Violent Student Protests Shut Down Parts of Merida, Venezuela

Parts of the city of Mérida, Venezuela have been shut down by three days of student and youth-led protests. The protests began in reaction to internal university issues and turned violent once riot police allegedly shot a projectile into the head of a student leader, who died early Friday morning.
Protestors commandeered and burned a commercial truck in Merida Wednesday (El Nacional)

Mérida, May 1st
2009 ( – Parts of the city of Mérida, Venezuela have been shut
down by three days of student and youth-led protests. The protests began in
reaction to internal university issues and turned violent once riot police
allegedly shot a projectile into the head of a student leader, who died early
Friday morning.

Yuman Ortega, the president
of the student association at the University Technical Institute of Ejido just
south of Merida, was participating in a demonstration by student supporters of
the government of Hugo Chávez, calling for the resignation of a corrupt
university rector.

State police officers moved
to break up the protest, in part by firing plastic pellets from shotguns, according
to several witnesses, and Ortega was struck in the forehead by a projectile
which penetrated his skull. He was treated in the nearby University Hospital,
where he died Friday morning.

While the police are
allowed to use plastic shrapnel as an anti-riot weapon it is suspected that the
projectile which struck Ortega was a marble fired from a shotgun.

Wilmer Flores, the director
of Venezuela's national Criminal, Penal and Scientific Investigation Unit
(CICPC), ordered an investigation to identify the police responsible for the
shooting on Tuesday. By Thursday, nine police officers had been detained for
questioning. Flores also said that the CICPC were analyzing the shotguns used
by the police officers.

In a press conference held
in Caracas following the incident Flores stated that the police of Merida,
"violated every protocol established by the Ministry of the Interior and
Justice" in handling the student protest.

On Wednesday, Alex Ramírez,
the president of the Mérida State Legislative Council and a member of the governing
party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), explained that not all
police officials commit offenses, "But there is a group of mafia-like police that
stain [the reputation] of this police force."

Merida's Governor Marcos
Diaz, also of the PSUV, explained that, "it is the obligation of every
revolutionary government to guarantee the right to life of all Venezuelans,"
and he promised an investigation of the local police by security officials
higher up the chain of command.

Venezuela's Attorney
General Luisa Ortega also announced yesterday the creation of a criminal unit
under the auspices of the Ministry of Public Affairs to investigate police
misconduct nation-wide.

The incident on Tuesday
follows other instances of police misconduct. Last January two trade unionists
were shot and killed by police while participating in the occupation of a
Mitsubishi plant in Anzoátequi state.

Also, last July a student
protestor named Douglas Rojas was killed in Merida after being struck in the
head by a marble during a clash with the police, though it has still not been
resolved whether the police or the anti-Chávez student protesters, both armed
with marble-firing weapons, were responsible.

In response to Tuesday's shooting,
masked protesters armed with rocks and glass bottles commandeered and burned a
commercial truck and five other vehicles, including a police motorcycle, and
burned car tires, shutting down several major streets in Merida and the
neighboring city of Ejido on Wednesday.

The right wing student organization
March 13th Movement (M-13), which regularly launches violent
protests against the Chávez government, as well as left wing organizations
including the Tupamaros are considered to be responsible for the violence and
destruction during Wednesday's protests.

Roughly 50 pro-Chávez
students, also in response to the shooting, clashed with the police later on
Wednesday afternoon near the hospital where Ortega is being treated.

In addition, on Thursday a
section of the Mérida police protested the investigation of the nine police
officers suspected in the shooting of Ortega. The police objected to being
blamed for violent clashes that frequently are initiated by armed and
aggressive students who retreat onto university grounds, from which the police
are prohibited, and remain in impunity for their assaults on police and the
public order.

Meanwhile, at the
University of the Andes (ULA) in Merida the top rector, Mario Bonucci, and the
deans of several major public universities led a march of thousands of students
on Wednesday morning against university budget cuts now being proposed by the
national government.

The budget cuts,
implemented by the Chavez government as one of several "anti-crisis" austerity
measures, result in a 6% reduction in federal funding for all public

"We are demanding a fair
budget so that we are not closed down. We do not want to lower the quality of
education," said Bonucci, who addressed the demonstrators during the rally.
Other speakers expressed their opposition, stating that the budget cuts would
reduce funding for university scholarships, transportation and cafeterias.

In contrast, a
communication sent by the national government to the rectors of all public
universities explicitly states that no cuts should be made to the financing of
"remunerations for active employees as well as to those who receive a pension
or are retired," or to "student facilities and services."

The missive also lists
nearly a dozen cases of corruption on the part of university authorities in
previous years, and suggests that if these authorities would stop using public
educational funds as their "petty cash drawer" then educational services and
facilities will not be threatened by the 6% funding cut.

In Venezuela, the national
government provides the universities with funding, but the university
administrations autonomously determine how the funds are spent.

Chavez has recently gone on
national television to warn the nation that the government will seek to
eliminate wasteful spending but that social spending will not be reduced. Last
week the President of Venezuela's state run oil company decided to reduce
executive pay by 20%, and freeze worker salaries and bonuses.

The student and faculty led
march at the ULA in response to the budget cuts ended peacefully around noon
time. However, by 3pm
opposition students were battling the police on at least six different
intersections in the center of the city. As many as 200 students, several of
them dawning the white hand print logo of the oppositionist M-13, attempted to
take over one intersection at a time throwing rocks and glass battles at the
police while signaling for other groups of students on nearby intersections to
advance or retreat accordingly. The police fired shrapnel shotguns and launched
tear gas canisters to repel the students.