CARACAS, Venezuela – Closed-circuit cameras stare down from lampposts, allowing a heavily armed gang to keep watch over those who dare to enter one of Caracas’ most violent slums. At night, the gunmen cover their faces with ski masks and set up checkpoints, brandishing pistols and ordering residents to identify themselves as they enter the neighborhood.
Here in the 23 de Enero slum, several gangs that pledge allegiance to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are effectively the law, ruling over fiefdoms where police seldom venture. Chavez has occasionally criticized the groups, but the authorities have largely left them alone, stoking accusations by critics that the government is tolerating an armed wing that could prove dangerous in a critical election year in Venezuela.
One of the biggest gangs calls itself La Piedrita, or Little Rock. In its neighborhood turf, murals are painted with slogans such as For the defense of the revolution, vote for Chavez. La Piedrita. One of the murals depicts Jesus and the Virgin Mary holding assault rifles.
Some of Chavez’s opponents say the government tolerates such groups to use them when convenient to intimidate adversaries, and that it’s hard to predict how they would react if opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles were to defeat Chavez in the October presidential vote. Also unknown is how the gangs would react if Chavez were to succumb to his nearly yearlong fight with cancer.
What’s clear is that the gangs wield serious firepower, toting assault rifles that only security forces are legally permitted to carry in Venezuela.
These illegally armed groups could at some point use those weapons to commit crimes or to destabilize any government, said Luis Izquiel, who leads a security committee for the opposition. He said if Chavez is defeated and a new government takes over, the authorities would have to go get those illegal weapons.