Maduro calls out National Guard to quell Táchira state violence

Venezuelan prosecutors seek 10-year sentence for opposition leader López

Protestors light fires during an anti-government demonstration in Caracas on February 19.
Protestors light fires during an anti-government demonstration in Caracas on February 19.LEO RAMIREZ (AFP)

Hundreds of supporters of Leopoldo López gathered Thursday outside a military prison where the Venezuelan opposition leader is being held to face charges related to ongoing violent nationwide protests that began last week and have since left at least four people dead and scores injured.

The 42-year-old López was ordered held in preventive custody at the Ramo Verde military detention center in Los Teques, outside Caracas.

Prosecutors have 45 days to provide preliminary evidence to support charges against López of sedition, criminal association, arson and public vandalism, Judge Daleny Tovar ruled at a hearing held at the prison early Thursday morning. The prosecution is asking for a 10-year-sentence.

López and María Corina Machado, another opposition leader, called the February 12 protest to demand the resignation of President Nicolás Maduro, blaming him for the country’s drastic problems ranging from inflation and violent crime to corruption and food shortages.

A Harvard University graduate and leader of the People’s Will (VP) party, López turned himself in on Tuesday during a rally in Caracas. Even though the government has offered his family assurances for López’s safety, his arrest has set off waves of violent unrest throughout the country.

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres acknowledged that violence was spilling over in San Cristóbal, Táchira state, on the Colombian border, and accused groups from the neighboring country of infiltrating student demonstrations. Maduro ordered the temporary suspension of the right to bear arms in Táchira, while the National Guard was sent in to restore order in the capital San Cristóbal.

If I have to declare a special state of emergency in Táchira, I am ready to call in all the military might that is necessary” President Nicolás Maduro

“If I have to declare a special state of emergency in Táchira, I am ready to do so and call in the tanks, troops, aviation and all the military might that is necessary,” Maduro said in a nationwide broadcast.

San Cristóbal was one of the first cities where the uprisings against the Maduro government were spawned. Earlier this month, Governor José Gregorio Vielma Mora, a member of Maduro’s (PSUV) Socialist Party, ordered the arrests of three students for allegedly vandalizing his official residence. The arrests sparked student protests across Venezuela’s western states, which eventually spread to other cities.

In Mexico, where he was taking part in the North American Leaders Summit in Toluca, US President Barack Obama Wednesday night called on the Venezuelan government to release López and other opposition members who have been arrested in recent days. Calling the violence “unacceptable,” he urged Maduro to focus on the “legitimate grievances” of the Venezuelan people and engage in real dialogue with the opposition.

“All parties have an obligation to work together," Obama said adding that the Maduro government should stop “making up false accusations” against the United States. Earlier this week, Maduro ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats after he accused them of meeting with students to foment unrest. The United States, meanwhile, has said that it is considering its diplomatic response.

Violence continued to escalate Thursday as protestors cut off major thoroughfares with burning barricades in Caracas and other major cities, battling with police and National Guard troops who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Gunfire could be heard throughout the night in the Venezuelan capital.

On Wednesday former beauty queen Génesis Carmona, a 21-year-old marketing student, was shot in the head in the city of Valencia, just west of Caracas. She later died at a hospital clinic, bringing the death toll since the unrest began to four. For many, this latest killing was a painful reminder of the January murder of Mónica Spear, a soap opera actress and former Miss Venezuela, who was gunned down along with her former husband by highway assailants.

María Corina Machado, a National Assembly deputy and López’s ally, said that she would announce the next steps that the opposition will take in his defense later on Thursday.

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