CARACAS – Venezuelan opposition leaders condemned the government Thursday for its heavy-handed attempt to subdue a protest movement with nighttime sweeps that have turned many parts of the country into dangerous free-fire zones.
Police, National Guard troops and members of private militias have swarmed through streets in the capital and elsewhere firing volleys, at times indiscriminately, in repeated spasms of nighttime violence in recent days.
Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate of an opposition coalition, said the government has engaged in “brutal repression” as it goes after students and other protesters, in some cases breaking into apartment buildings to arrest those it accuses of taking part in a an attempted coup.
“What does the government want, a civil war?” Capriles asked at a news conference.
David Smolansky, an opposition mayor of a district in Caracas, said the country is passing through the harshest wave of political persecution in decades with the response to the protests and the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. “If this isn’t a totalitarian system then I don’t know what can explain what is happening in this country,” Smolansky said.
A week of protests, beginning with a mass opposition rally on Feb. 12, has resulted in at least six deaths and more than 100 injuries.
While several large demonstrations by thousands of people have been peaceful, smaller groups of protesters have lobbed gas bombs 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 on motorcycle.
Jose Leon, a 20-year-old business student who took part in a demonstration in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas on Wednesday night, said authorities who roughly detained students and fired tear gas over-reacted to a peaceful protest.
“We’ve spent years trying for peaceful dialogue. How can you talk with a government that hunts down its own citizens like criminals?” Leon said as he took part in a small protest on Thursday in the same spot.
The clashes with authorities as well as the pursuit of anti-government activists by troops and militias take place in darkness. During the day, the capital 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.
President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters say the escalating protests against his socialist government in the oil-rich but economically struggling country are part of an attempted coup sponsored by rightwing and “fascist” opponents in Venezuela and abroad, particularly the United States.
Maduro has vowed to crack down on the protests, particularly in Tachira, on the western border with Colombia, where the unrest has been particularly strong. The Interior Ministry said Thursday it would send a battalion of paratroopers there to the area restore order.
Interior Minister Migues Rodriguez Torres said that sending troops to the border city of San Cristobal, an opposition stronghold where Maduro has said he would consider imposing martial law, is necessary because unrest has prevented people from going about their daily business. “It’s not about militarization, it’s simply meant to restore order,” he said.
San Cristobal Vice Mayor Sergio Vergara, a member of the opposition, said parts of the city have been without public transportation and the Internet has apparently been shut down in recent days. The presence of some 3,000 troops in a city of 600,000, he said, is “effectively part of an effort at repression being played out by the government across the country.”
Earlier Thursday, a judge ruled there was enough evidence to detain Lopez, the opposition leader who surrendered to authorities a day earlier, on charges that include arson and criminal incitement stemming from a massive Feb. 12 rally.
Prosecutors decided not to pursue more serious charges, including homicide and terrorism at a court appearance on a military base outside Caracas. The 42-year-old politician could face at least 10 years in prison.
In a message from his Twitter account, the opposition leader’s wife, Lilian Tintori, urged his followers on as she announced the court decision. “Change is within us all,” she wrote on his behalf. “Don’t give up. I will not.”
Throughout Wednesday night, anti-government protesters in Caracas and other cities set trash fires in streets and threw rocks at National Guard troops, who fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.
Gunfire was heard in downtown Caracas while Maduro was on television and videos and photos on social media showed several people with serious injuries and unconscious, but the circumstances and conditions could not be verified.
The crackle of gunfire mixed with the roar of swarms of motorcycles, a combination of police and National Guard troops as well as the pro-government paramilitaries known as “colectivos.”
In videos circulating on social media, police and guard troops can be seen pursuing protesters in the streets and firing weapons, the shots competing in the night with the sound of citizens banging pots outside their windows in protest and shouting insults.
The opposition is planning marches across the country Saturday to protest the jailing of Lopez as well as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate of more than 50 percent that has made life difficult for many in the country of nearly 30 million people.