CARACAS, Venezuela — A plywood shield in one hand, a gas mask over his face, Victor Ortega marched down the middle of the four-lane elevated highway, his eyes fixed on the front lines.
Up ahead, the Venezuelan army and police had sealed off the street. A large armored vehicle, known as the “whale,” anchored the military blockade, with riot troops fanned out to the rear. Behind Ortega, thousands of protesters slowed down, awaiting the inevitable. Any minute, the day’s melee would begin.
Ortega, just steps away from the front now, was thinking about his father, a member of the country’s security forces. The military career that Ortega, an only child, once considered his birthright — several members of his family have had jobs protecting the socialist government — has been discarded in the onrush of Venezuela’s protest movement.
The 17-year-old college freshman has leapt to the forefront of what is known here as “the resistance,” the roving bands of young men and women with makeshift armor and crude weapons who have taken to the streets to battle the government. Nearly every day for the past two months they have clashed with soldiers and police, leaving at least 63 dead and more than 1,000 people wounded across the country, the vast majority of them protesters.
“Many families have been separated by all of this politics,” Ortega said, his voice muffled through his gas mask.
Water cannons would soon blast down on the front lines. Tear-gas canisters would skitter into the stampeding crowd. Front-line protesters would hurl rocks and molotov cocktails and shield themselves from soldiers firing rubber bullets, marbles and shards of glass. The injured would scream for medics, the blinded for someone to wash their eyes.
These constant street fights have added new urgency to Venezuela’s long-running political crisis, forcing people to choose sides or get out of the way. So far, neither the government nor the protesters are backing down, and the prospect for greater violence looms over the conflict.
The first bang. A tear-gas canister arcs into the sky.
“Look,” Ortega said. “The party has started.”
He lifted his shield and charged into the fray.
The ranks of Venezuela’s protesters span all ages and social classes: Polls show that 80 percent of people want President Nicolás Maduro to resign. But over the past two months of street demonstrations, since Maduro attempted to dissolve the congress and pushed to rewrite the constitution, university students, such as Ortega, and other young people have embraced the dangerous leading edge of the opposition.
Many of the young people on the front lines of this struggle live in poor neighborhoods that were formerly government strongholds or once felt greater allegiance to the socialist cause. Since Maduro assumed office in 2013, following the death of Hugo Chávez, the economy has been spiraling downward. The years of deprivation have eroded these bastions of government support and propelled a younger generation into the streets.
University leaders, some from middle and upper classes, are better organized than in previous waves of demonstrations — such as in 2014 and last year — and they are using their universities as spaces for debate and planning. Medical students volunteer in triage teams to treat the wounded protesters. Thousands skip classes to attend the marches.
“We are the ones who are going to get this country back,” said Andrea Guedez, one of the heads of the student federation at Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, a private school in western Caracas.
Half of Venezuela’s population is under 30 years old. For many youth in a country with severe shortages of food and medicine, the future looks increasingly dire. Facing 20 percent unemployment and rampant inflation, their college degrees feel less valuable by the day.
“What’s our only option if democratic doors have been closed? Going to the streets,” said Henrique Capriles, a prominent opposition politician who regularly appears at the front lines facing the riot troops. “The idea is that in the end, the pressure is so strong that they don’t have any option other than sitting to negotiate a deal that ends in free elections.”
So far, the young protesters, some aligned with opposition political parties, have mainly provoked a harsh response from Maduro’s government. At least 30 of the dead have been under 30 years old, and many have been college students. Young people have been killed by flying tear-gas canisters, shot in the head and chest and run over by vehicles while attending protests. Protesters allege regular beatings and torture by security forces.
One former Venezuelan soldier who still gets paid by the military said he considered the government’s response to the protests “disproportionate and illegal.”
“Public force operations should simply disperse people. What they do here is instill fear,” he said.
In these past two months of protests, security forces have arrested about 3,000 people, and roughly a third are still detained, said Alfredo Romero, director of Foro Penal, a legal organization that has represented many protesters.
Hundreds of the detainees have been tried by military tribunals, facing charges such as rebellion against the military and treason to the homeland, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, for their participation in the demonstrations.
The charges are “absolutely exaggerated and without relation to the facts,” Romero said.
Ortega, a freshman studying social work, did not expect to become an anti-government rabble-rouser. He intended to follow his father into the security services, but the chaos engulfing Venezuela has become too severe, he said, and the government crackdown too repressive.
“I wasn’t in agreement with what was happening in the country,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘No. This is where my war begins.’ ”
He went to his first protests this spring unprepared.
“I didn’t have a helmet. I didn’t have a mask. I had absolutely nothing,” he said. “The gas burned too badly, I could not be right in front.”
Other protesters, particularly wealthier Venezuelans, donate supplies. Residents hand out bags of fruit and cheese sandwiches to protesters. On a recent Saturday, a woman gave Ortega a new pair of black combat boots. Two days later, as he was walking toward a protest carrying a molotov cocktail that someone had given him — a beer bottle half-filled with gasoline and a black cloth wick — an elderly woman waved a lighter in his face. He looked at her quizzically for a moment, until he realized she was offering to light it.
Ortega lives in a rural area outside the city and commutes by train to Caracas for class. When he walks the street, his student ID card dangles on its lanyard, but he tucks it away when it’s time to suit up for battle. At his public university, Ortega and other protesters must be careful about making anti-government comments, as administrators and guards are still loyal to Maduro, students said.
“We have been threatened that if we don’t stay in line we can be kicked out,” said Nancy Colmenares, a 25-year-old student. “Where is the freedom of speech and democracy they claim to have here if I can’t consider attending a protest?”
Before heading out to the streets, protesters assemble in key staging points around Caracas. One of these is the Plaza Francia, a leafy public square on the east side of the city. Young people from other neighborhoods or out of town have taken to sleeping in the plaza, stashing their shields and helmets in the bushes and bathing in the reflecting pool. In the mornings, they strap on motorcycle helmets, catcher’s pads, soccer shin guards. They carefully prepare their weapons: testing slingshots, putting nails into wooden clubs.
When it’s time to mobilize, these front-liners load into dump trucks or commandeer buses to take them to the march site.
On Saturday morning, Ortega left the plaza and jumped into the back of a truck with a couple dozen other protesters. As it wove through traffic, Ortega led them in chants — “It’s going to fall! It’s going to fall! This government is going to fall!” — as pedestrians waved and applauded. He thrust his fist in the air, revealing on his left hand a metal ring with a sharp spike.
Ortega’s dark eyes radiated intensity. At the prior day’s protest, he had led an ambush of a police patrol that managed to capture a motorcycle. He set it on fire in the middle of the street. Two days later, in a scrum that resulted in dozens of injuries, he would get grabbed by police, roughed up and robbed, losing his cellphone and his black backpack with his social work notebooks inside. Many in the student movement profess nonviolence, but Ortega sees it differently.
“If we’re going to be warriors,” he said, “then let’s go to war.”
Mariana Zuñiga in Caracas contributed to this report.