It’s 10:30 a.m. and the Cruz Verde volunteers are gathering just near one of the march’s rallying points. The mood is friendly and relaxed. The average volunteer is just 22; most are med students. Friends show up to lend their support with motorcycles or food. Some doctors come by too.
Ybhar Rodríguez, a traumatologist, became a volunteer on a whim, he saw the Cruz Verde getting ready before another protest a couple of weeks ago. He just got out of his car and joined them, saying he was a doctor and that he wanted to help.
There are lots of hugs and smiles. Jokes too. Many just sit checking their phones while others are talking or eating from a tray of cupcakes someone brought. There are maybe 40 or 50 people there, including a few foreign correspondents covering their story.
They treat protesters, bystanders and the security forces alike.
Federica Dávila, a rosy-cheeked, medium height med student, and one of the group’s two founders, explains they’re no longer accepting volunteers: they struggle to manage the more than 200 they already have.
A bright red pickup truck approaches, people cheer. It’s actually the makeshift ambulance and belongs to one volunteer’s father. Just days ago, it was brutally attacked by the GNB: a window shattered, tear gas fired inside the vehicle and its passengers mugged. But it’s back out here again today.
Cheers ripple through the crowd as the Cruz Verdes make their way to the front lines. Soon they’ve turned into a roar, as if a rock star had made their entrance. Amid screams of “heroes,” a path opens through the crowd. The volunteers walk forward, sporting light green and blue scrubs and wearing those white helmets with that distinctive green cross.
By now, more than a month into the protests, everyone has seen how violent and cruel the repression against the peaceful protesters have been. Although different groups of first aid workers are on hand at demonstrations, most tend to keep a safe distance from the most dangerous spot of the protests.
Not these guys.
The Cruz Verdes live for el piquete — the roadblock (human or metal) set up to drive back protesters as they head towards the city’s center, which chavismo has declared off limits to the opposition.
— Unidad Venezuela (@unidadvenezuela) May 8, 2017
The risk of being shot or hit by a tear gas cannister is ever-present in these protests, but nowhere more so than in front of el piquete. Both Federica and her co-founder, Daniella Liendo, are only too aware of this. Both are medical students who got their start providing first aid during the 2014 protests. Together, they mobilized their classmates to launch “Primeros Auxilios UCV 2017”, taking the green cross as their symbol.
Recruiting by word of mouth, the Cruz Verde grew quickly. A social media phenomenon followed, with the sight of young people risking their skin to help the wounded in protest becoming an emblem of civil resistance against the dictatorship.
En este vídeo se evidencia como la PNB agrede y roba a voluntarios de Cruz Verde. Plaza Bélgica, Altamira, 03/05/17 16.50PM (Cortesia) pic.twitter.com/KLhFomIfAo
— Melanio Escobar (@MelanioBar) May 4, 2017
All the supplies are donated, including masks, helmets, radios and food. Lots of chucherías are packed in tiny backpacks: it’s impossible to tell how long the day may last. They joke about who gets which chuchería. A volunteer, a woman in her late 20’s in dark blue scrubs, shows up with a load of little bags filled with pancakes: the volunteers snatch them up immediately.
Before setting off on each march, Dani, Federica or other volunteers go on little reconnaissance missions: they hop on a motorbike and scope out different spots in the protests, so they can figure out where best to place their people. When they started back in 2014, the job was done in pairs without much organization. This year, they’re stepping up their game: studying first aid field protocols so they can be better organized, always with El Piquete in mind.
Just days ago it (Cruz Verde’s transportation) was brutally attacked by the GNB: a window shattered, tear gas fired inside.
For planning purposes, they divide the conflict space into three: the green zone or cold zone, 300 meters or more away from el piquete, where protesters are taken out to be seen by specialists or evacuated; the orange zone, standing somewhere in between the crowd and the GNB, where protesters are treated or immediately rushed out of the crowd; and the red zone, practically next to el piquete, where clashes between government forces and protesters take place, and where many of the wounded are either treated or sent to other zones.
Many of the volunteers are eager to go into the red zone, Daniella says. A surgeon, a tall woman in her mid-40s, putting on gloves and goggles, confirms it: she respects the reason why she was sent to the green zone, but would love to be where the action is.
And everyone in the red zone wants to stay there, even if they are scared. Adrenaline is a big factor. To be sent to the red zone you need a mix of a steady disposition, clear thinking under pressure and physical strength. Ybhar, the traumatologist, confesses he has been scared in the orange zone, where he has been assigned.
He still aspires to be sent into the red zone at some point.
They treat protesters, bystanders and the security forces alike. All over social media, in image after image, volunteers are shown doing what they can to treat victims, often enveloped in clouds of tear gas. Dani has some stories to tell, for instance —fainting mototaxistas they’ve had to treat after the fools have gotten too near the red or orange zones trying to keep their business going, in the face of the public transport shutdowns ordered by the government.
— Reporte Ya (@ReporteYa) May 8, 2017
Both Daniella and Federica point out that the number of people showing up to protest is significantly higher than 2014, not only that, people are more determined to stand up against government forces than before.
It used to be that people would leave at the sound of the first shot of tear gas, but now they want to stay. And it’s not just kids raising hell any more: older people are turning up in the orange zone and even the red zone. They choke on the tear gas, but they refuse to leave the scene. Daniella tells me all this with a big smile, even though she knows people’s fearlessness makes their work harder.
It doesn’t seem to bother her, or the other volunteers. They love the work they’re doing, risks and all. Federica’s phone was stolen in one protest: she tells the story with a beaming grin, for her it’s a minor inconvenience in the face of the unending cruelty by the hands of the security forces. Like everyone they have treated, the Cruz Verdes are also determined to stay and continue helping others.