ORIGINS OF THE TUPAMAROS STREET GANG
The gang has its origin in the city of Caracas, Venezuela. Today, its primary center of operations is concentrated in an area of turf located on the west side of Caracas. This is a decidedly political gang, indeed one that identifies with a kind of Robin Hood mythology that surrounds how peasants and the urban poor in Uruguay and elsewhere romanticize the exploits of the original Tupamaros based in Uruguay.
When the real Uruguay Tupamaros were being targeted for extermination in Uruguay, some fled to countries like Venezuela. Some landed in a “ghetto area” of Caracas called “el 23 de Enero”.The Venezuela Tupas are basically a hybrid gang that borrowed their name from the Tupas of Uruguay. Most of the ideological views in the Uruguay Tupas (affinity towards Marxist-Leninism and Maoism) are found in the Tupas found today in Venezuela.
It is clear that some of the founding members of the Tupamaro gang resided in “el 23" during the 1970s. It is true as well that they all had and continue to have a connection of sorts — this will be explained — to a famous piece of property called the “23 de Enero”. The 23 de Enero is a famous apartment block, which once housed wealthier government officials during the dictatorship of General Marcos Perez Jimenez (what is called the Third Republic in Venezuelan history). On January 23,1958 a new type of government was founded at the same time peasants and the urban poor seized the apartments at 23 de Enero. This uprising of the urban poor marked the birth of the Fourth Republic. If anyone wanted to “get in touch” with the Tupamaros, a lot of them still reside at this important location. Residents since 1958 have laid their claims to the property and it has remained a hotbed of radicalism now going on half a century. Growing up in this environment of radicalism is believed to account for the birthplace of the Tupamaros.
It was in the 1970's that the Tupamaros in Uruguay were crushed by the government of that nation. Apparently some of the sympathizers or relatives of the original Tupamaros were forced into exile and took refuge at the now famous “23 de Enero”. Like the Crips in Los Angeles who once the gang name was publically recognized, various “sets” or factions evolved for the Tupas, and like the Crips it was based on residential propinquity — where they lived in a barrio that determined what “set” or faction they would become attached to.
Claims that the Tupa gang emerged in 1970's are unfounded. Another unfounded claim is that the gang started in 1984. It got a boost and motivation to finally emerge as an organizational identity in the 1980's, through the violence that ran rampant at the time.
There is much disagreement among sources about when, exactly, the Venezuelan Tupas first began to operate as a group or organization by the name of the identity they hold today. We believe that some of the seemingly inconsistent claims can be integrated into a larger and more accurate truth.
First, some of the self-serving legends of the rise of the Tupas claim the gang’s genesis dates to the 1970's. The truth, though, is that they had not surfaced in Venezuela by that identity as a functioning or cohesive group. But in the 1970s there was a mixing of cultural and socialization influences. As already mentioned, real Tupamaro guerrillas were fleeing from Uruguay, some settled in “el 23" — a free place to live, it has been known as a community that is a hot bed of radicalism since 1958. The people that live there share a resistance mentality because they are all squatters. Which is why there is much deterioration of the infrastructure of the buildings on the property in this area.
The reader must understand that “el 23" is a large ghetto or barrio, one of the most well known in the world for political activists. Today nearly 300,000 people live in el 23. Bizarrely, but perhaps inevitably, El 23 is also branded “Area 23" and is marketed as a political sightseeing destination for American leftist tours organized to visit Venezuela (“Sight Seeing: You Can Videotape the Revolution” is the common theme of these political tourist trips to Caracas).
Although the Tupas group doesn’t date to the 1970s, some current members came of age in that decade, and emerged from the cauldron of “resistence sentiments” found in the “el 23" community. And their antipathy towards larger society was tipped to the boiling point in the 1980's when violence became a way of life among the urban poor. Drug gangs in particular began to wreak havoc there as they did in many other parts of the world including the United States. Certainly there were remnants of what today are the Tupas who were engaged in guerrilla activities in the late 1980's, and so they could say, in all honesty, that they have been in the business for about 20 years, but it is more accurate to place their actual emergence in the year 1992.
Some accounts date the birth of the Venezuelan Tupamaros to 1984. The attribution is based on the observation that vigilante attacks against drug dealers began about this same time in 1984. But inside the “el-23" there is an long history of hanging certain types of criminals in acts of “street justice” by a hastily formed group of vigilantes. The people in “el-23" have always felt “defensive” and “insecure”. And while there may have been elements of what would later become the Tupas, they were not attracting any attention that we could document in 1984 by the name of “Tupamaros”. It might be more reasonable to conclude that in 1984, the Tupas were in their embryonic state — about to emerge officially in 1992.
But it was 1992 that gives the clear evidentiary connection to the Tupas, their emergence and function by that name, as an organizational entity. And it was also in 1992 that saw the opportunity for the Tupas, in prison, to be placed into closer contact with the person known today as President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez was elected in 1998 as president of Venezuela. Thus, some reports erroneously attribute the emergence of the Tupas in 1998 as well. The Tupas worked hard in 1998 getting Chavez elected. They were up and running before 1998.
But in 1992, Chavez was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Venezuelan Army and he tried, unsuccessfully, to take over the government in a failed coup d’ etat. When the coup failed, Chavez went to prison for two years. While doing time, he met the Tupas. Chavez needed the protection that the Tupa gang could offer, and the Tupas needed the resources and opportunities that Chavez could offer. They have worked well together ever since then in a quid pro quo relationship. Chavez was released from prison on March 26, 1994 and went on to be elected as president four years later (1998).