Tensions rise in Ureña as Venezuelans clash with National Guard
At least four people have been killed and 50 wounded in Venezuela as violent and deadly confrontations continued to erupt Saturday over efforts to push humanitarian aid into the struggling country.
With interim president Juan Guaidó declaring Feb. 23 as the unofficial deadline to move shipments of food and medicine into Venezuela, troops deployed to the Colombian and Brazilian borders by embattled ruler Nicolás Maduro clashed with crowds attempting to force their way into the country ahead of trucks carrying supplies. Guardsmen and paramilitary fighters fired rubber bullets and tear gas at dissidents, some of whom threw molotov cocktails and, at one point, set fire to a city bus.
According to various reports and NGOs, as many as 50 people were injured and four killed during clashes Friday and Saturday. Meanwhile, some two dozen soldiers reportedly defected, including three who, according to AFP, injured several people while plowing an armored vehicle through barricades blocking off a closed border entry and into Colombia Saturday morning.
At least one shipment of aid made it into Venezuela from Brazil. But efforts to push supplies into the hands of hungry and sick Venezuelans were mostly pushed back throughout the afternoon. In one instance, a truck carrying food and medicine was set on fire, leading people to frantically toss boxes and bags of supplies off a flatbed through plumes of black smoke.
“Anyone who is not on the side of the people and prevents the entry of humanitarian aid is a deserter who betrays our people,” Guaidó tweeted Saturday morning.
The tension — broadcast live on cell phones and news cameras — projected the chaos and ongoing power struggle in Venezuela to the rest of the world.
With Guaidó and Maduro struggling for control, and Maduro flatly denying that his country is deep in the throes of hyperinflation, packages of food and medicine have become a proxy for control of the country. The aid has also symbolized control over the Venezuelan border.
Dozens of countries now recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president following the National Assembly leader’s January declaration that he is the country’s legitimately elected president. The U.S. immediately backed Guaidó and has applied intense pressure to Maduro, demanding that he flee the country and warning his top supporters that the Trump administration may seize offshore assets and deport family members living in the U.S.
But Maduro has accused the U.S. of engineering a coup. And throngs of his supporters poured into the streets in Caracas Saturday to hear him speak at an event where, amid conflicts at the border, the embattled leader danced in public and then suggested that his life was in danger.
“Men and women of the militia, do not doubt it for a second,” Maduro commanded a cheering crowd. “Socialist party of Venezuela, take to the streets if anything ever happens to Nicolás Maduro.”
Saturday’s clashes, which occurred at bridges over the Táchira River and near Santa Elena on the southern border, have been anticipated for weeks. President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton appeared Monday in Miami to increase the pressure on Maduro to step down. Trump suggested during a speech at Florida International University that he would be willing to use force to push the supplies across the border if necessary.
But so far, only protestors and dissidents appear to have engaged with Maduro’s forces, which on Friday killed two people attempting to get food and medicine into the country at the Brazilian border. It’s unclear if the four deaths reported by Saturday by EFE, attributed to an opposition spokesman, included the two killed in Friday’s attacks.
But confrontations erupted again Saturday as Venezuela’s National Guard fired tear gas on residents who’d camped out overnight ear the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge in Ureña in anticipation of the push to move supplies into the country. A few hours later, after Guaidó visited a caravan of trucks heading toward the Venezuelan border, crowds dressed in the bright red, yellow, white and blue colors of the Venezuelan flag again tried to push through a line of police in riot gear. An air horn blared as guardsmen fired rubber bullets at people who threw themselves into riot shields in an attempt to break through ahead of yellow trucks carrying supplies.
Someone lit a supply truck on fire. Boxes and bags of food burned in the street.
At one crossing, CNN recorded while men and women begged a line of female police officers blocking a border crossing to allow food and medicine to pass into Venezuela. Some of the officers, who were later recorded falling back fom their position, could be seen crying.
Earlier in the day, live news broadcasts reported that members of armed paramilitary groups, known in Venezuela as Colectivos, had fired on protesters, wounding one of them in one leg. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been directly involved in the U.S. diplomatic engagement in Venezuela, tweeted a video that purportedly showed protestors in Santa Elena carrying a boy who had been shot in the head.
On social media, Rubio said that “pro-regime gangs [are] replacing National Guard at several border crossings.” He also said the attacks in Ureña took place at the direction of Cuban intelligence agents — thousands of whom have been stationed in Venezuela — posing as members of the Venezuelan National Guard, and said Venezuelan forces had fired on people across the border, in Colombia.
“The United States WILL help Colombia confront any aggression against them,” Rubio tweeted.
Elsewhere on the border, Rubio said Maduro forces had fired on civilians cross the Simón Bolívar Bridge linking Venezuela to the Colombian border town of Cúcuta. Cody Weddle, a WPLG reporter stationed there, reported seeing “men in civilian clothes and bullet proof vests in pick-up trucks” heading into the area during the morning, although there were no reports of lethal gunfire coming from civilians.
El Nuevo reporters Jimena Tavel and Nora Gámez Torrez and McClatchy DC reporters Alex Daugherty and Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.