The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As protests threaten Maduro’s power, his government punishes once-loyal slums  

Venezuelan troops line up outside the National Assembly in Caracas on Tuesday. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

CARACAS, Venezuela — As the opposition campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro dramatically escalated, the warren-like streets of the Puerta Caracas slum filled with pot-banging, anti-government demonstrators. A culture center run by Maduro loyalists was burned down. Hungry, beaten-down residents felt a rush of hope.

Then night fell, along with the boot steps of government forces.

Maduro called the arsonists “fascist criminals,” and residents in the western Caracas enclave paid the price. Mask-wearing special forces, locals said, swarmed the neighborhood last week, kicking in doors, rounding up young people and imposing an effective curfew. 

The assault on Puerta Caracas is part of what observers call the most ruthless crackdown unleashed by Maduro since coming to power in 2013. Over the past week, similar operations have extended to at least five other rebellious slums across the capital, leaving 35 people dead — including victims as young as 16 — and more than 850 arrested. 

As international pressure mounts on Nicolás Maduro's government to hold new elections, the political situation brings both hope and uncertainty to Venezuelans. (Video: Jorge L. Pérez Valery, Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

“There haven’t been any more protests,” said the mother of a 26-year-old man who was detained by intelligence officers. Declining to give her name out of fear of reprisals, she said she has not heard from her son since last Wednesday. “I don’t think anyone here will dare go out again.” 

The internationally backed effort to oust Maduro — led by Juan Guaidó, who has been proclaimed the country’s president by the opposition-controlled National Assembly — created the most serious challenge to Maduro since he succeeded the late Hugo Chávez almost six years ago. But as the government has felt increasingly threatened, it has also become more aggressive. 

On Tuesday, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor asked the pro-government Supreme Court to prohibit Guaidó from leaving the country and to freeze his bank accounts, prompting the United States, which a day earlier slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s state-run oil company, to warn there would be “serious consequences” if Guaidó is harmed.

But the reprisals are being felt most acutely by the people of Venezuela.

Government security operations, including those by Maduro’s fearsome Special Action Forces (FAES), are moving in on the desperate barrios once loyal to him. In the past, middle- and upper-class residents have led the protests; this time, it is the poorer sectors of the city that have convulsed in rebellion, igniting choruses of an expression long used by the opposition: “When the slums finally rise up, Maduro will fall.” 

The government pushback carries echoes of 2017, when protests were brutally quashed, leaving more than 100 dead. But this time, use of lethal force and arrests, experts say, has been far swifter.

“The impact of this new repressive trend in the slums, in private homes, is clear — people are terrified,” said Marco Antonio Ponce, head of the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. “They’re terrified someone will tell the police that they’ve been protesting.”

These events have unfolded as Guaidó declared Maduro a usurper for assuming a new term this month after winning “sham” elections last year. Last week, he staked a constitutional claim as Venezuela’s true leader and is working with the Trump administration to cut off Maduro’s sources of international cash.

But the force of the repression here, experts say, may undermine the uprising. A key test will come Wednesday, when the opposition has called its next large-scale protest.  

For many Venezuelans, resistance has become deadly. 

Ana Cecilia Colmenares, 58, said her son, Yonny Godoy, 29, was gunned down by security forces after joining a protest two days earlier.

FAES troops stormed his western slum Friday, she said. The house’s door was open, and he noticed officers outside pointing guns, Colmenares said. Shirtless and shoeless, Godoy exited and turned himself in. He was dragged away as authorities locked her inside. Eyewitnesses told the family of his final moments, before he died of a gunshot to the abdomen.

“He was begging them not to kill him,” said Godoy’s cousin, Marvelys Paredes. “Telling them he was going to have a baby in two months, that he wanted to meet his baby.” 

Paredes said she still backed the uprising.

“We are done,” she said. “We’re tired of being robbed, of being hungry, of seeing people die because there’s no medicines.”

Abuse of the detained, meanwhile, circulated on social media. In one video, three seminude detainees are forced to pull their underwear down as a security officer brutally hits them with a baseball bat. “Were you protesting?” the officer yells.

The video was shared by Monsignor Víctor Hugo Basabe, who said he knew the young men. Carlos Nieto Palma, director of the NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad, said “the family members of these boys are too scared to talk.” 

Another video showed Ediluh Guedez Ochoa, a judge from Yaracuy, denouncing government pressure to jail young protesters.

“When I wanted to give them their freedom, [the government] didn’t let me,” she says in the video. “My family and I received death threats. I call my fellow judges to lose their fear.”

The uprisings began the night of Jan. 22, with residents of Puerta Caracas banging pots and lighting dumpsters on fire. Around midnight, neighbors say, a group of hooded boys threw molotov cocktails at the culture center. 

Early Wednesday, family members said, Abel Pernia, 19, was heading to a doctor’s appointment when armed intelligence police officers grabbed him, shoved him against a wall and handcuffed him. His girlfriend and sister were alerted by neighbors, and they tried to intervene. In response, the officers thrust a gun in his girlfriend’s face.

“One man forced me onto a wall. Abel was already inside one of their vans. They broke my phone,” said the 18-year-old, who declined to give her name out of fear of reprisals. 

“That day, they violently knocked on doors to take people away, people who weren’t even involved,” she said. 

In the eastern Petare slum, locals say the neighborhood was “taken” last week by FAES forces. People were told to stay at home, and armored cars rode up the hillside neighborhood at night, followed by the sound of grenade explosions.

The response came after protests erupted in Petare last Wednesday and continued until dawn. A group set fire to barricades, threw stones and attacked an outpost of the National Guard. Security forces repelled them with tear gas as residents chanted “we don’t want food boxes! What we want is for Nicolas to leave!” 

Neighbors said that criminal gangs were among the crowd and created havoc by violently confronting the police. The response was immediate. On Thursday afternoon, 41-year-old Lenis Blanco said, FAES troops raided her sister-in-law’s home. “Armed men knocked on her door, and when no one answered, they broke in. Thank god the house was empty because she left the country,” Blanco said.

“But I’m not leaving my house,” she said. “I am fearful of the FAES.” 

Faiola reported from São Paulo, Brazil. Andreina Aponte in Caracas and Rachelle Krygier in Miami contributed to this report.

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