Venezuela: Chavez may be gone, but his thugs remain behind
The problem with thugocracies such as the one in Venezuela is that even after its head thug is gone, the little thugs remain behind hellbent in protecting their criminal enterprise and all the wealth and privileges they have amassed.
The wild card in Venezuela: Armed Chavistas
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.
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And here are more of Chavez's thugs going after a journalist: