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Death toll in Venezuelan unrest climbs

By Jorge Rueda and Christine Armario | Last updated: Aug 2, 2017 - 12:50:33 PM

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP)—Days before a polarizing vote to start rewriting its constitution, Venezuela is convulsing to a rhythm of daytime strikes and nocturnal clashes. The most recent violence drove the death toll from months of unrest to 100 on July 27.

Most of the dead in anti-government protests that began in April are young men killed by gunfire. The toll also includes looters; police allegedly attacked by protesters; and civilians killed in accidents related to roadblocks set up during demonstrations.

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The count has been highly politicized, with the opposition and other government agencies reporting varying tolls and causes of death that focus blame on the other side.

The protests began over moves by President Nicolas Maduro’s government to restrict the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

But the mounting deaths of demonstrators have become a separate source of outrage for the young people who march during the day and assemble nightly to fight the police and national guardsmen at improvised barricades across the country.

“The ones who have fallen fighting repression motivate us to keep fighting,” said Sandra Fernandez, a 21-year-old university student.

The country’s chief prosecutor reported July 27 on Twitter that a 16 year old was killed at a protest in the capital overnight while a 23-year-old man was slain at a demonstration in Merida state.

The two killings pushed to the century mark the human toll of a political crisis that has brought the oil-rich South American country almost four months of near-daily protests, thousands of injuries and arrests and a two-day general strike that recently shuttered businesses nationwide.

The death toll appears likely to keep rising in the coming days.

Opposition leaders called on supporters to convene in the capital July 28 at the end of a 48-hour general strike that began earlier in the week. On July 30 the government held a vote that will start a process of rewriting the constitution by electing members of a special assembly to reshape the charter.

The opposition boycotted the vote, saying the election rules were rigged to guarantee Mr. Maduro a majority and arguing that a new constitution could replace democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.

The chief prosecutor’s office has released little information about the victims of the unrest, but at least 44 are believed to have been shot while participating in protests. Many of those deaths are blamed on armed motorcycle gangs of government supporters known as “colectivos” who are often seen shooting indiscriminately at protesters while police and troops stand by.

“The level of impunity is extremely high, and that continues on to a situation like this,” said David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela. “If you look at the violence it would appear that this time around, most of it is coming from pro-government forces, either National Guard and police or ‘colectivos’ that are aligned with the government.”

Security forces have been accused of excessive force but have used mostly non-lethal arms, a tactic that has kept protest deaths relatively low in comparison with the overall level of violence in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

An average of  78 people a day died violently last year in this country of 31.5 million, according to the non-governmental Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

According to an AP review of prosecutors’ reports, the victims of the political unrest have overwhelmingly been male with only six women killed. They are also mostly young, averaging 27 years old. The youngest was 14 and the oldest 54.

At least 22 were students. There was also an appellate court judge who was robbed and shot dead while trying to avoid a barricade, and a man set on fire after someone at a protest accused him of being a thief. A handful were police or guard officers.

Sixty-nine of the 100 were killed by gunfire. Others died in car crashes while trying to evade barricades, or by electrocution while looting buildings.

Just 21 of the killings have resulted in an arrest or orders for apprehension issued, with nearly half those coming against security forces.

Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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