Chaos Reaches Chávez’s Birthplace

A week of violent riots and wild rumors in Barinas makes one thing clear: there are no bastions left. No place is safe for the government right now.

Barinas doesn’t usually make the international news. It’s a rural state in the southwestern plains, known as the birthplace of Hugo Chávez. This is supposed to be the chavista heartland, but even here protests are spreading fast. The regime answered the only way it knows with repression and violence.

Chavismo’s popularity in Barinas has dramatically fallen lately. After comfortably winning 2006, 2012 and even 2013 (Maduro vs Capriles) Presidential Elections, PSUV lost 5 of the 6 seats the state has in the National Assembly on December 6th, 2015. So, it’s not really very surprising that protests quickly took place as the whole country erupted near two months ago. As early as April 19th, 30 people were detained after a rally, Renzo Álvarez was killed by colectivos in the small town of Barinitas on April 24th and several stores were looted in the following days. Then on May 16th, Joiner Mora, a 17-year-old protester was shot after taking part in one of MUD’s plantones. But this week was different, this week things got really ugly.

On the night of Sunday, May 21st, people started blocking some roads in the city of Barinas (the state capital) and barricades were set as early as 6:30 a.m. the next morning. For the first time since protests began in April, the whole city came to a standstill. It wasn’t the usual opposition-neighborhoods barricades, either: pretty much every major road got blocked.

Worse was to come. At about 1:00 p.m., Yorman Bervecia, a 19 year-old student was shot in the chest while protesting in a residential zone of the city. Witnesses say a GNB officer shot him. His death quickly set off a violent chain of events in which both the regional CNE office and even a house where Hugo Chávez once lived and where the local branch of PSUV sat, were set ablaze.

Violent riots and episodes of looting quickly spread. Jhon Quintero the second casualty that day, was apparently shot during one of these lootings. Four other people died in the following hours Alfredo Carrizales, Adonis Pérez, Miguel Bravo and Freiber Pérez. They were all shot while manifesting in different places around the state, making Monday, May 22nd one of the most violent days in the current protest cycle. In one case,

It’s not really very surprising that protests quickly took place as the whole country erupted near two months ago.

“the PNB shot the chamo in the leg. He fell to the floor; then, the PNB approached him and shot him again, this time in the chest. Then, proceeded to kick him while he was down. We tried to help, but he was already dead,” a witness told us on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals.

“This was like nothing I’d ever seen,” he added. “The city was out of control. It escalated so quickly the local armed forces couldn’t get a grip on the looting or any of the violence going on. People took security in their own hands. I can say the only reason my residence didn’t get trespassed by looters is because my neighbors were armed, too.”

Tuesday started with Antonio Benavides Torres, Commander of the GNB —possibly the single official under most stress in Venezuela right now— announcing that Phase 2 of infamous Plan Zamora would be activated that day in Barinas to “keep the peace”. Less than twelve hours later, two more protesters, Juan Sánchez and Erick Molina were dead. This was confirmed by the Prosecutor General’s office, as she appointed the prosecutors now in charge of the investigations.  

All the while, looting was ongoing. Miranda State governor Henrique Capriles called out PNB officers for taking part in this, as a way to undermine protests.

Capriles also commented on rumors surrounding the substitution of Barinas’ interim governor Zenaida Gallardo. According to the well-known NGO activist Rocío San Miguel, a GNB officer by the name of Giuseppe Cacioppo is set to take office as new interim governor. Later she stated that Cacioppo’s naming hasn’t been accepted: instead, he will take over as the state’s new security chief.

Barinas’ newspaper, La Prensa de Barinas, issued a statement saying their printed version would not run, given the critical circumstances the city was facing. On Wednesday 24th, Edgar Reyes, the head of Barinas’ Chamber of Commerce gave a briefing on the situation after yet more looting took place. He said about 120 businesses had been hit and estimated damages could surpass Bs.30 billion. Benavides Torres assured the GNB would reconstruct what the “fascist right destroyed.” Maybe he would do well to rebuild his institution’s reputation first.

Despite Plan Zamora, Barinas’ merchants took it upon themselves to secure their shops, saying security officers were nowhere to be seen on city streets.

Then, on the night of Wednesday the 24th, a wave of rumors swept through social media. We now know they were false, and likely planted by the regime itself. The rumors spoke of a gruesome massacre on a bridge in the small town of Socopó, a few kilometers from Barinas city, at the hand of unidentified masked paramilitaries. Pictures purporting to be of the “massacre” started getting thousands of retweets. In fact, they showed killings in Mexico several years ago.

“I was extremely scared,” a source in Socopó, who also asked to remain anonymous, told us. “I got home and my cousins told me more than 15 people had been killed in Socopó. They had been shot and their bodies taken away in a pick-up truck.”

I can say the only reason my residence didn’t get trespassed by looters is because my neighbors were armed, too.

She didn’t believe her cousins at first. She tells us Socopó is not a big town, people know each other. She quickly called her parents. They were fine and didn’t know about anyone involved in the “massacre” although they heard a lot of detonations through the night. “I told my cousins to stop believing all the bullshit they read on social media… and then I saw [VP lawmaker] Freddy Superlano’s tweets.”

Superlano, a lawmaker from Barinas, didn’t think it twice before posting a most frightening statement on Venezuela’s favorite social network. According to him, a group of gunmen fired at protesters, killing 17 of them at the site.

“I freaked out. He’s an asambleísta so if he’s talking about it, he must know, right?”

He didn’t, of course.

Alberto Aguilar, the UNT mayor of Socopó, quickly denied the disinfo about a massacre.

Next morning, Luis Florido, another VP lawmaker claimed Superlano’s account “had been hacked.”

Sí, Luis.

Apparently a shootout between GNB officers and unidentified civilians did take place that night in Socopó, and one of them was killed. But the circumstances are extremely murky and the episode doesn’t seem to be related to any protest, but rather appears to be related to street crime.

The episode was quickly used by the State propaganda apparatus to discredit Superlano and MUD as a whole, showing us once again how important it is to think before posting information in a country so shaken like Venezuela.

Some people in Socopó still believe something else happened that night. There’s talk about missing relatives and sightings of paramilitaries. These reports, however, are contradictory and have not been independently confirmed. In a climate marked by deliberate disinformation, caution is in order. In any case, it reveals the general distrust that most people have about official media after years of imposed self-censorship and lies.

On Thursday, May 25th, coincidentally the 440th anniversary of Barinas’ founding, a group of lawmakers, Superlano included, went to the Ministerio Público in Caracas, seat of the Prosecutor General’s office to denounce the violence that unfolded in Barinas and Ciudad Bolívar in recent days. They were quickly surrounded by colectivos waiting for them outside the building. The critical stance recently taken by Prosecutor Luisa Ortega seems to have put many players on edge.

The next day, Friday the 26th, Barinas’ local MUD leaders filed a document with the state Chief of Prosecution’s (Luz Yanibe Martínez) office demanding that those guilty for the killings on May 22th and 23th be prosecuted.

He said about 120 businesses had been hit and estimated damages could surpass Bs.30 billion.

According to MUD, much of the looting and vandalism was due to the inaction of the authorities, as GNB and police officers were nowhere to be found when mayhem held the city hostage. Lawmaker Julio César Reyes stated the city’s merchants called upon the state security forces to protect their businesses and got no response. MUD leaders claim the blame is on Barinas’ governor Zenaida Gallardo, the GNB’s Zona 33 and the local PNB detachment.

Also on Friday, PSUV’s leaders convened a march “for peace” on the streets of the city, as it was being overflown by a helicopter. The march was reportedly escorted by PNB and GNB officers.

A tense calm now seems to have settled over Barinas. One radio station was shut down by CONATEL, and a VP student leader, Lennard García, was taken by SEBIN officers out of his house, leaving Barinas in uncertainty once again.

All the while, GNB forces claim they’ll continue safeguarding peace for the people of Barinas.