SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela — Coffee is served black in this affluent Andean city where protests have hobbled the economy for the past month.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Humberto Moncado, a waiter with dark half-circles under his eyes. “Ever since the violence started here, milk is hard to come by.”
Shortages of basic supplies like milk and toilet paper affect cities across Venezuela, though recently none have been hit harder than this western college town, where last month students protested over what they describe as a police failure to respond to a sexual assault on campus.
When authorities did respond, they reportedly cracked down against protesters. The move snowballed into more marches and seemed to embolden a nascent opposition long frustrated with Chavismo — shorthand for centralized government planning that the late President Hugo Chávez largely inspired.
The city’s police department was not immediately available for comment.
About an hour’s drive from the border with Colombia, San Cristóbal is considered the birthplace of nationwide protests that have evolved from a march about campus security into a call for greater economic and social reforms.
And as in many other Venezuelan restaurants these days, waiters and waitresses here leave early to get home before nightfall, when much of the violence occurs.
At least 21 people have been killed across the country since fighting broke out in February, according to the government tally. Hundreds more have been wounded or arrested.
But many in this middle-class city say there is a growing concern that the violence could escalate, particularly after security forces on Sunday launched a late-night assault against protesters.
“All the stores are closed,” said Norlin Mota, among the restaurant’s few patrons. “So it’s hard not to be a little afraid.”
Moncado shuffled back to the front of the bar.
“We close around 3 p.m.,” he said and carried away a few empty plates at a hurried pace. “It’s been difficult here.”
In the city’s hillside neighborhoods, where residents skew against President Nicolás Maduro, the air is acrid with traces of tear gas, which is fired off almost daily by national guardsmen.
But by midafternoon, young men — mostly middle- and upper-class residents — drag sheet metal and fencing onto roadways and set up barricades at check points that teenagers and college students man.
“We need them for protection,” said Ani Sánchez, a 24-year-old protester who said armed bands of young men ride through her neighborhood at night on motorbikes.
“Without them, these collectivos [gangs] would drive up to our houses with guns and start firing,” said Ricardo Alvarez, a 23-year-old native of San Cristóbal. “With the barricades, they have nowhere to go, and we can fire back if we need to.”
Opposition leader and Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles says the collectivos are government supporters whom the Maduro government has brought together to attack and harass protesters.
They allegedly deploy ahead of national guardsmen — a two-pronged approach bent on wearing down the opposition, according to protesters.
But Maduro denies any connection to the gangs and points to a scattering of opposition hard-liners and anarchists who hurl stones and set fires, goading security forces into conflict.
“What would the U.S. do if a tiny group would say they’re going to generate a revolution or a revolt to change the constitutional government of the U.S.?” he asked CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.