Motorcyclist and officer die in Caracas shooting as President Maduro calls protesters ‘vandals who hate the people’
A National Guardsman and a civilian have been killed in Caracas after a group of men on motorcycles rode into a neighbourhood to remove a street barricade erected by anti-government protesters.
The clash that erupted on Thursday in the mixed industrial and residential district of Los Ruices heightened tensions on the same day the Venezuelan government expelled foreign diplomats for the second time in a month.
More than 100 men on motorcycles carrying pipes and rocks swarmed Los Ruices, with some trying to force their way into buildings. Residents screamed “murderers, murderers” from rooftops and the motorcyclists taunted them from below, urging them to come down and fight.
In other neighbourhoods, motorcyclists dismantled barricades amid the whistles and shouts of residents, but without violence.
Venezuelans fed up with food shortages and unchecked violence have been staging nearly daily street protests since mid-February, snarling traffic with barricades of rubbish, furniture and burning tyres. According to government figures, at least 21 people have been killed in related violence in the country’s worst unrest in years.
President Nicolás Maduro’s administration shows no signs of crumbling from the demonstrations, but the country appears in a stalemate. Protesters are mostly from the middle and upper classes, although they do include poorer Venezuelans who don’t protest in their home districts for fear of pro-government paramilitaries.
The mayor of the Caracas district of Sucre, Carlos Ocariz, said residents of Los Ruices reported hearing gunshots after motorcyclists began dismantling the barricades. Some apartment residents began banging pots and throwing down bottles in anger, he said. In the melee, a 24-year-old motorcycle taxi driver was shot dead.
“I’m not going to be irresponsible and accuse anyone,” Ocariz said. “I condemn the violence and the shots must be investigated, but I also reject the brutal repression of security forces.”
When National Guardsmen arrived to secure the area, a 25-year-old sergeant was shot through the neck and killed. Ocariz said that, according to district police, who report to him, in both cases the men’s wounds seemed to indicate the shots came from above.
Pro-government motorcyclists who live in slums served as street-level enforcers for the late president Hugo Chávez and continue to menace opponents of the ruling socialists. The opposition claims they are bankrolled by the government.
Maduro said on state television that the slain motorcyclist, Jose Gregorio Amaris, used his vehicle as a taxi, and was clearing debris in order to do his job. He said a second motorcyclist was seriously injured and described those who built the street barricades as “vandals who hate the people”.
Among opposition demands is that the government disarm the motorcycle-riding paramilitaries, called “colectivos”.
A day after Maduro said he was breaking diplomatic relations with Panama over its push for Organisation of American States-sponsored mediation in the crisis, his government expelled Panama’s ambassador and three other diplomats, giving them 48 hours to leave.
Last month, Venezuela expelled three US diplomats, accusing them of conspiring with the opposition, a claim that Washington denied.
The foreign minister, Elias Jaua, said Venezuela had suspended negotiations over a $1bn debt (£600m) owed to Panamanian exporters.
In the latest development affecting what the opposition calls a full-scale government assault on freedom of expression, a newspaper critical of the government said it was the target of a criminal defamation suit filed by the national assembly president, Diosdado Cabello.
Editor Teodoro Petkoff wrote in Tal Cual that the Caracas judge overseeing the case had ordered him and three other executives, as well as columnist Carlos Genatios, not to leave the country without permission.
Cabello accused the newspaper of printing something he claimed never to have said – that “if people don’t like crime, they should leave the country”.
If convicted, the accused could be jailed for two to four years.