation allowing paramilitary groups like the rondas campesinas to assist the government in taking on Sendero Luminoso guerrillas. Successive Colombian governments have worked legally and illegally with self-defense groups like the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC).
Although civilians organizing to defend themselves against the predation of insurgents is not corrupt, counter-insurgent militias have often behaved in similar ways to counter crime militias. They have abused civilians and acted with little accountability. Militias involved in fighting Peru’s civil war were accused of routinely massacring civilians. Colombia’s AUC was also found responsible for large-scale civilian deaths. Governments at the time have rationalized such militia excesses by blaming the rebels or by suggesting that rogue elements in the militia were responsible.
Governments in Andean countries that have leaned on militias to beat back rebel challenges have been uniquely corrupted by the infiltration of illicit trafficking. In Colombia, money and political influence have corrupted domestic politics. For example, forty serving and former congressmen were charged with collaborating with a right-wing militia group that had deep ties to the cocaine trade. In Peru, the militias were able to coerce the government into more rapid grants of agricultural assistance in the post-conflict environment due to the arms they paid for with drug money.
Militias and Adaptation
History has shown the resiliency of the militia-corruption nexus in those Latin American countries that have a repertoire of establishment violence. Militias have transformed even after their original motive for forming has dissipated. Paramilitary groups have worked to attain benefits for their group at the expense of the health of key state institutions even after the end of large-scale violence or in the face of decreasing rates of criminal violence. Paramilitary groups can still maintain their narrative of collective self-defense by appearing to be community providers and act as arbiters and guarantors of local benefits. The result of paramilitary activity in a state has often been some degree of impunity. In cases where there has been punishment for members of demobilized militias, the severity has been contingent and limited. For example, when the demobilized members of the AUC gave full confessions of their criminal activities, they were granted reduced sentences to be served on farms, rather than in prisons.
Demobilizing Venezuela’s militias is a distant issue. Venezuela’s unfolding future will, nonetheless, also feature a role for militias, no matter the outcome of the current unrest. If the Maduro regime survives the current political and economic upheaval, colectivos will seek to be rewarded for their efforts at preventing the ousting of the political elite. The government will likely grant colectivos additional benefits at the expense of the larger society, furthering endemic, state level corruption. If the Maduro regime falls, the presence and power of the colectivos will need to be addressed in any new governing arrangements. Venezuela’s colectivos may fragment and form factions in the aftermath of the Maduro regime. Militia members may become part of a new, corrupt governing elite or devolve into organized crime syndicates. Whatever the outcome, Venezuela’s repertoire of establishment violence means that militias cannot be ignored.
 Andrew Rosati, “Maduro’s Masked Thugs Unleash Terror Along Venezuela Border.” Bloomberg News. 26 February 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-26/maduro-s-masked-thugs-unleash-terror-along-the-venezuelan-border.
 H. John Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg, Vigilante Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976. p 4.
 Ariel Ahram, “Pro-Government Militias and the Repertoires of Illicit State Violence.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Vol. 39, No. 3, 2016.
 Ibid, p. 208.
 Rachel Monaghan and Peter Shirlow, “Forward to the Past? Loyalist Paramilitarism in Northern Ireland Since 1994.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Vol. 34, No.8, 2011. p. 656.
 Dom Phillips, “’Lesser Evil’: How Brazil’s Militias Wield Terror to Seize Power from Drug Gangs.” The Guardian. 12 July 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/12/brazil-militia-paramilitary-wield-terror-seize-power-from-drug-gangs?CMP=share_btn_tw.
 Angelika Albaladejo, “Spate of Murders in Brazil Shines Spotlight on Militia Phenomenon.” InSight Crime. 18 April 2018, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/spate-murders-brazil-shines-spotlight-militia-phenomenon/.
 “Ten Settlers Massacred by Civilian Defence Patrol,” London: Amnesty International. 1 November 1993. Index number: AMR 46/038/1993, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/188000/amr460381993en.pdf.
 Scott Wilson, “Colombia Massacre Large, Brutal.” Washington Post, 21 April 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/04/21/colombian-massacre-large-brutal/0ea61a75-0e54-4c47-89a0-f1e139597f3f/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.829fa4bc69bc.
 Douglas Porch, “Uribe’s Second Mandate, The War and the Implications for Civil-Military Relations in Colombia.” Strategic Insights. Vol. V, Issue 2. February 2006, https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=792523. p. 3.
 Alfredo Schulte-Bockholt, The Politics of Organized Crime and the Organized Crime of Politics. New York: Lexington Books, 2006. P. 127.