Merida Protests turn into Intense Gun Battle

What started as a powerful but peaceful demonstration against the government in Mérida last Monday ended up in general chaos all over the city, and two casualties so far.

Monday was a weird day in Mérida. It started with a big turnout for the Plantón, MUD’s nation-wide sit-in around the country at approximately 5:00 a.m., preventing people from getting to their jobs and trying to convince them to join the protests instead. Surprisingly, the idea succeeded. At 9:00 a.m., Mérida’s usually crowded avenues and streets looked more like empty skate parks.

As the morning went on, more and more people joined the activity and, eventually, just as in 2014, barricades started to be lifted in Merida’s three main avenues. The situation, however, seemed to be developing smoothly: no violence had been reported.

That changed in the afternoon.

At about 4:00 pm, increasingly violent riots erupted around Campo Elías viaduct, a traditionally pro-opposition working class area, and the epicenter of the local 2014 guarimba movement.

“It was 3:30 p.m. when the group of pro-government colectivos, (represented in Mérida by the Tupamaro movement) started confronting the protesters on the other side of the viaduct” Vanessa, one of the protesters on site tells us:

“They started shooting fireworks into the air… they were trying to scare people out, I guess. After protesters realised that the detonations were not firearms they stopped caring about them, and that’s when the tupamaros took their guns out: they had both pistols and what looked like rifles. They were not even covering their faces, they were proudly showing off their guns.”

“It was like a chess game” José, a member of ULAs first aid voluntary squads says. “They moved a little bit, then we moved a little.”

Vanessa says that at this point opposition protesters began to feel uneasy, as some people started running away.

“Me and my friends decided to hide in a nearby parking lot, behind some cars. The Tupas passed right in front of us, weapons in hand, and started shooting towards the mass of protesters,” she says.

“They charged at us with everything they got, pulled out their guns and started shooting… I could hear the bursts of bullets… People started running everywhere. There were people shot, I helped some of them myself,” José tells us.

Both Vanessa and José agree that, at this point, someone opened fire from the protesters’ side. And some other protesters affirm they saw a member of the incoming colectivos fall to the ground in the ensuing chaos.

Police left the place after dissolving most demonstrators, but pro-government colectivos supposedly took their place, looting and vandalizing two supermarkets and residential complexes in the area.

A free-for-all erupted. The tupas fell back a little and eventually headed back the way they had come, but not before taking part in a brief but intense shootout in which a real bullet almost got Vanessa.

The tupas’ decision to retreat from the scene might surprise you, but the police quickly took their place.

As the police arrived, they started shooting pellets at us, and tear gas, and were taken in by area neighbours who were getting ready their molotov bombs, rocks and whatever else they could get their hands on. The police started asking people around to give them the guys they were looking for, but all they got was insults from the neighbours. At that point one of them saw me recording them and that’s when they pulled the middle finger at me and shot a tear-gas cannister which landed right next to us.

At around the same time, a voice-note recorded by another the member of ULA’s First Aid team started making the rounds on Whatsapp. It described the situation as little short of a war: people shooting in the air, some even wielding improvised spears, had moved right into the core of the protest. Chaos ensued, people started running in all directions, in panic, not really knowing what was going on.

A few minutes later, the first reports of protesters wounded by firearms started to appear on social media. Pictures of the Red Cross paramedics flowing into the area flooded the internet:

The Ombudsman, took to his twitter account to stake out his position with regards to these events.

Later on, Merida’s governor, Tupamaro leader Alexis Ramirez said “there were snipers on Merida’s buildings,” and claimed the violence was started by rightwing protestors, pinning the blame responsibility on Mérida’s Primero Justicia Mayor, Carlos García, who then blamed Ramírez back

Unofficial reports from ULA’s first aid volunteer group say there were over 50 people wounded in protests this Monday, most of them with minor injuries.

Two fatalities have been confirmed: Jesús Sulbarán, supposedly a worker at the PSUV-run State Government, who was shot dead in the neck in still unclear circumstances, and Luis Márquez, part of ULAs government-aligned labor union, also shot in the head. Also an ULA student who works at Tromerca (the state-run company in charge of Merida’s Trolebus) was shot in the head and is currently in Merida’s Hospital Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Violence apparently increased after the shootout, once supposed pro-government gunmen breached local residential complexes, damaging and burning cars parked inside, however reports on this are contradictory and details are still unknown.

Simultaneously, fierce riots took place in Ejido, a Merida suburb. Earlier, the plantón had taken place at Centenario (Ejido’s main avenue). A source tells us a group of hooded protesters burned down a FONTUR (national urban transport fund) stall. Later, a Trolebus station was destroyed in the ensuing confrontation between protesters and the State police, in which a police patrol was also burned down.

Police left the place after dissolving most demonstrators, but pro-government colectivos supposedly took their place, looting and vandalizing two supermarkets and residential complexes in the area.

All through the night, we heard Whatsapp reports of police forces shooting and tear-gassing the residential areas involved in the riots.

Universidad de Los Andes activities were suspended, and armored vehicles (known, inaccurately, as tanquetas) left GNB headquarters south of the city to patrol traditionally restive parts of the city in what seemed to be a show of force, though one consisting mostly of sporadically shooting a couple of tear gas canisters in middle class residential areas.

Neighbours of the most badly affected areas are organizing to take care of their wounded in improvised operating rooms like this one:

The situation is the first major incident in Mérida since the TSJ-aggedon, but sadly, violence in in the city isn’t new. Paramilitary groups have been systematically attacking opposition rallies with guns for at least four years, occasionally under the police’s noses. Unlike other places, in Mérida these colectivos are broadly seen as a sort of private militia under the Governor’s direct command.

The violence seen in Monday’s protests has the town on edge.

Can we prove it? No. But it’s an open secret around town. In part because their attacks on countless anti-government demonstrations have multiplied since Governor Ramírez won the regional elections of december 2012.

The violence seen in Monday’s protests has the town on edge. Violence begets violence, and if people get shot, they eventually start shooting back. This is great news for a government desperately trying to delegitimize the peaceful character of most opposition protests.

Strong leadership is urgently needed to guide the years of pent up anger, otherwise terrible scenes like the ones lived this week in Mérida might end up spreading throughout the country.