Venezuela's ongoing protests against the Maduro regime took tragic turn when at least 12 people were killed overnight during looting and violence in Venezuela's capital. Most of the deaths took place in El Valle, a working class neighborhood near Caracas' biggest military base where opposition leaders say a group of people were hit with an electrical current while looting and trying to steal a refrigerator from a bakery.
The chaos turned deadly when looters entered a bakery protected by an electric fence and tried to remove a refrigerator. The accounts varied, but one opposition leader said 13 people were hit with an electrical current after tossing containers filled with water and making contact with the refrigerator's power cord.
Criminal investigators look for evidence in front of a bakery, after it was looted
Daniela Alvarado, 25, who sells vegetables in the El Valle area, said the looting on Thursday night began after police officers fired tear gas and buckshot at demonstrators blocking a street with burning tires.
"People starting looting the businesses and yelling that they were hungry and that they want the government out," said Alvarado. "We're afraid (the stores) are going to run out of everything, that tomorrow there won't be any food."
"Yesterday around 9 or 10 (p.m.)things got pretty scary, a group of people carrying weapons came down ... and started looting," said Hane Mustafa, owner of a small supermarket in El Valle cited by Reuters, where broken bottles of soy sauce and ketchup littered the floor between bare shelves.
"The security situation is not in the hands of the government. We lost everything here," said Mustafa, who said he could hear the looting from his home, which is adjacent to the store. Dozens of businesses in the area showed signs of looting, ranging from empty shelves to broken windows and twisted metal entrance gates.
According to AP, the Public Ministry said the violence left 11 people dead in El Valle, all men between the ages of 17 and 45. Another death was reported east of Caracas in El Sucre. Six other people were injured. "This was a war," said Liliana Altuna, whose butcher shop was ransacked by looters armed with guns who grabbed everything in sight.
Opposition leaders accused the government of repressing protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets but standing idly by as businesses were looted. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez pointed the finger at the opposition, saying armed groups controlled by the government's foes were responsible for the attack at the hospital.
"We reject and do not accept those irresponsible declarations," said Henrique Capriles, a former opposition candidate for president who the government recently barred from running for public office.
Nine other people have been killed in violence associated with a wave of anti-government demonstrations in the past three weeks in which protesters have clashed with security forces in melees lasting well into the night. Nine other people have been killed in violence associated with a wave of anti-government demonstrations in the past three weeks in which protesters have clashed with security forces in melees lasting well into the night.
People holding a placard that reads 'No more deaths, Maduro'
The violence began Thursday night and stretched into Friday in El Valle, an area historically known as a hot spot for political protest. Witnesses said masked looters wielding knives and guns descended on an area known as "the little market" filled with bakeries, supermarkets and butcher's shops.
"They left us with nothing," said Manuel Martinez, who was directing cleanup and repairs at a destroyed grocery store. "What they did wasn't because of hunger," he added. "It's vandalism."
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Earlier Friday, officials said that one of the dead was Mervins Guitian. The young Venezuelan man was fatally shot when he was returning home late from work Thursday and got caught in the middle of late-night street clashes. Vicente Paez, a local councilman, said Guitian was an employee of a Caracas-area city governed by an opposition mayor but didn't join the protests. It wasn't clear who shot him and there was no immediate comment from authorities.
Venezuelan social media was ablaze late into the night with grainy cellphone videos of light-armored vehicles plowing down dark streets to control pockets of protesters who set up burning barricades in several neighborhoods.
Vice President Tareck El Aissami said Friday the country is facing an "unconventional war" led by opposition groups working in concert with criminal gangs. He said opposition claims government forces were responsible for launching tear gas at the maternity hospital were another attempt to demoralize a people who have "decided to break ties with the bourgeoisie forever."
Meanwhile opposition members said they have no intention of easing up on protests. "Twenty days of resistance and we feel newly born," opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said at an outdoor news conference Thursday as residents looking out from balconies in a neighborhood at the heart of the protest movement cheered loudly in support.
The next planned protest is Saturday, when opponents are being asked to dress in white and march silently to commemorate the victims of the demonstration. Sit-ins to block major highways are planned for Monday.
As reported on Friday, General Motors announced early Thursday that it was closing its operations in Venezuela after authorities seized its factory in the industrial city of Valencia, a move that could draw the Trump administration into the escalating chaos engulfing the nation. A number of major Latin American governments, including Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, called on Venezuela to take steps to increase democratic order and halt the violence that has been swirling around the protests.
The recent controversial, and subsequently reversed, Supreme Court ruling reinvigorated Venezuela's fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing disgust with Maduro.
Opponents are pushing for Maduro's removal through early elections and the release of dozens of political prisoners. The government last year abruptly postponed regional elections that the opposition was heavily favored to win and it cut off a petition drive aimed at forcing a referendum seeking Maduro's removal before elections scheduled for late next year.
But the government hasn't backed down. Already drawing criticism for the GM seizure, Maduro announced late Thursday that he wanted an investigation into cellphone operator Movistar for allegedly being part of the "coup-minded march" organized by his adversaries Wednesday. That march was the largest and most dramatic the country has seen in years. He said the subsidiary of Spain's Telefonica "sent millions of messages to users every two hours" in support of Wednesday's protests.
As tensions mount, the government is using its almost-complete control of Venezuela's institutions to pursue its opponents. On Wednesday alone, 565 protesters were arrested nationwide, according to Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal assistance to detainees. It said 334 remained in jail Thursday. In light of the 100,000 political opponents arrested or fired by Turkey's president Erdogan ever since last summer's "failed coup" attempt, Maduro may have to pick up the pace.
Opposition leaders have promised to keep up their protests, demanding that Maduro's government call general elections, free almost 100 jailed opposition activists and respect the autonomy of the opposition-led Congress. They are calling for community-level protests across the country on Friday, a white-clad "silent" march in Caracas on Saturday to commemorate those killed in the unrest, and a nationwide "sit-in" blocking Venezuela's main roads on Monday.
With protests now assured on a virtually daily basis, what little was left of the economy is assured to grind to a halt. The only question is how much longer can the protests continue before the army flips its allegiance from the regime, and Maduro is replaced.