Mérida Escalates

There was unprecedented violence at protests in Mérida on Monday, as protesters faced sharply stepped-up repression with a level of determination that's never been seen before.

Roads blocked with logs and burning tires blend with the mountains to make up the new Mérida cityscape. It’s only Wednesday and this week will already be remembered as one of the most violent in the city’s recent history. On Monday a staggering 340 people were wounded as the result of repression and gunfire at opposition street protests. That’s one injured every 4 minutes.

Protests are not new here, but they’re bigger — and so is the violence the state has met them with.

The violence erupted when police started shooting tear gas canisters and rubber pellets into a sizable rally that tried to get to Merida Governor’s Office, to stop it from reaching destination. Protesters then fled to nearby Viaducto Campo Elías, a usual place for confrontation. Shortly after that, the police first, and then Colectivos, attacked the protesters. Another thing that’s almost usual by now.

Three of those wounded Monday had gunshot wounds: moto-taxi driver Anderson Dugarte, 32 was shot in the head, Freilan Álvarez a 21 years old ULA student lost his left eye to a gunshot. His current condition is delicate. A 27 year old police officer, Hugo Guillén, was also shot in the chest and is currently out of danger.

I asked J, my friend who works for ULA’s first aid volunteer squad, what it was like.

This was different… not only the violence, but also the determination of the wounded we took care of. We would patch them up a little bit and then they would head back out to the protest. I helped a guy who had been shot with pellets three times… He told me to wait for him, since he was probably getting shot again in a few minutes.

The volunteers’ job is hard and dangerous, they are in the middle of the protest and they are committed to help everyone, no matter what side they come from. This time they got overwhelmed very quickly.

“We couldn’t even count all the people we helped,” another squad member told me. “They were just too many, we couldn’t even fill our own records, it all happened really fast and there was tear gas all around us.”

J also confirms one of my fears: “There were shots that came from the protesters’ side… More than the last time.”

Later that afternoon, according to some witnesses, a group of armed Colectivos breached one of Merida’s fire stations, stealing one of their ambulances.

Two weeks ago, we warned that the violence with which police forces and in particular pro-government paramilitary groups were engaging opposition protesters was preparing the ground for an equally violent response from the other side. The phenomenon was new last time, but now seems to be turning increasingly common. It’s no-less bone-chilling for being expected.

Yesterday’s protest were not limited to a single spot, they developed all around the city. Even high school students, who are increasingly taking center stage at these protests, blocked several major city roads.

Later that afternoon, according to some witnesses, a group of armed Colectivos breached one of Merida’s fire stations, stealing one of their ambulances and then using it to supposedly kidnap protesters who were later taken to the State Governor’s Office.

The episode however, was described as a “misunderstanding” in an official communiqué distributed through the Firefighters’ official twitter account. In fact, we understand the kidnapped vehicle was actually taken by “intelligence” personnel who decided to take some of the wounded to an “attention center” located inside the Governor’s office.

The funny part is that the same official account had denounced the hijacking just a few hours earlier.

We all know that kind of impasse don’t we?

At the same time, people from all around Merida’s downtown, where protest are quite unusual, complained about Colectivos roaming for the next couple hours, beating and mugging pedestrians and robbing the few stores that remained open. After they left, people in the area were supposedly attacked by the police, which tear gassed houses and apartment buildings, and even beat up the few people who decided to remain on the street.

Governor Ramírez quickly accused the opposition of “creating a climate of ungovernability in order to push for a coup d’etat”. He referred to protesters as terrorists and warned them that “the Constitution doesn’t protect terrorism.”

Not even the night brought calm this time. Just like two weeks ago, GNB armored vehicles patrolled residential areas, shooting tear gas canisters at the windows of those who dared to yell at them. In the nearby city of El Vigía, once a chavista outpost, protests also took place during the day and part of the night, and were followed by isolated episodes of looting, showing another increasingly common trend that seems to be spreading around the country.

It’s the new normal, and it’s just it’s not normal at all. As J told me “People are no longer afraid: it’s the government that should be, because when so many people, when they’re so decided to take a stand, no repression is enough to stop them.”