During the last weekend of April, the Bello Monte morgue in Caracas received a record breaking 56 bodies. Eighty five percent of the bodies were murder victims.
Venezuela has five cities ranked among the world’s top 50 most violent cities with its capital — Caracas in second place.
According to a February report by the Mexican non-government organization, Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Caracas is the third most violent city in the world. The nation has a murder index of 134 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to a Security Justice and Peace report.
Behind these statistics, there were people like Freddy Fragachan, a cameraman for a local TV station, who was shot six times by a coworker on the rooftop of the station’s building — apparently during an argument over money. Pedro Lopes, 63, was beaten until he suffered a cerebral edema while working as a security guard at a metalworking company during a break in.
Junior Martínez, 20, died because he ran into a girl, whose boyfriend said to him “don’t mess with my girl” and then shot him. And Rafael Betancour was shot in his neighborhood by someone on a motorcycle while he bought a grilled chicken.
It wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago, Venezuela was a popular tourist destination. But the rampant violence changed the landscape.
It's that lack of safety and security that has Venezuelans worried.
“Violence and rape are our daily bread,” Gala Garrido, an artist and educator from Caracas, told VICE News in March. “The first lynchings made news, now they don’t anymore, and that’s bad. We as a society have become so used to death.”
“Foreigners have stopped coming, but what about the people who are here?” said Alberto Aristeguieta, a professor at the Ándres Bello Catholic University, based in Caracas.
“I don’t even dare visit my town, I know that traveling by night on a Venezuelan highway is a death sentence,” Aristeguieta told VICE News.
Aristeguieta is referring to the death of Mónica Spear, Miss Venezuela 2004, who was gunned down along with her husband at the beginning of the year, on a main coastal highway.
Spear’s murder caused an uproar among the people of Venezuela, and added to wave of angry protests that shook the country for weeks in February and marked the emergence of the “guarimbas.”
Protesting Over Lack of Security
In Venezuela, everyone is talking about the guarimbas — roadblocks set up by students in several cities to protest the lack of security that threatens the nation.
The word guarimba comes from a Carribean indigenous dialect and originally means “shelter,” therefore the students say that the guarimbas are areas that are used to protect themselves from the police attacks during confrontations.
Even though the number of protests have scaled down, the guarimbas are still active and have become a part of daily life in Venezuela.
Many neighbors criticize them for obstructing traffic while others are supportive and bring the students food, water and medicine.
“Here, no one listens to us, the government tries to make us out as “sifrinos” [rich kids], but we are just students. There are people here who are from small towns, people of all social classes — we are all looking for the same thing: to live freely and in peace,” a student nicknamed La China told VICE News.
Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has called the guarimbas on several occasions as vandalistic attempts on behalf of the opposition — in an attempt to bring down the government.
The government has also claimed the gaurimberos who have led protests in Venezuela are receiving financial backing from the conservative opposition party in country.
Along with the guarimbas, the colectivos, armed Chavistas on motorcycles, who are either considered the "defenders of the people’s revolution or a militant moto gang employed by the state” — have also been involved in the protests.
Some opposition leaders, a mixed group comprised of more than 20 political groups, have previously led marches throughout Caracas and other major cities. Leopoldo López, one of the main leaders, ended up incarcerated at the Ramo Verde jail for provoking the crowd to damage personal property.
Protesters Versus Police
If the issue had initially been general insecurity, the protesters have later complained about the way the government and police responded to the demonstrators.
La China revealed her bruised arms and legs from her last encounter with the police in an interview with VICE News.
“The first time they got me was two months ago. We held a peaceful protest, where we all painted our hands white. I was incarcerated for three days, they beat me and wrapped me in rubber foam, then I’ve been arrested two more times.” she said. “They also tore off one of my toenails. They are experts at psychological warfare. They say ‘you like to protest?’ well you are never going to see the guarimbas again.”
When VICE News attempted to talk to the officers who guard the student camps, they said they “had been ordered to not make declarations” and that “they were only doing their jobs.”
Vladimir Padrino, head of the strategic operational commando of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, previously said in a news conference that “there are several incidents of excessive force that have been committed in the past few days, we can say that 97 officers of the Armed Forces and National Police have been investigated for cruel treatment — for torture.”
The current death toll from confrontations between police and students is 41 — with nine of these being public service officials. About 674 people have been injured and there have been more than 2,200 arrests — of which 175 people are still being detained and awaiting the judicial process.
US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Maduro’s actions to limit free speech and restrictions on Internet access in Venezuela.
“In Venezuela, the government has used security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit freedoms of expression and assembly. And this has included blocking access to selected websites and limiting access to internet service in certain parts of the country,” Kerry stated during remarks to the Freedom Online Coalition Conference on April 28.
Venezuelan students repeat Kerry’s denouncement every time they organize a protest through Facebook or Twitter they see their cellphones suddenly lose reception and entire neighborhoods left without Internet.
“They want to silence us, but they won’t succeed. We are no longer afraid of the police, because everything here is so bad that you are as likely to be killed while going to the movies as you would be at a protest where the cops fill you with bullets,” according to a 23-year–old student who has spent the last month sleeping in a tent at Camp Freedom, located in the central barrio of Chacao.
On April 26, in Caracas and other cities, thousands of people came out to protest and held signs that read: “Freedom is Not Negotiable,” “We Don’t Want Communism,” “No More Silence,” and “Bring Back Our Dead and Then We Can Talk.”
The police dispersed the protesters, and once again, the exchange of tear gas, rubber bullets, rocks and marbles caused dozens of injuries on both sides.
It's a scene protester La Bomba is familiar with.
La Bomba, who has a tattoo of a slingshot that says Venezuela on her left wrist — recalled the gas burns, the broken ribs and the seven stiches to the mouth that resulted from the beating she received by a cop during a previous protest.
“I am more than just a girl who throws marbles at cops with my slingshot, I want to become something. In order to do that, we need to live in free country,” La Bomba said.