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Gas masks, wooden shields, gardening gloves: How Venezuela’s protesters are protecting themselves

Opposition activists clash with riot police during a demonstration against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on May 3. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

CARACAS, Venezuela — After six hard-fought weeks in the streets, a standoff between anti-government protesters and security forces is growing scarier and more lethal.

To protect themselves, demonstrators here in the Venezuelan capital and in other cities have started outfitting themselves in homemade armor and other improvised combat gear.

Along with conventional gas masks and helmets (many of them donated), colorful wooden shields are showing up on the front lines of the battles with National Guard troops. While most of the protesters have remained nonviolent, hooded militants have tossed molotov cocktails and launched rocks with slingshots.

The security forces, meanwhile, appear increasingly determined to choke the protest movement with brute force, including the use of copious amounts of tear gas. Several protesters have been killed or severely injured by gas canisters fired into crowds or allegedly dropped from government helicopters. Last week, a young man was injured when he was run over by an armored police vehicle that plowed through a melee.

In all, at least 37 people have died in the unrest, and more than 700 have been injured.

The growing toll — along with fears of worse violence to come — has prompted Venezuelans living outside the country to start raising money for shipments of safety equipment. “The idea is to protect as many heads as we can,” said Nelly Guinand, 25, a Venezuelan living in New York who collected more than $22,000 and sent 128 motorcycle helmets to Caracas, with more on the way. She calls the fund drive “Cascos contra Bombas” (Helmets vs. Bombs).

Guinand, a fashion designer, said her cousin, Andrés Guinand, suffered a skull fracture when he was hit in the head with a tear-gas canister last month during a Caracas protest. “This is the third time that someone in my family gets hurt while protesting,” said Nelly, who started the campaign with 15 women living in Venezuela and the United States.

The women have used courier services such as DHL to get shipments into the country. Sending such gear into Venezuela isn’t illegal, but Guinand said she worries that Venezuelan customs officials may begin seizing the packages, so she’s trying to ship as many as possible before such a crackdown.

Guinand is part of a widening international campaign to crowdfund the protests, with some online drives raising more than $24,000 in less than a month. As many as 17 campaigns to solicit money for food, medicine and protest gear such as protective goggles, heavy gloves and gas masks can be found on the website GoFundMe.

Other Venezuelans are raising funds more quietly, on a smaller scale.

“We collected money through a platform similar to PayPal,” said a 30-year-old engineer, who, along with her husband, collected money to outfit a group of young protesters who came to Caracas from another part of Venezuela. “Goggles, masks, helmets and even some slingshots,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The protest movement exploded in late March after the pro-government supreme court tried to seize power from the opposition-controlled legislature. Even after the court backed down, the protests have raged on, fueled by anger over the country’s economic collapse and the authoritarian rule of President Nicolás Maduro.

At first, the demonstrators who clashed with security forces did little more than cover their faces with a shirt or scarf to block the tear gas. They were sickened and easily pushed back. Now, more and more protesters come ready for combat. One hardware-store owner in western Caracas said he sold his entire stock of 30 gas masks in two days last week.

A 65-year-old woman who has joined recent marches said she carries two essentials in the streets. “A gas mask for myself and a spray bottle full of antacid to help those who don't have a mask,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. The antacid alleviates the burning, she said.

Javier Solorzano, a 23-year-old student showed off his equipment. He said a mask and helmet were essential but added, “I also use some gardening gloves to hold the hot canisters and throw them back.” Solorzano’s left arm was encased in a cast after being struck last week with a canister. His right arm was pocked with bruises from rubber bullets.

Many protesters carry shields improvised from wood and scrap metal, which they have painted with crosses, red-and-white medieval patterns or slogans such as “Freedom!” When police fire gas canisters into the crowds, spotters warn protesters to take cover or look up to track the path of the projectiles. “Don't let the canisters hit you on the head!” a young demonstrator yelled during a recent march.

Maduro opponents say they will continue the protests this week, as well.

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