Amid threats of violence, opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro flooded the streets of Caracas today (2 million strong) in a major test of their strength and the government's ability to tolerate growing dissent. However, for a nation that is forced to slaughter stallions for meat, line up for toilet paper, and dying from lack of simple medicines, Reuters reports that there is another destabilizing factor - ultra-violent street gangs are thriving.
As Fox News reports, the Thursday march called the "taking of Caracas" aimed to pressure electoral authorities to allow a recall referendum against Maduro this year.
The buildup to the protest has been tense with Maduro's government jailing several prominent activists, deploying security forces across the city and warning of bloodshed.
Maduro said Tuesday that his opponents hope violence during the march will pave the way for a coup such as the one that briefly toppled his late predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002. He said authorities had arrested people possessing military fatigues and C4 explosives, and who had plans to fire upon the crowds dressed as national guard members. He didn't say who he believed was behind the alleged coup plan.
"If they're coming with coups, ambushes and political violence, the revolutionary will provide an uncommon and overwhelming response," Maduro told supporters.
Rather than dampening Venezuelans' enthusiasm, the "war-like" rhetoric appears to be energizing the opposition, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst from Caracas.
Quite a crowd...Maduro claims *VENEZUELA OPPOSITION MARCH HAD 25K-30K PROTESTERS, MADURO SAYS... looks like a lot more than that!...
Maduro had expelled may foreign journalists hoping that would minimize coverage but 2 million people turned out in Caracas today - we don't think his plan is working.
But as AP notes, the government plans a counter protest on Thursday, but Pantoulas said authorities will have a tougher time rallying supporters among the poor amid 700 percent inflation blamed for growing hunger and a collapse in wages.
"I don't know that the poor will join opposition march, but they're not going to partake in the counter-protest," said Pantoulas. "The fact that the poor barrios won't be supporting Chavismo is enough to damage the government."
Also invigorating the opposition is a government crackdown.
Authorities over the weekend moved a prominent opposition leader, former San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, from house arrest back to prison while he awaits trial on civil rebellion charges stemming from the 2014 protests. Authorities said he was plotting to flee and carry out violence during the protests.
Two other activists, Yon Goicoechea and Carlos Melo, were also detained this week, with a top socialist leader accusing Goicoechea of carrying explosives.
There have been more subtle threats as well. Government workers say they've suffered retaliation for signing petitions seeking Maduro's removal and the opposition-leaning newspaper El Nacional said thugs threw excrement and Molotov cocktails at its building Tuesday.
The U.S. State Department accused Maduro of trying to bully Venezuelans from taking part in the march.
But as police unleash tear gas to quell the protests...
Maduro faces more problems than just the average 'Juan' Venezuelan, as Reuters reports, Venezuela's socialist economy is suffering triple-digit inflation, severe shortages and a third year of recession, but ultra-violent street gangs have found strength and profit in the chaos.
They are teaming up with former rivals and buying heavier weapons to control ever-larger territory in the capital and beyond, the criminals, the government and criminologists say.
"The majority of the other slums are our friends. It's not only us anymore, now we do business with each other," said the leader, sat at a desk with his face hidden by a black ski mask. He would only give his name as Anderson.
He said rampant inflation is forcing the gang to be even more active as it seeks to cover sky-rocketing costs for weapons, drugs and even food.
"We used to do one job a month. Right now we are doing them every week," Anderson said, before a phone pinged with news of a drugs delivery. Venezuela's economy suffered 181 percent inflation and shrank nearly 6 percent last year, and is expected to perform worse in 2016. Basic products are scarce and food riots regular.
However, unlike a growing array of other armed groups in Venezuela - which include pro-government gangs and some small rural guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary forces - the street gangs are largely apolitical.
But as their reach grows, they are another destabilizing factor for President Nicolas Maduro, who is already struggling to govern a nation that is running short of food and medicines despite vast oil reserves and has one of the world's highest murder rates.
He has responded with aggressive raids by soldiers and police, a policy supported by many people sick of criminals but which rights groups say leads to executions and arbitrary arrests. Some criminologists warn the raids encourage gangs to seek out ever heavier weaponry in defense.
While some gangs are teaming up, there are still turf battles and internal disputes, and Venezuela is seeing more of the spectacular violence associated with Mexico's more powerful drug cartels. Police showed Reuters images of bodies left mutilated, hanging from bridges, or beheaded.
Maduro says crime is part of a conspiracy by the opposition and the United States. His opponents blame his policies and armed pro-government "collectives," which have multiplied in the past 5 years.
Maduro has responded with tough raids that send soldiers into poor neighborhoods in so-called People's Liberation Operations, or OLPs, emulating the iron-fisted strategy used to fight gangs in Central America and Brazil.
"It is our turn for combat," Maduro said at the event, where he gave some police a 50 percent wage hike in a bid to counter the dwindling value of their salaries.
Venezuela's leading human rights group Provea said OLPs contributed to 270 extrajudicial killings at the hands of security forces in 2015, the highest number since 1992.
The operations also encourage gang leaders to unite and seek more powerful weapons, said Keymer Avila, part of a group of Venezuelan and foreign academics researching crime in the country.
At his safe house, one gang leader confirmed that.
"It's better to work together than be enemies. It's better to make war with the police than with each other."
But apart from that - socialist utopia!!