Nationwide demonstrations called by the Venezuelan opposition to protest President Nicolás Maduro’s policies ended in bloodshed on Wednesday night when three people were killed and more than two dozen injured after a riot broke out in front of the Attorney General’s Office in Caracas.
Both the government and the opposition immediately blamed each other for the deaths. Authorities issued an arrest warrant for a prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo López, a former mayor of the Caracas district of Chacao.
The shooting deaths occurred when anti-riot police tried to break up a group of students who had gathered in front of the public prosecutor’s headquarters in the center of the capital. They were demanding the release of five university undergraduates who were arrested in the Andean states of Mérida and Táchira following protests earlier this week. Several police vehicles were set on fire and the public prosecutor’s office was severely damaged during the clashes.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz identified one of the victims as Juan Montoya, a coordinator for a para-police patrol unit in the 23 de enero neighborhood, a perilous district in the center of Caracas. Members of these neighborhood patrols are armed by the government.
Maduro, you know what occurred today; it was a plan concocted by you”
He was a former municipal police officer in Caracas who in 2008 was accused of planting an explosive device at the offices of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecamaras), the nation’s largest business group. Montoya was reportedly standing behind the police, who had set up a blockade to keep the students from approaching the prosecutor’s office.
Another victim was identified as Bassil Da Costa, a student.
“Maduro, you know what occurred today; it was a plan concocted by you,” López wrote on his Twitter account last night. “You are responsible for the murdered and injured.”
In his own account of the disturbances, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua accused López of being the “mastermind” behind the disturbances. “The state has no more excuses not to punish this murderer,” he wrote.
At least 70 people were arrested across the country, government officials said.
“We are going to respect their civil rights,” said Interior, Justice and Peace Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres. “However, when they go to court they will have to explain their actions and the full weight of the law will come down on them.”
A large number of demonstrators took to the streets in Caracas, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto and other cities across Venezuela in support of marches by López, María Corina Machado and other opposition leaders whose parties and political groups together form the Democratic Union Committee (MUD) coalition.
Both López and Machado asked Venezuelans to take to the streets to demand new elections because they believe that Maduro and supporters stole the race last April from opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who lost the vote by just 1.6 percent. Capriles is challenging the results in international forums. Elections were called following the March 5 death of President Hugo Chávez from cancer.
National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello blamed both leaders for the riots because they had organized the demonstrations. “They are small fries for the people of Venezuela; they are never going to govern this country. What do they think?” he said. In the Venezuelan capital, demonstrators marched from Plaza Venezuela, a picturesque roundabout with a large fountain in the west of Caracas, to downtown’s La Candelaria neighborhood, where the Attorney General’s Office is located.
We are going to respect their civil rights, bt the law will come down hard on them”
The students planned to deliver a statement to Ortega Díaz demanding the release of the five students.
The march ended shortly after 2pm (7.30pm CET), but about one hour later — as EL PAÍS witnessed — pandemonium broke out. A group of young men without shirts began throwing rocks and bottles at police, who fired teargas in response. The protestors, some armed with fireworks and slingshots, covered their faces with vinegar-soaked shirts to avoid breathing the fumes.
When police counterattacked, demonstrators ran toward the nearby Bolívar Avenue and toward the entrances of the Caracas Metro while a large group of students held their ground in of the prosecutor’s office. Some reported on their Twitter accounts that they heard gun fire coming from the scene.
“I swear that there is going to be justice for the bloodshed that occurred today in Venezuela,” Maduro said later at a public event. “I swear it before the people and before Chávez’s memory.”
While the chaos continued, Venezuelan television stations allowed their viewers to remain unaware of the events in a clear self-censorship move. The only station covering the developments live was NTN24, which broadcasts from Bogota.
Shortly after 4pm when the demonstrations were well underway, the president of the communications regulator Conatel, William Castillo, asked television stations to “respect the people of Venezuela.”
“Promoting violence and ignoring authority are crimes,” Castillo warned on his Twitter account.