Roberto’s family doesn’t know what he gets up to after work.
“My dad hates protest and things like that, he’d be so angry if he found out,” he tells me.
“When I get home I leave my helmet in the car and say nothing. One day I got shot with rubber pellets while I was around the CCCT,” he says, showing me the scar. “I was in pain for weeks and one day I was in the kitchen and my mom gave me a hug, it was super painful but I didn’t say anything. I can’t complain at home.”
Roberto – not his real name – looks way younger than his 30 years. His skin is tan, maybe because over the last two months he’s been on the street non-stop as part of La Resistencia, the self-styled group of freedom-fighters that’s on the front-line of running battles with the National Guard and the police during opposition protests.
“There’s no protest today, right?”, he asks me. “That’s good, I’m going to stay at home and make a vest out of an old carpet. Things are getting more dangerous every day.”
It’s not easy for Roberto to hide his “double life” as a footsoldier of La Resistencia back in his small apartment, where he lives with his mom and dad in El Valle. He goes to elaborate lengths to hide his role in the protest movement, as well as what he calls his “battle wounds.” His neighbors don’t know what he does, either. He lives a kind of double life.
“Everyone knows me there and, if the police goes into the area, there’s only one way you’re coming out. It’s too dangerous. Besides, you don’t know how the neighborhood malandros are going to react that day. Maybe they’ll be in a good mood that day, maybe not,” he explains.
You don’t know how the neighborhood malandros are going to react that day. Maybe they’ll be in a good mood that day, maybe not.
For Roberto, organization is key to staying safe. He goes to every protest with a group of at least five guys, all friends who take care of one another during the “war.”
“We’re always looking out for each other; we never go by ourselves,” he explains. “The group ranges between six and ten friends, and if anything happens to me they know me and they know my family, so it’s like a security system.” If anything goes wrong, they know what to do.
Since the protests started, his routine has changed. Now he’s up early – really early. Sometimes he takes his daughter to school and other times he goes straight to work as a mechanic, by himself, with his client, or helping other friends, “lo que salga.”
When that’s done, he grabs his backpack, gloves, and helmet and goes out onto the streets.
“I don’t like to use a mask, I throw out all my gear after each protest. For example, if a use a pair of gloves, before I go I just throw them in the garbage. Masks are too expensive to do that. I cover my face with a shirt before I get anywhere near the police and all the cameras,” he says.
Now, he is thinking about “better ways” to protect himself because the repression is getting rougher.
“I’ve seen guys fall next to me. You have to be on your toes, you have to protect yourself. The other day I shoved a girl, though I didn’t mean to. She was in my way and I thought either you run or you get out of the way. I’m not letting those guys catch me,” he decided.
Sometimes he takes his daughter to school and other times he goes straight to work as a mechanic, by himself.
For Roberto, this fight is not only for him: he’s on the streets for his preschool-age daughter. He doesn’t talk too much about her. Years ago, he decided to split up from her mother, but he works hard to be a good dad. He tells me it’s because of her that he’s out protesting.
“I’m going, to be honest with you, to be part of ‘the war’. But this struggle is not just for me, it’s on behalf of everyone. I have a daughter and I want a better country for her.”
Come to think of it, Roberto never uses the word ‘protest’. He talks about la lucha – the struggle – and la guerra – the war. He wants a change in Venezuela, and he wants it now. But he’s not afraid to admit the constant running battles are taking their toll.
“We’re getting tired and we don’t know when everything’s going to end,” he tells me. “I don’t know how much more we can take.” I press him to say how long he’ll stay out there, and he’s philosophical: “hasta que el cuerpo aguante.”
He explains that his job is physically demanding as it is, and looking forward to fighting the cops after that sometimes takes the wind out of his sails. “Today I had to disassemble a fuel pump, fix it and put it back together again: un trabajón.”
After all this time, he and his friends have become experts at running from the police. They know the caminos verdes around Bello Monte or Las Mercedes, their usual stomping grounds. But it gets harder every day. “They [the security forces] are getting meaner.”
They (MUD leaders) walk with us, but as soon as they hear the first blast they run… Meanwhile we can get arrested or even killed.
For Roberto, this struggle is not about the opposition, but for the hope of a better country: “We know that we are the ones who put our ‘pellejo’ there. The MUD? They are going to get a Ministry or become Prosecutor General. They walk with us, but as soon as they hear the first blast they run and you realize that there you are by yourself. Not one congressman nearby. Meanwhile we can get arrested or even killed.”
“If something happens to me, nobody’s going to pay my hospital bill, you know? I don’t get paid to be part of the struggle. Nobody gives me a bolívar, nothing. I would love to know who pays the other guys; because yes, maybe some chamos are getting paid, but not me. If I find the guy who pays I would ask for a welding machine, to make a proper guarimba, and later I’d keep the machine. It’s a good deal,” he tells me.
Besides escaping the tear gas and the National Guard, he also has to watch out for pickpockets. “They prey on you when you’re down, they’re watching all the time,” he says.
“You can see that there’s something fishy about them, they’re scoping you out, checking what you have on you. You have to be pilas. Some of these guys, their eyes are all red – fumones, y’know?” He means they’re high on drugs – usually crack cocaine (piedra).
Roberto is serious about the struggle – he doesn’t approve of the guys who go to take selfies and talk to the cameras.
“That’s not what we’re here for. I don’t like the cameras. It’s one or the other: either you’re in the struggle or you’re taking pictures”, he says.