San Cristóbal residents fear for safety as Venezuelan troops move in

The town, one of the first to protest President Nicolás Maduro’s government, has seen increased violence in recent days

A student watches for security forces near a protest barricade at dawn in San Cristóbal, Venezuela, March 9, 2014.
John Moore/Getty Images

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela — Venezuela’s national guard launched a late-night assault Sunday and into Monday in the western city of San Cristóbal, considered the birthplace of recent protests against the country’s government.

Armored cars smashed barricades as guardsmen launched volleys of tear gas against protesters in a northern section of the city, a middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood.

The area is known as a hotbed of political opposition to President Nicolás Maduro, and its residents have sparred with government forces for more than a month, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces.

Demonstrations began here last month after students marched in protest over what they described as the police’s failure to respond to a sexual assault on campus, but the protests later spiraled into nationwide calls for broader social and economic reforms.  

“No one realizes what is happening here,” said Ricardo Alvarez, a San Cristóbal resident who has been protesting against the government since mid-February.

Barricades were erected across the area in an effort to restrict access of government forces and armed gangs. But in the blocked-off hillside neighborhoods, sounds of tear gas canisters being fired could be heard throughout the night.

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“They smashed our barricades, but we’re already building them again,” said Alvarez.

During the clash, residents say authorities detained at least one protester, though Al Jazeera could not independently verify that claim.

By Monday morning, residents could be seen rebuilding several of the barricades, despite intermittent tear gas attacks that continued throughout the morning.

A spokesman for the national guard in Táchira, the state where San Cristóbal is located, could not be immediately reached for comment.  

Authorities say at least 21 people have since been killed in the fighting.

The increasing tensions have prompted concerns in the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Venezuela’s situation alarming in remarks published Sunday, saying its government is using “armed vigilantes” against peaceful protesters and accusing it of “concocting false and outlandish conspiracy theories” about the United States.

Biden’s remarks, issued in writing to Chilean newspaper El Mercurio in response to questions, drew an angry rebuke from Maduro.

“We reject their aggression,” Maduro told supporters at a rally the socialist-led government held at the presidential palace. “They were defeated in the OAS, and now they want revenge,” he said, referring to the Organization of American State’s declaration of support for Venezuela’s government.

The U.S. had strongly objected to the declaration.   

“The situation in Venezuela reminds me of previous eras, when strongmen governed through violence and oppression and human rights, hyperinflation, scarcity and grinding poverty wrought havoc on the people of the hemisphere,” Biden told El Mercurio.

With wire services

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