Venezuela's Tupamaros on the Side of the Law

In several slums of this Andean capital, an
armed guerrilla group wearing black ski masks teaches arts and crafts
to local children, goes door-to-door to get the vote out during
elections and protects residents from local criminals.

By Martin Markovits, Vincent Bevins - San Francisco Chronicle
Short URL

Caracas--In several slums of this Andean capital, an
armed guerrilla group wearing black ski masks teaches arts and crafts
to local children, goes door-to-door to get the vote out during
elections and protects residents from local criminals.

The Revolutionary Tupamaro Movement was born out of South America's
tradition of Marxist guerrillas, taking up arms and donning masks
during the age of military dictatorships.

But as the continent has democratized and electoral politics have
moved to the left in Venezuela, the group has broadly supported the
government of President Hugo Chavez and cooperated with the state in
administering social programs and promoting political participation. It
is involved in after-school programs to keep children out of trouble,
child care centers, puppet shows, drug rehabilitation and sports
programs.

"Our greatest accomplishment is having been able to change things through elections," said a Tupamaro leader known as Chino.

At the same time, the Tupamaros insist on using arms to protect
communities considered too dangerous even for police officers. In
Caracas, an ineffective police force rarely enters crime-ridden slums
that surround the city's wealthy neighborhoods.

In the high-crime January 23rd neighborhood in western Caracas,
thieves, muggers or drug dealers who operate there run the risk of
being executed by Tupamaros patrolling on motorcycles.

"They are the ones who kill gangsters," said Atilia Gonzales, a teen resident of January 23rd.

In most opinion polls, crime is listed as government's biggest
problem - even among Chavez supporters. Venezuela has one of the
highest homicide rates in the world - 13,000 homicides in 2007 with a
population of 28 million. In contrast, there were 16,929 homicides in
the United States with a population of more than 300 million.

The slums of the capital, vast communities of makeshift residences, are the epicenters of violence.

A Tupamaro member known as Mao, 52, insists neighborhood criminals are given ample warning before being executed.

"First we give them a warning to get out of the area. If they don't
listen, we see them again, this time with 10 of our comrades," he said.
"If they fail to understand the message, we take matters into our own
hands."

Such executions may number in the hundreds annually, crime experts
say, and since crime gangs and drug rings don't have the organizational
strength that they do in the United States, the Tupamaros fear little
backlash, observers say.

Nevertheless, the Tupamaros say they keep their masks on for fear of
retribution from criminals, police or Chavez's political opposition.
The masks, however, also reinforce an imposing image that critics call
a tool of intimidation against Chavez's political opposition.

"The Tupamaros began following me to get me out of Coche (a Caracas
slum) because I was campaigning for (conservative candidate) Julio
Borges," said Ismach Leon, a campaign manager for the opposition party
First Justice.

Among Chavez opponents, the Tupamaros are viewed as Chavez's armed
thugs who indoctrinate residents at political meetings. But most
observers agree that the Tupamaros have their own agenda and are
difficult to rein in. Chavez's loosely-defined "Bolivarian" movement is
inspired by South American liberator Simon Bolivar. Chavez has focused
on U.S. imperialism, Latin American integration and peaceful social
justice. The Tupamaros, on the other hand, prefer a rapid and radical
nationalization of the country's resources.

"We are Marxist-Leninist. He is Bolivarian," said Chino, in describing their differences.

To be sure, the Chavez government maintains an ambiguous
relationship with the Tupamaros and other ultra-leftist groups.
Far-left views have often been criticized by Chavez for their lack of
"revolutionary discipline," which he says feeds the media images that
help the political opposition.

At the same time, there are signs of rifts between the Tupamaros and
the government over their illegal role as neighborhood vigilantes.

Since the slums are overrun with crime and the police force is too
ineffective, corrupt and overstretched to control them, the government
has tolerated vigilantism, observers say. But the government has
recently showed the willingness to send in the military when Tupamaro
members clash with the police.

Luis Milan, a professor of political science at the Bolivarian
University of Venezuela in Caracas, points to a shootout this summer
between the Tupamaros and police in the January 23 neighborhood.

Residents say violence erupted after several Tupamaros were caught
posting flyers protesting the one year anniversary of the death of one
of its members during a crime spree. As they fled, the police opened
fire. When more Tupamaros arrived to aid their comrades, the police
asked for military support.

Such incidents, however, will not force the former guerrilla group back underground, predicts Milan.

"They are becoming a legitimate party, they are participating in the political process," he said. "It's a different time now."

Tupamaros

The
Venezuelan Tupamaros have their origins in an urban guerrilla movement
in Uruguay that took the name of Tupac Amaru, the last Incan leader of
Peru, who was executed by Spanish authorities in 1572 for opposing
colonial rule.

When the military government in Uruguay crushed the group in the
1970s, some of its members fled to Caracas, where they sought recruits
and have become one of many gangs operating in shantytowns on the
western edge of the city.

The Tupamaros execute local hoodlums and drug-traffickers, many of
them thought to be in league with crooked cops. At clandestine news
conferences, they wear camouflage fatigues and ski masks and brandish
automatic rifles. They refuse to take off their masks or disarm,
maintaining the right to police their own neighborhoods for lack of
police presence and defend the populist government of President Hugo
Chavez.

When a military coup removed Chavez from power in 2002, the state's
television station signal was cut, and all private stations reported
the president had resigned after being taken prisoner. The Tupamaros
then went door-to-door across the country, telling Venezuelans that he
had not resigned and encouraging them to protest at the presidential
palace. Ensuing protests resulted in Chavez's reinstatement two days
later.

- Martin Markovits and Vincent Bevins.

E-mail Martin Markovits and Vincent Bevins at [email protected].