San Cristobal city located in Tachira State and on the border with Colombia is a place where distinctive geographic, economic and social conditions come together A place that has been affected by drug trafficking, paramilitias, guerrillas and smuggling for years, is now the forefront of a political struggle and scenery of clashes between the government forces and opposition activists.
“Gochos” (name given to the people from this area), have shown an impetus rarely seen in contemporary Venezuelan society, a verve to keep fighting and not settle with the country’s current situation, a fight that, unfortunately, has been accompanied by a lot of violence. Although, it is not a “popular revolt”, there is definitely a wide and organized movement that, according to some of them, is not actually looking to overthrow the government, but to get media attention on what is happening in the country and show Venezuelans that things are far from normal.
The cohesion of Venezuela’s opposition is, most of the times, illusory; once their ideas and positions are on the table, their proposals and speech are evidently different from each other. San Cristobal city, focus of the protests in Venezuela in the beginning, is no stranger to this “all-in-one” mix followed by the Venezuelan opposition. Libertarian students, organized neighborhoods, right-wing political activists, and even unemployed young people from the lower classes come together and fight for a cause that everyone seems to interpret differently making it really difficult to come up with proposals for what it may come after.
The spark that ignited the riots was a group of students protesting for security after a rape attempt against a girl on a campus took place, that was repressed by the police forces which later led to a series of protests that have extended to this day and spread to several cities in the country and sum least 37 murders, to date, in different events that involve protesters, civilians, public forces and pro-government paramilitary groups.
The situation in San Cristobal has gone from bad to worse; the high areas of this Andean city are completely blocked by a solid system of barricades that can reach up to three meters high (almost teen feet). The protesters are organized in several teams to defend their “free zone” of military intervention or militia groups allegedly armed by the government. With stones, Molotov cocktails and homemade explosive devices they spend all night on strategic vigilance areas on the streets while the neighbors keep an eye for the slightest signal to take the roads and face the national guards.
Day by day in an isolated area, everyone (some voluntarily, some forced by the situation) has adapted their lifestyle to what has become something common: closed streets and clashes with the armed forces. People support the movement however they can, some of them are directly involved in the protests, while others bring them food, clothes and other supplies, or help them make Molotov cocktails or build barricades, others just praise them, the rest, more than just a few, who don’t support the government or are in the borderline, simply complaint about what it is to live surrounded by barricades and on a schedule imposed by radical groups.
The repression has grown stronger because of the protesters’ resistance; the police forces thought they could easily control the key areas of agitation; however local opposition and students’ movement have improved the confrontation strategies, making it more difficult for the government to score a victory.
The recent imprisonment of San Cristobal’s mayor, Daniel Ceballos, member of an opposition party and accused of supporting the protests, triggered new clashes, opposition supporters see this as a systematic attack to their members elected by popular vote for public offices, like the mayors of the most important cities in the country such as Valencia, Maracay, Maracaibo or Caracas, among others.
In addition, the violent deaths have increased the resentment and the division. One of the victims, Jimmy Vargas, who in the middle of a confrontation, fell from a rooftop after being hit by a tear gas grenade, witnesses said. According to another version, he lost his balance because dazed by tear gas. Daniel Tinoco, a young member of the student’s movement who died after being shot by a group of hooded men, allegedly supporters of the government, while he was on one of the barricaded areas.
On the other hand, Rafael Castillo Castillo, a national guard, was killed when he was taking apart a barricade, this death provoked a more repressive response by the government when they realized that some of the most violent groups within the opposition can be deadly.
Between the high politic and economic interests and violent actors commanded in the dark, there is a group of young people, some of them practically kids, who reclaim social progress and who are fighting, with little guidance or orientation, for a change which goals they don’t completely understand. Many of them have the conviction, the motivation and even the strategies for a hand to hand combat, at the time they feel hopeless and with a government that sees them as the enemy, nevertheless, they continue fighting, in complete disadvantage, only for their right to raise their voice. More dialogue and less radicalism may be the equation the country need to solve in order to build a more thriving and solid future that is not only made of strong barricades.