CARACAS, Venezuela — 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 system is indeed threatened by domestic and foreign foes as his anointed successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, claims, 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.
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.