“To the gringos who say the boots are already in Venezuela, be careful. There are warriors here too willing to give their lives,” Mendez declared during a radio show he hosts from Antímano, an impoverished and violence-ridden slum in Caracas.
“We are going to shoot them up. It’s no joke. We will rain down lead on them,” Mendez told his listeners of the potential US invaders.
Mendez’s threats carry no shortage of menace: when he’s not on the radio, he heads a colectivo, one of the dozens of armed paramilitary groups that are the only law in many of Venezuela’s poorest neighborhoods. They play a growing role in keeping embattled president Nicolas Maduro in power. His lieutenants are all skinny and appear to be half his age; for the most part, they silently watch their loquacious boss hold court live on air.
Maduro says the colectivos are front line organizers for his socialist revolution. Opposition leaders say the groups are part motorcycle club, part death squad and worry that, as Venezuela’s political and economic crisis worsens, no one is reining them in.
Mendez is burly, middle-aged with greying hair and claims he has been shot five times in different conflicts. He wags his finger at the imaginary gringos as he broadcasts from the small radio booth with a large picture of deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez looking down.
His radio station is located in a small room on the second floor of an elementary school. Mendez says there is a radar unit on the roof of the school to monitor against US bombers school but when we ask to see it no one can find the key.
Questioned whether he’d chosen to house the radar and radio station inside a school to protect it from US military strikes, Mendez shrugs and grins.
The colectivos behind Maduro
Since January, when opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself to be the interim president of Venezuela, motorcycle riding colectivo members have terrorized anti-government rallies with gunfire and prevented opposition lawmakers and journalists from entering the National Assembly.
Mendez claims to have received military and political training from the Venezuelan government, but did not answer questions about details of their coordination with the government, and how the colectivos are funded. Nevertheless, the colectivos appear to be a well-organized part of the Maduro strategy to hold onto power.
“I call on the colectivos, the hour of resistance has arrived, active resistance in the community,” Maduro said in a speech in March, that unnerved many members of the Venezuelan opposition.
“Those of us involved in politics, in social work, know what that statement is about,” opposition activist Julio Cesar Reyes told CNN. “It is for paramilitary groups to pursue us, to go into our homes and even to assassinate the dissidents who are against Maduro’s regime.”
Reyes said that on three occasions members of the colectivos have shown up at his home and warned him to stop organizing against Maduro. “They come into your house without uniforms, carrying weapons of war, their faces covered, and they break down your door,” he said. “They aimed a gun at me in front of my kids.”
In 2018, colectivos fought alongside military troops in a shoot-out with renegade anti-government police officer Oscar Perez and his supporters. A top colectivo commander known as Heyker Vazquez was himself killed in the gun battle and buried with honors days later.
Peaceful, but armed?
Before socialist Hugo Chavez swept to power in 1999, the colectivos were leftist activists working in some of Venezuela’s poorest slums. Himself a one-time leader of an uprising, Chavez was suspicious of the military, especially following a failed coup against him in 2002. Opposition members say Chavez armed and trained the colectivos to have a paramilitary force completely loyal to him.
“Our revolution is peaceful but it’s armed,” was a frequent Chavez refrain in his speeches.
Today’s colectivos are believed to have thousands of members, according to organizations that track violence in Venezuela, but no one has a completely accurate picture of the informal and different collective offshoots. Some of them take their names from the heroes of the Venezuelan struggle for independence, leaders of indigenous groups that fought the Spanish or the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
“We have to be armed but also armed in our minds with ideology,” Mendez told me.
As Venezuela’s crippled economy continues to break apart, critics allege the colectivos have become deeply involved in organized crime. Reyes claims that the government has allowed the colectivos to take control of lucrative extortion and drug trafficking rings. But Mendez denies that he or the fifty members of his group are involved in illegal activities or receive payments from the government to silence critics. “We are revolutionaries of the heart, not because they give us a bag of food,” he said.
As if to show he has nothing to hide, Mendez insists on giving CNN a tour around the Antímano neighborhood. We walk flanked by his lieutenants and in this area of Caracas that many police would not dare enter, none of them appear to be carrying a gun. They don’t need to.
Mendez shows off a clinic where Cuban doctors practice, a local vegetable garden and a small clothing factory making knock-off Supreme brand T-shirts.
He praises Hugo Chavez endlessly but when asked to say something complimentary about Chavez’s successor, the much less popular Maduro, the colectivo leader has to think for a minute. Finally, the best he can muster is that Maduro is not to blame for Venezuela’s economic woes.
“They attacked the poor people through their stomachs,” Mendez said of the United States. “They made our food disappear and people got mad and everyone says its Maduro’s fault but it’s not Maduro’s fault, it’s the United States’ fault.”
And then Mendez gets back to his favorite subject, the US invasion, which, he says, is sure to come. “If these people try to step onto Venezuelan soil what there will be here is a lot of lead for them,” he said. “I am not afraid of the gringos.”
Far from backing down from the US, Maduro’s most fervent supporters seem to be itching for the fight.