Protests turn deadlier in Venezuela as soldiers crack down on activists

Death comes at night in many of Caracas’ neighborhoods, when people protest against the Nicolas Maduro regime by banging on pots and pans. Soldiers and paramilitary gunmen appear suddenly, hunting opposition activists they call “the squalid ones.”

The beleaguered Maduro regime has answered the challenge posed by Juan Guaidó’s becoming interim president of Venezuela by stepping up attacks on opponents, green-lighting operations that increase the number of dead day by day, according to human rights organizations.

At least 29 deaths at the hands of regime forces had been registered as of 5 pm Friday, Marco Antonio Ponce, head of the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, said by phone from Caracas.

But the real number is believed to be higher. The tally does not include half a dozen victims who remain unidentified or dozens of others shot, wounded and fighting to survive.

The violence has started to trigger alarms abroad. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres Thursday called for a “transparent and independent” investigation of the protesters’ deaths.

That same day, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also expressed its concerns, even though the number of dead was lower at the time. The commission “is closely following the violent events in Venezuela, in the context of today’s protests, which have already left at least 16 dead, dozens of injured and arrests,” it wrote on its Twitter account.

Ponce and other groups that have studied the violence in Venezuela say the deaths are the result of government repression as well as extrajudicial executions during crack downs on the growing social unrest.

Such executions were first identified as part of a pattern during anti government protests in 2014, and by 2017 they had become a systematic part of the repression, Ponce said.

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Opposition National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, right, who declared himself interim president, greets supporters as he leaves church after Mass in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019. Guaido says he is acting in accordance with two articles of the constitution that give the National Assembly president the right to hold power temporarily and call new elections. Fernando Llano AP

Two clear trends have emerged from the deaths in recent days. One is that the repression begins when protesters start banging their pots and pans from inside their homes.

Those kinds of protests usually start after sundown in less well-off Caracas neighborhoods once bastions of support for Chavismo.

“The security forces and the colectivos (paramilitary gangs that support the regime) arrive quickly and fire tear gas, buckshot and bullets at the homes,” Ponce said.

That has led neighborhood residents to look for ways to defend themselves, including the use of firearms. They also build street barricades in attempts to block the attackers from entering the area.

As a result, there have been a string of “confrontations of security forces and colectivo members against citizens, fostering a wave of violence,” Ponce added.

In one curious development, common criminals have been joining the battles in defense of the residents.

But the majority of the deaths have been the result of executions of unarmed protesters by the paramilitary gangs.

Martín Rodil, president of the Venezuelan American Leadership Council and an expert on government security operations, said Maduro supporters are using the same tactics that the Iranian regime used to crush the so-called Green Revolution in 2009.

Instead of deploying the military or Revolutionary Guards to crack down on the protests, they unleashed the Basij, “colectivos who rode motorcycles and, pistols in hand, killed whatever protesters they found on the street,” Rodil said.

“After the first three or four dead, the people are still there. But when you reach 40 or 50 dead, people start telling themselves that it’s better to go home because they are going to be killed,” he added.

Using the paramilitary groups also allows the dictatorial regime to keep its distance from the conflict and allege, through its propaganda machine, that the deaths were the result of clashes between civilians.

“That’s more convenient than ordering soldiers to open fire on the population with military-issue rifles, which would cause the international community to declare that those in power ordered the armed forces to carry out a massacre,” he said.

Nelson Rincón, a first lieutenant in the Venezuelan air force exiled in the United States, said the colectivos are even being used to generate fears within the armed forces.

Some of the colectivos work for armed forces generals involved in corruption and drug trafficking and are used to intimidate officers who show signs of dissatisfaction with the regime.

“Many armed forces members live under constant fear that their families will be hurt. The colectivos are groups that are under no legal controls at all. They don’t follow any type of procedures or operations manuals,” Rincón said.

“The regime uses those groups to intimidate and promote fear, even among the top ranking officers,” he added.