Venezuelan troops reportedly turning areas into 'free-fire' zones

Paratroopers will head to a border area to crack down on clashes between police and anti-government protesters

Venezuelan students clashing with riot police after an anti-government protest in Caracas, Feb. 20, 2014.
Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

As protesters clashed once again with Venezuelan security forces in the “war zone” of western Tachira province, tensions were high Friday in Valencia, the Venezuelan city where a funeral was scheduled for a local beauty queen killed by a bullet this week while participating in a protest.

The death of Genesis Carmona, a 22-year-old university student who was Miss Tourism 2013 for Venezuela’s Carabobo state, reverberated in this country, which prizes beauty contests.

Her death came amid escalating violence across Venezuela since a Feb. 12 opposition rally that was followed by clashes between young activists and the National Guard in which three people died. At least three more deaths and dozens of injuries have occurred in protest violence since then.

The funeral will come after troops began heading to Tachira state, a border area torn by fierce clashes between police and anti-government protesters, while security forces are being accused of turning many parts of the country into free-fire zones in their bid to silence a rejuvenated movement challenging socialist rule.

President Nicolas Maduro’s opponents charged Thursday that he had unleashed the military, police and civilian militias against those who blame the administration for hardships in a country that is rich in oil but struggling with overheated inflation and one of the world’s worst homicide rates.

Leopoldo Lopez, the jailed opposition leader who organized the mass rally, was ordered early Thursday to remain in detention to face charges that include arson and criminal incitement.

"I'm fine, I ask you not to give up, I won't," Lopez said to his followers in a handwritten note passed to his wife at Caracas' Ramo Verde prison, which was then posted on the Internet.

The unrest has been particularly high in Tachira, on Venezuela’s western border with Colombia, where anti-government protesters have clashed with police and national guard units, disrupting life in its capital, San Cristobal, which residents are describing as a “war zone.”

Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres announced Thursday that a battalion of troops was being sent to Tachira to help bring calm.

“These units will enable the city to function so food can get in, so people can go about their normal lives. It’s simply meant to restore order,” he said.

San Cristobal Vice Mayor Sergio Vergara, a member of the opposition, disputed that. He said that the government caused the troubles by cracking down on what had been peaceful protests and that as part of its campaign had cut off vital services in the city, including public transportation and the Internet.

Sending 3,000 troops to a city of 600,000 people is “effectively part of an effort at repression being played out by the government across the country,” Vergara said.

Internet connectivity was gradually restored to San Cristobal on Friday morning after an outage of more than 30 hours that also affected smartphones.

Activists say the government has obstructed Internet access around the country over the past few weeks.

U.S.-based company Renesys, a top analyzer of global Internet traffic, confirmed that Venezuela was experiencing website blocking and service degradation across the country, but said it could not determine if CANTV, which handles about 90 percent of the country’s traffic, was intentionally decreasing bandwidth.

"I certainly don't know from our data if it is deliberate, although given the context, it seems plausible," Renesys researcher Doug Madory told The Associated Press.

National guard troops and members of pro-government militias have also swarmed the streets of Caracas and other cities firing weapons, at times indiscriminately, in repeated spasms of nighttime violence in recent days.

Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate of an opposition coalition, said the government is engaging in “brutal repression,” in some cases breaking into apartment buildings to arrest people authorities accuse of being part of a coup plot against Maduro.

“What does the government want, a civil war?” Capriles asked at a news conference.

While several large demonstrations by thousands of people have been peaceful, smaller groups of protesters have lobbed firebombs and rocks and blocked streets with flaming barricades of trash. Troops and police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and blasts from water cannons — as well as raids by gun-firing men from motorcycles.

The clashes with authorities as well as the pursuit of anti-government activists by troops and militias take place in darkness. During the day, Caracas has largely operated as normal, with businesses and schools open and people going about their business while stocking up on groceries in case of further unrest.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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