Tic tac tic tac tic tac…

Luis Alcalá was leaving his house to go pick up his eight year old kid from school. The man he’d seen scoping out his home several times in the last few days walked up to him, pulled out a 9 mm, shot him twice, and ran off. Two days ago, Luis Alcalá became the first victim of a targeted political assassination in Chávez era Venezuela.

Alcalá had been working with Army lieutenant colonel (ret.) Hidalgo Valero, at an antichavista NGO called Popular Defenders of the New Democracy. Valero announced that Alcalá had been investigating the financing of the Circulos Bolivarianos, chavista neighborhood groups that are widely seen as fronts for a paramilitary organization. Alcalá had received two death threats in the last few weeks. Lots of antichavista activists have. Two days ago, for the first time, they made good on those threats.

It’s hard to know what to do with the sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach as I write these lines. On the “you are here” map of political conflict, we are now where Colombia was in 1948, where El Salvador was in the mid-70s. You can see it starting to happen, you can actually see the polarization turning to threats and intimidation, and the intimidation turning to violence. But you can’t stop it. And you have no idea how far it will go, when it will stop, or when it’ll catch up with you, or your family.

Alcalá’s funeral was held yesterday. In a totally baffling decision, the chavista chief justice of the Supreme Tribunal, Iván Rincón, decided to attend. He was almost lynched by the mourners. They had to carry him off in the middle of a melée as people swung fists his way, hurling insults at him for protecting Chávez. At one point, before it got really bad, one of Alcalá’s relatives fell to her knees in front of him, crying and imploring him to do something to stop the spiral of violence.

Meanwhile, in Mérida (about 500 kilometers southwest of here), Monsignor Baltasar Porras, the head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, had a similar experience when he turned up to an event dominated by chavismo. The church is seen more and more as an apendage of the opposition, and Monsignor Porras barely managed to get away unscathed.

Last week, a chavista mini-mob went after one of the cars that carries around Globovisión’s crews – that’s the antichavista all-news TV station. One of the best known opposition figures, Henrique Salas Römer was harshly attacked as he tried to lay a floral wreath at Bolívar’s statue in downtown Caracas…some guy walked up behind him and hit him in the head twice, hard, with a rock he was holding. I’ve lost the count of how many opposition figures I’ve heard on the news saying they’re being threatened, imploring the police for protection, begging the government to call of its thugs. Doesn’t seem likely.

This is the nasty, ugly side of the situation here. Except for Alcalá’s murder, you could say it’s relatively minor stuff, more bluster than anything else. But what people are worried about is not so much what’s already happened but rather what seems to be on the verge of happening. There’s this hard-to-describe but unmistakable atmosphere of dread here, this sense that what we’ve seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg. The country hasn’t quite blown up so far, but it’s hard to shake the sense that that could happen any minute now. Luis Alcalá’s murder is a very, very bad sign.

Tic tac tic tac tic tac…