CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan lawmakers who oppose President Nicolás Maduro were beaten and bloodied in the halls of congress Wednesday as a pro-government mob stormed the building, apparently facing little or no resistance from security guards.
The attack left at least 15 people injured, according to opposition leaders, including one lawmaker who was rushed to the hospital with broken ribs and a head wound.
Scenes of the melee shared on social media showed masked pro-Maduro assailants kicking and punching lawmakers in the chambers of congress and in the streets outside. Reporters inside the building were also attacked and robbed of their equipment.
The assault appeared to mark a dangerous new escalation of violence against opponents of the leftist government, although it was not the first time lawmakers have been bloodied by the pro-Maduro gangs, known as “colectivos.”
The armed gangs move around the city on motorcycles and often work closely with Venezuelan security forces, which direct them to attack protesters and intimidate others to keep them from joining the demonstrations, according to human rights groups and opponents of the government.
Maduro frequently depicts his opponents in the National Assembly as traitors and terrorists responsible for inciting violence, while insisting that he is working to “restore peace” to Venezuela.
Late last month, a similar pro-Maduro mob gathered outside congress and prevented lawmakers from leaving for several hours. That group did not force its way inside, however.
Video footage of Wednesday’s mayhem showed pro-government attackers streaming through the gates unimpeded, with a clear path straight into the halls of congress.
Opposition leaders blamed the breach on the Venezuelan national guard officers who are responsible for protecting the building.
Shortly before 10 a.m., a crowd of 80 to 100 pro-government demonstrators began throwing rocks at the building and shooting fireworks, then forced their way through a gate left unattended by national guard troops, according to Jennifer Lopez, a staffer in the National Assembly press office who was reached by phone Wednesday afternoon.
She said she was standing with other staffers on an outdoor patio when the mob burst in, some carrying clubs and pipes.
“The colectivos came in hitting everyone in the gardens,” she said. “A photographer was knocked to the ground and his camera was taken. Several people were hit in the head with blunt objects.”
Then the attackers began shooting, Lopez said. “There are bullet holes in the windows and in the walls of the palace,” she said.
Opposition candidates won control of congress in a landslide in 2015, but their attempts to steer the country out of its political and economic crisis have been systematically blocked by the unpopular Maduro and supreme court judges loyal to him.
On Wednesday, opposition lawmakers had gathered to commemorate Venezuela’s independence day and organize a campaign opposing Maduro’s plans to convene a special “constituent assembly” this month in an attempt to rewrite the country’s constitution.
The attackers were eventually cleared out of the building Wednesday by security forces using tear gas and fire extinguishers. Opposition lawmakers remained in the building. They sang the country’s national anthem and said they would continue with their legislative meetings.
Some held up bullet casings they said were found on the floor, although there were no immediate reports of gunshot victims. Photos from the hallways outside the legislative chambers showed walls smeared with blood.
“Nearly 100 young people have been killed in this mess,” said opposition deputy Armando Armas, referring to a running tally of Venezuelans who have died in more than three months of unrest.
“A few punches are nothing,” Armas told reporters, as blood streamed from his head and stained his collar.
Maduro and other government officials said they have ordered an investigation into Wednesday’s incident. But a hostile, menacing crowd remained outside the congress building after the attack, launching fireworks and throwing rocks while keeping lawmakers trapped inside for more than eight hours.
Venezuelan security forces appeared to be in no hurry to clear the area or make the mob leave, let alone arrest anyone.
“This is Venezuela today,” the assembly’s vice president, Freddy Guevara, told reporters inside the building. “Criminals attack the National Assembly, the armed forces are complicit in this madness, but the people and the lawmakers resist and advance.”