Anti-Chávez Student Group Attacks Police, Creates Chaos in Mérida, Venezuela

Students opposed to the Chavez government fired gunshots and threw Molotov cocktails at police officers, blockaded streets using seized university buses, and ransacked sections of the Andean town of Mérida on Thursday and Friday, to protest crime and insecurity in the city.
Advocating the fall of the government, the students waged violence that left one student dead, two police officers shot, dozens more wounded, and sections of the city sacked and destroyed. (Tamara Pearson)

Mérida, July 12, 2008 (– A notoriously violent Venezuelan student organization aligned with the Venezuelan opposition known as the March 13th Movement (M13) fired gunshots and threw Molotov cocktails at police officers, blockaded streets using seized university buses, and ransacked sections of the Andean town of Mérida on Thursday and Friday, to protest crime and insecurity in the city.

So far, one student is dead and three injured, two police officers were shot and more than a dozen injured, dozens of city blocks were severely vandalized, and 5 local businesses were sacked as a result of chaotic street battles initiated by the student group, which is registered at the University of the Andes (ULA).

The events are reminiscent of destabilization campaigns led by the M13 during crucial political junctures in the past. Most recently, during the run-up to the December 2007 constitutional reform referendum, the M13 created nodes of destabilizing violence to sway voters against the proposals of the Chávez administration, using similar tactics to those used this Thursday and Friday.

Mérida’s State Secretary, Jairo Rivas, commented Friday, “There is no sincerity in what the students are suggesting, since the routine work of the police is affected in order to attend to these problems of public order” created by the protests, which were advertised by posters earlier in the week.

Rivas, whose administration identifies itself as a “Bolivarian” ally of President Hugo Chávez, pointed out Friday that Venezuela is in the midst of regional and local electoral campaigns, and at the top of the opposition electoral platform is citizen security in the country. “We consider this to be the real, end motivation that the students have,” Rivas told the press.

Thursday morning, 50 masked students blocked off several intersections in front of the ULA Medical School, burning dozens of tires and riddling the streets with glass bottles and rocks, then retreated to university grounds.

The 40 police who arrived in riot gear, in accordance with the law which prohibits police from entering university grounds, remained outside patrolling the streets.

The students yelled “call the battalions,” and 100 students, popping in and out of university facilities, attacked the police from all sides with rocks, bottles, and dozens of Molotov cocktails. The police responded with slingshots and plastic shrapnel-loaded shotguns, according to eyewitnesses.

In the afternoon, a student protestor was pronounced brain dead after being shot in the head in the Medical School campus. What type of object penetrated and exited his skull is still unknown, and it is unclear whether a student or a police officer fired the shot. The student died Saturday in the hospital.

M13 leaders and their ally, ULA Rector Lester Rodríguez, who is currently a candidate for governor of Mérida, claimed the boy was hit by a marble, implying it was a result of repression by the police, who are known to shoot marbles from their slingshots and shotguns.

Several eye witnesses say the police did not fire any bullets at the students, but that the students did shoot at the police. According to local news reports two officers were shot in the legs by bullets.  

The M13 is known to have fired bullets and marbles at the police in the past, most notably during the group’s April 2006 assault which left 26 police injured and one in a coma.

The Governor of Mérida, Florencio Porras, announced Thursday night that two commissions made up of student leaders, police, and government personnel have been formed to “determine what happened, who is responsible, and bring justice.”

Meanwhile, as news spread about the shooting of the student, the M13 launched acts of retaliatory violence across the city, which continued throughout the night. A pharmacy, bank, government health office, and several electronics businesses were sacked, although it is unclear whether the students were responsible for this, or if city residents took advantage of the distracted police force.

This response was consistent with the history and identity of the group. The M13 was founded when students rioted following the March 13, 1987 fatal shooting of a student by a local resident on whose lawn the student was urinating during a tailgating graduation celebration. For many years the M13 defended student interests with a tendency toward leftist politics, but has now allied itself with Venezuela’s right wing opposition since Chávez took office and began challenging the privileges of Venezuela’s university-educated elite.

The M13 initiated its violence again at 9:00 am Friday morning and continued throughout the day. In the late afternoon, 100 masked students seized two university buses that they used to break through police lines, blockade a section of the city center, knock over street lamps, and smash the front windows of local businesses.

Several eyewitnesses report having seen shots fired from inside the bus and at least one police officer hit by a bullet, while dozens of Molotov cocktails, rocks, and glass bottles rained down on the police. The police drove the students back with a hail of tear gas and plastic shotgun pellets.

By that time, approximately 100 civilians, many of them ULA students and supporters of the “Bolivarian Revolution” led by President Chávez, had joined the police in a face-off with the opposition group.
“Watch out! The sword of Bolívar passes through Latin America!” the pro-Chávez forces chanted a popular revolutionary slogan. In response, opposition protesters down the street, whose ranks had now swelled to more than 150, including high school students in their school uniforms and, reportedly, other armed citizens, chanted “this government is going to fall, it will fall, it is going to fall.”

The subsequent waves of assaults consumed about five city blocks for two hours. Both sides were composed by mostly males, with a few females. Sexist insults depicting sexual subordination and other male-dominated conduct were yelled frequently during the battle.

Around 8:00 pm, about 100 National Guard soldiers arrived and successfully pushed the opposition protestors into retreat by using tear gas and the intimidation of superior numbers. The National Guard and the pro-Chávez group located and searched the seized university buses, which had been parked in the student government facilities where the M13 has operated since members of the group won recent student elections.

The pro-Chávez civilians spoke with the local media: “Today we defended the city and the People… the M13 does not respect human life but we will defend it… Fascists do not rest and neither will we… we are Chavista!”

“The people united will never be defeated,” they chanted while pulling a toppled lamp post out of the street so the National Guard vehicles could pass through.