Student protesters in the far-west Venezuelan state of Táchira killed two police officers and injured four others by driving a hijacked bus into a crowd of law enforcement officials attempting to subdue a protest.
The incident occurred during a larger protest against public transportation fare hikes coming to San Cristóbal, the capital of Venezuela’s Táchira state, in April. Socialist President Nicolás Maduro has enacted a public transportation fare hike nationwide, likely to more deeply affect areas far from the capital like San Cristóbal.
A group of masked young men, believed to be students at the local Los Andes Agro-Industrial Institute of Technology (IUT), reportedly stole seventeen public transportation vehicles from government officials early Tuesday morning, threatening to kill bus drivers who did not give up their vehicles. Some hours later, as police assembled to block the coming protests, one of the hijacked buses stormed through the crowd, killing two officers.
The incident was caught on video. (Warning: Graphic Content)
Photos of the aftermath show blood spilled in the streets where the bus passed.
— Evany Sandoval (@EvanySandoval) March 29, 2016
The deceased officers have been identified as 19-year-old Nicolle Pérez Soler, a member of Táchira state police, and 25-year-old Otto Márquez, a member of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB). Both are said to have died from blunt trauma: the bus drove over their heads. Táchira police are investigating Pérez Soler’s presence at the protests, as she was still in training and “should not have been there,” according to police spokespersons.
“La efectivo policial femenina muerta estaba en prueba y no debía estar ahí” dicen los efectivos de #Politachira
— Williams Amaya (@williamsAmaya) March 30, 2016
Táchira state police announced the arrest today of 22-year-old José Gregorio Sulbarán Muñoz, a student at IUT Los Andes, for the incident. He is among more than fifty student protesters arrested Tuesday for attempting to assemble in protest against the fare hikes. San Cristóbal’s La Nación newspaper notes that many of these protesters used stones and Molotov cocktails against police, who responded with tear gas and gunshots.
— POLICIA DEL TACHIRA (@policiatachira) March 30, 2016
Táchira’s governor, the Chavista José Vielma Mora, issued a statement on his Twitter account condemning the violence. “We reject any act that threatens stability and the lives of citizens. Violence brings bad consequences… Honor and glory to the brave men and women of the police force, who risk their lives to protect the people.” While a member of the leftist United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Vielma Mora has been publicly critical of President Maduro’s use of state violence to subdue peaceful pro-democracy protests, calling for the liberation of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who has been imprisoned for more than two years after organizing peaceful protests in the capital, Caracas.
Táchira has long been one of the nation’s most anti-Chavista states, the site of much of the worst police violence against protesters in the past two years. San Cristóbal, in particular, has been the site of significant police violence, notably the home of 14-year-old Kluiverth Roa, gunned down while walking home from school last year for shouting “stop the repression” in public.
San Cristóbal’s mayor, the pro-democracy Daniel Ceballos, has been a political prisoner in the nation since March 2014, arrested for allegedly aiding “irrational violence” in the city. Journalists reporting on his arrest — a midnight raid by secret police — were also arrested.
Ceballos is one of many prisoners of conscience in Venezuela — along with López and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma — who may benefit from the passing of a new amnesty law passed by the National Assembly this week, now in the hands of the opposition. Maduro has vowed to disregard the law, asserting that no prisoner will be released.