Venezuela’s ongoing street protests are increasingly looking like outright warfare. As security forces shoot rubber bullets, tear-gas canisters and sometimes live rounds at the churning crowds, increasingly restive mobs are responding with lethal slingshots, homemade mortars and Molotov cocktails.
This week, seven National Guard members were injured in Caracas when a roadside bomb exploded as they drove by on motorcycles.
Leading the opposition shock-troops are loose-knit groups of young men and women that have names like The Templars, The Warriors and The Arcadias. Collectively, they’re known as the Chamos de la Resistencia or, roughly, the Youth Resistance.
Since the demonstrations began in early April, more than 90 people have died, almost half of them between the ages of 17 and 32, who might have been part of these front-line groups.
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To the opposition, these bands that march into battle carrying wooden shields and sticks are the symbols of resistance. The government, however, accuses them of being right-wing, drug-crazed “terrorists,” financed by shadowy forces intent on toppling the government.
On a recent weekday, a group of the chamos agreed to talk about their experience on the front lines, as long as their identities weren’t revealed.
Nelson, a 22-year-old aspiring musical producer, said most of the dozen people in his group are from humble backgrounds who once supported the socialist administration. But now they’ve become committed to stopping what they see as President Nicolás Maduro’s power grab.
“We’re the resistance but we’re a poor resistance,” Nelson said. “We don’t come from the Country Club-set and nobody pays us.... And we don’t need any drugs to go on the streets. The only drug that we have is hunger.”
Speaking in the enclosed garden of a supporter, the young men and women said the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the country — including sweeping food shortages — were fueling their commitment.
While many of them are professionals or university students, they come from all walks of life.
Mario, 22, said he’d been part of Maduro’s security detail before he abandoned the armed forces, disenchanted by an administration that coddles the military but abuses civilians.
“At the battalion I was in we were throwing food away, giving it away, and this was while my family was going hungry,” he said. “I just couldn’t be in a place where they were wasting food while other people are in need.”
Mario claims he was part of the 311 Bolívar Battalion and said he’s met at least four other former soldiers who are now part of the “resistance.”
He said he’d helped bring some discipline to the rag-tag group and taught them about National Guard riot formations.
“One time, with five other people, we made an entire platoon retreat,” he boasted. “The difference between us and the [security forces] is that they’re being paid to be there. I’m there because I’m a Venezuelan who wants to defend my country.”
For the opposition, groups like these are a double-edged sword. While they provide energy and a degree of protection to the almost-daily marches, they also undermine the opposition’s claims to be an entirely non-violent movement.
Fabio, 21, one of the leaders of The Templars, described his group in almost military terms. His team plans their operations through phone calls and text messages and each person is assigned to his or her own “squad.”
The escuderos carry shields and provide protection, while those who own gas masks are used as devolvederos, or “returners,” who throw tear-gas canisters back at the police.
“Then we have the people with Molotov cocktails who neutralize the [armored personnel carriers],” he said. “In the back, we have people with radios who tell us where [the security forces] are coming from and where our escape routes are.”
But he insists their work is defensive: that they’re protecting themselves, and protesters, from government attacks. Asked if his group had participated in torching government buildings, he said those actions were being carried out by government “infiltrators” who were trying to discredit the movement.
“There are also street people who have no purpose in their lives and, psychologically, they get carried away and commit those acts,” he said.
The chamos know they’re risking their lives. Nelson said he knows at least two colleagues who have died on the front lines, one hit by a tear-gas canister and another one shot.
“You feel so impotent and so much pain because they’re such cowards,” he said of the security forces. “They have to know they’re killing their own people and that’s going to weigh on their conscience.”
Anita, a 24-year-old dancer, said she had been hit several times with rubber bullets and was once shot in the stomach with a tear-gas canister. While the government has cautioned troops against shooting the metal projectiles directly into the crowds, it’s a common form of injury, and in some cases, death.
“It hurt so much,” Anita said of the impact. “It hit me directly in the stomach and there was so much blood, I was vomiting blood, and I spent the entire next day at the hospital with an inflamed stomach and I couldn’t eat anything.”
Amnesty International this week said the lethal attacks on protesters were not one-off events, as the government has suggested, but part of a “premeditated policy.”
“What seemed to be isolated reactions by the Venezuelan authorities in the face of protests in fact indicate a planned strategy by the government of President Maduro to use violence and illegitimate force against the Venezuelan population to neutralize any criticism,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Demonstrators nationwide are asking for general elections, humanitarian aid and the release of political prisoners. While the administration did transfer a prominent critic, Leopoldo López, to house arrest last weekend, it has shown few signs that it’s willing to budge. Maduro has said he’ll serve out his term through 2019 and is pushing a controversial and unpopular plan to rewrite the constitution.
Some of the Templars said they were supporters of Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 from an undisclosed form of cancer.
Nelson said he supported Chávez because of his focus on the country’s neediest. But he said he lost faith as corruption gutted the socialist administration and the once oil-rich nation fell on hard times.
“It sucks when your mother... tells you that all she has to eat is fried mangoes, or that she’s only eating plantains and yuca, when we’re a country that exports things and is rich,” he said. “Before, you could go to a grocery store and buy anything you wanted to.”
He said he feared that Maduro’s plans to amend the 1999 constitution will “constitutionalize life-long hunger.”
With few obvious ways out of the crisis, it’s likely the death-toll will continue to mount in coming weeks. And Nelson said he and his group of chamos has no choice but to continue fighting on the streets.
“Nobody knows how this is going to end,” he said. “The only one who knows is God, and whatever he throws at us, we’ll keep fighting — for better or for worse.”
Jim Wyss: +57-312-465-1776, @jimwyss