Deaths sur­pass 100 in Venezuela

Sides swap blame ahead of vote for rewrit­ing con­sti­tu­tion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - FABIOLA SANCHEZ AND CHRIS­TINE ARMARIO In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was contributed by Jorge Rueda of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

CARA­CAS, Venezuela — The most re­cent vi­o­lence in Venezuela, af­ter months of un­rest and just days be­fore a con­tentious vote to start rewrit­ing its con­sti­tu­tion, drove the death toll to above 100 on Thurs­day.

Most of the dead in anti-gov­ern­ment protests that be­gan in April are young men killed by gun­fire. The toll also in­cludes loot­ers; po­lice al­legedly at­tacked by pro­test­ers; and civil­ians killed in ac­ci­dents re­lated to road­blocks set up dur­ing demon­stra­tions.

The count by the county’s chief pros­e­cu­tor has been highly politi­cized, with the op­po­si­tion and other gov­ern­ment agen­cies re­port­ing vary­ing tolls and causes of death that fo­cus blame on the other side.

When Neo­mar Lan­der, 17, was rushed bloody and life­less to a hos­pi­tal in early June, of­fi­cials came out within hours to say he had been killed by a home­made bomb he was car­ry­ing. Op­po­si­tion lead­ers main­tained that he was hit by a can­is­ter of tear gas fired by na­tional guard troops stand­ing above the bridge where he was found dead.

“They try to ques­tion the hu­man­ity of the other side as a po­lit­i­cal tac­tic, and I think that ends up dis­cour­ag­ing and dis­may­ing peo­ple,” said David Smilde, a Tu­lane Univer­sity ex­pert on Venezuela.

The protests be­gan af­ter a Supreme Court rul­ing that stripped the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled Na­tional Assem­bly of its re­main­ing pow­ers. Though quickly re­versed, the de­ci­sion ig­nited a protest move­ment against so­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro fu­eled by anger over triple-digit in­fla­tion, hours­long lines to buy ba­sic food items and deadly med­i­cal short­ages.

The mount­ing deaths of demon­stra­tors have be­come a sep­a­rate source of anger for the young peo­ple who march dur­ing the day and as­sem­ble nightly to fight the po­lice and na­tional guards­men at im­pro­vised bar­ri­cades across the coun­try.

“The ones who have fallen fight­ing re­pres­sion mo­ti­vate us to keep fight­ing,” said San­dra Fer­nan­dez, a 21-year-old univer­sity stu­dent.

The coun­try’s chief pros­e­cu­tor re­ported Thurs­day on Twit­ter that a 16-year-old was killed at a protest in the cap­i­tal overnight and a 23-year-old man was slain at a demon­stra­tion in Merida state. A 49-yearold man in Carababo, west of Cara­cas, was re­ported killed dur­ing a protest later Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

The three killings pushed the death toll of the po­lit­i­cal cri­sis to 101. The oil-rich South Amer­i­can coun­try, which was in the sec­ond day of a two-day gen­eral strike that shut­tered busi­nesses na­tion­wide, has also seen thou­sands of in­juries and ar­rests.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers urged sup­port­ers to con­vene in the cap­i­tal to­day at the end of a 48-hour gen­eral strike while the gov­ern­ment pre­pared to hold a na­tional vote Sun­day to elect mem­bers of a spe­cial assem­bly for rewrit­ing the con­sti­tu­tion.

The op­po­si­tion is boy­cotting that vote, say­ing the elec­tion rules were rigged to guar­an­tee Maduro a ma­jor­ity and ar­gu­ing that a new con­sti­tu­tion could re­place democ­racy with a sin­gle-party au­thor­i­tar­ian sys­tem.

The chief pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice has re­leased lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about the vic­tims of the un­rest, but at least 44 are be­lieved to have been shot while par­tic­i­pat­ing in protests. Many of those deaths are blamed on armed mo­tor­cy­cle gangs of gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers known as “colec­tivos” who are of­ten seen shoot­ing in­dis­crim­i­nately at pro­test­ers while po­lice and troops stand by.

“The level of im­punity is ex­tremely high, and that con­tin­ues on to a sit­u­a­tion like this,” Smilde said.

Com­pared with a spate of protests that left 43 dead on both sides in 2014, Smilde said, “This time around most of it is com­ing from gov­ern­ment forces, ei­ther na­tional guard and po­lice or ‘colec­tivos’ that are aligned with the gov­ern­ment.”

Se­cu­rity forces have been ac­cused of ex­ces­sive force but have used mostly non­lethal arms, a tac­tic that has kept protest deaths rel­a­tively low in com­par­i­son with the over­all level of vi­o­lence in a coun­try with one of the world’s high­est homi­cide rates. An av­er­age of 78 peo­ple a day died vi­o­lently last year in the coun­try of 31.5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the non­govern­men­tal Venezue­lan Vi­o­lence Ob­ser­va­tory.

Ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press re­view of pros­e­cu­tors’ re­ports, the vic­tims of the po­lit­i­cal un­rest have over­whelm­ingly been male, with only six women killed. They are also mostly young, av­er­ag­ing 27 years old. The youngest was 14 and the old­est 54. At least 22 were stu­dents. A hand­ful were po­lice or sol­diers. Sixty-nine of the deaths were from gun­shots.

Just 21 of the killings have re­sulted in an ar­rest or or­ders for ap­pre­hen­sion is­sued, with nearly half those com­ing against se­cu­rity forces.

Lan­der’s mother, Zugeimar Ar­mas, who has kept her son’s room in­tact since his death in early June, said that re­gard­less of whether her son was killed by the na­tional guard or an im­pro­vised bomb, she blames the gov­ern­ment.

“What need does a 17-yearold boy have to be in the streets?” she asked.

AP/ARI­ANA CUBILLOS

Venezuela’s Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro waves the Venezue­lan flag dur­ing a rally Thurs­day in Cara­cas.

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