CARACAS, Venezuela – While embattled President Nicolas Maduro's administration claimed at the United Nations that colectivos, the government's armed paramilitary allies, are not the ones fomenting violence in Venezuela, a 37-year-old Swedish journalist testified to a different reality Wednesday at the National Assembly in Caracas.
Annika H. Rothstein was forced to hide under the podium at the opposition's National Assemblyafter a group of Maduro supporters got through security and interrupted the meeting at the Venezuelan legislative palace. Rothstein was eventually able to stand up again to speak.
Rothstein, who has written about anti-Semitism and is a contributor to Israel Hayom, The Jerusalem Post, Ricochet and the Washington Examiner, talked about how she has joined the long list of reporters who are working to cover the crisis in Venezuela under the constant threat of the colectivos.
"I know the look of them," Rothstein told a Swedish colleague. "They show up in motorcycles. They cover their faces and they are armed."
Her colleague published the video of their conversation on YouTube. She also said that over the years, colectivos have gone "from intimidation to robbery and kidnapping to death squad."
Rothstein described a nightmare similar to the one Univision's Pedro Ultreras said he experienced. He returned to Miami with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos on Monday after surviving two terrifying encounters with armed colectivos, including one that the veteran correspondent said soldiers witnessed and did not stop.
Like Ultreras and Local 10 News' correspondent Cody Weddle, Rothstein traveled from Caracas to Venezuela's border state of Tachira to cover the crisis this week and saw the armed colectivos. She said the drive is one of the most dangerous in the world -- especially at night.
"It's no-man's land and there are kidnappings and random murders across this road," Rothstein said.
Venezuelans in Tachira are very familiar with the checkpoints by colectivos. This week, they had an added fear, as there were reports that Maduro's administration released hundreds of people from prison under the condition that they join the colectivos and fight for Maduro.
Rothstein said the colectivos stopped her driver and dragged her out of the car. She told her Swedish colleague she lied to the colectivos and told them she was a socialist and showed them press credentials from Iran and yet they still took her bulletproof vest and some still wanted to kill her.
"Two guys were crazier than the others and were obviously high on cocaine," Rothstein said.
The colectivos kicked the drivers in the stomach and one slapped her in the face and hit her in the chest. She said they left bruises on her face and torso. They were all carrying semi-automatic rifles and 9 mm pistols on their hip, she said.
"These are guns that are very hard to come way, like it's not like private gangs would ever own them," said Rothstein, adding that it is likely that the gangs couldn't afford them and would have trouble finding them if they could.
Rothstein said she thought they were going to kill her when they told her to get on the ground and on her stomach and held her at gundpoint.
"I hear that click on the back of the head," Rothstein said.
She said she heard about a dozen colectivos arguying amongs themselves about whether or not to kill them. Although the group's leader told them that was a bad idea, the infighting continued, she said.
"Their leader crouches down next to me and tells me to calm down," she said.
Rothstein said her driver begged for his life and told the colectivos he was the only man in his family and his sisters needed him. The colectivos finally told them they could leave and fired their weapons as they ran back in the car, she said. They weren't wounded.
Five minutes later, she said Venezuelan civilians flagged them down to warn them that there was another gang of colectivos down the road. She said they offered them shelter where two journalists with the Washington Post were also hiding.
"We sit there for two hours while there is gunfire on both ends," she said.
Rothstein said she had lost all of her equipment, so the Washington Post journalists allowed her to use their satellite phone, which she used to call her sister in Sweden. They decided to continue traveling together because there is safety in numbers, and she said she witnessed what was left of a shooting that left eight to 10 people dead including an elderly woman who was shot in the face.
"Tachira state is very dangerous. That's a war now," Rothstein said. "Rest assured, there is a civil war breaking out there now."
Rothstein said she was able to speak to Venezuelan assembly men in San Cristobal who said they had similar run-ins with colectivos. She said she was afraid that she was now under the radar of Maduro's administration, but unlike Ultreras and Ramos she has not been ordered to leave the country yet.
Rothstein, who wrote about her experience for the Daily Beast, also reported she lost her equipment and about $900 in cash.
"This happens to Venezuelans every day," she said.