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The resistance behind the masks

They cover their faces with masks or t-shirts. They improvise shields for self protection. They prepare and throw homemade bombs. They build barricades with whatever they get, and when they go to the marches, they are seen at the head of the protesters confronting the State security forces. Although not all the people who identify with the resistance know each other or act in the same way in the conflict zones located in the metropolitan area of Caracas, these are the main elements that distinguish the members of these groups, which are mostly from popular sectors and that, despite not ideologically connecting with the government of Nicolás Maduro, do not always follow the agenda of the Venezuelan opposition.

21/06/2017 10:59:46

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The shields lean down on the trunk of a tree surrounded by cement benches at Francia square in Altamira, Caracas.

It's 12 noon on Sunday, June 4th. The members of the different clash groups, known as "The Resistance" among the opponents of the regime of Nicolas Maduro, who have emerged with the opposition protests that began last April, after the Supreme Court of Justice, through two sentences, conferred dictatorial powers to Maduro, have gathered in that place. In one of the seats we find Luis, a fourth semester student of Psychology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. For protection, he asks to be identified by this name. He wears a light blue jean and a short sleeve t-shirt that, in spite of its intense blue, does not conceal the rosary with a small Venezuelan flag hanging from his neck.

"It was given to me by a woman who came to the square one day. She brought several and distributed it among the brothers so that we may pray and take care of ourselves", says the 26-year-old. As he crosses one of his legs, a picture of the Virgin of the Valley falls to the ground, the most important Marian devotion in the East of the country. I don't know where it came from, I'm sure one of the many people who comes to support us left it in my pocket", he says.

"Although there are no marches or protests today, we still come. It is a way of communicating to the people that we are still here, resisting"

Luis doesn't have a mask, hood, or flannel that covers his face. The careless beard. "It's Sunday and we're relaxed. Although there are no marches or protests today, we still come. It is a way of communicating to the people that we are still here, resisting to transmit that we want a change", says the psychology student who is one of the members of the Resistance Against Repression (RCR) group.

They are also called "warriors" and "shield-bearers" and masks and t-shirts cover their faces. They protect themselves with improvised shields, build barricades with what they get and, when they go to the marches, they are the ones who confront the police. Not everyone knows or acts in the same way. Most of them come from the sectors hardest hit by Venezuela's economic crisis, world champion of inflation in 2016 and suffering from a persistent shortage. They do not always follow the agenda of the opposition grouped in the Democratic Unity Table. "All groups are united by the purpose of getting out of this government. As the saying goes, the enemies of your enemy are your friends", Luis says.

Luis builds barricades, uses his shield to protect himself from National Guard attacks, returns the smoke bombs thrown by the police and throws craft bombs. "But I don't really share the idea of throwing Molotovs, it's kind of macabre. Not everybody can throw back the tear gas bombs. The one who does it must know how to move in the crowd, because they can lynch if you do something foolish. But you must also have a good view of the sky, good reflexes and be able to recognize these bombs, because there are some that can explode in the hands, as has happened with several brothers".

However, other groups do practice before confronting the state security forces. This is the case of the members of "Los Pedros", a group of young people who live in Caricuao, Petare and the state of Zulia (western Venezuela). On Monday, May 15, during the sit-in on the Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas, one of his practices became clear: A 15-year-old teenager covered himself with a shield while one of his teammates threw marbles at him. Then they paused to throw stones at one end of the roadway where there were no people.

Venezuela's protests, which until mid-June totaled ten weeks, have no resemblance with the 93-day conflict in Ukraine that overthrew Victor Yanukovych's government. But the clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces of both countries are similar: hooded and masked youths, sheltering behind metal and wooden homemade shields, confront officials equipped with all the necessary tools to control public order. These people have no weapons of war or move in armored vehicles like their opponents, but they have managed to set fire to the tanks with homemade bombs.

Three groups

In the Altamira square you can hear when, from the vehicles on the road, they encourage the youths. "Come on, warriors! You can do it!".

Since the conflict intensified, Luis's days have passed between the classrooms of the Universidad Central de Venezuela and the resistance zones of Caracas. He says he hardly rests at all, but he can't stop preparing himself either. One day he came home with a t-shirt full of blood. He had helped a wounded comrade. "She worries and tells me to take care of myself. She doesn't understand that I am fighting for the good of her and all Venezuelans".

It's not easy to talk to Luis. "Brothers and sisters" come to greet him every once in a while. Among them is "Guarimbín", a 10-year-old street child who has joined the protests to eat food donated by some demonstrators. "Guarimbín" has difficulty speaking. He has a bump on the head because he received a blow in one of the many protests.

They call her "The Swimmer" because when the National Guard uses the whale, one of the vehicles that repels protesters with powerful jets of water, she throws herself to the ground to avoid injury,

"He's our mascot", says a 15-year-old girl. She lives in Cúa (Miranda state, near Caracas) and has also made friends among the demonstrators. They call her "The Swimmer" because when the National Guard uses the whale, one of the vehicles that repels protesters with powerful jets of water, she throws herself to the ground to avoid injury, even though she has an open wound on her right knee. Her companions report that she is one of the few girls who accompanies the shield-bearers in the front line of the clashes. "The Swimmer", who is in her fourth year of high school, is worried. Earlier this month she claimed that she wouldn't go to school. She was willing to ask a friend for the notes, but not to give up the protest.

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"Guarimbín" and "The swimmer" put a face to the children and adolescents who have joined the protests. In two and a half months of protests, it has become evident that there are three groups of minors who, independently, also take part in the marches: the first is the street children who see in the environment surrounding the skirmishes an opportunity to eat and ask for money. In the second group there are also street children who cover their faces not only to look for food, but also protection in the environment of the resistance. The third is teenagers who have a home, but feel the need to protest against the government.

Like most young people who identifies with the resistance, Luis lives in a popular sector. He lives in the Libertador municipality: "I can't give any more personal data because this is a dictatorial regime and by my house the collectives (armed gangs that defend the government) don't allow people to protest against the government. The less you have, the more you sacrifice".

"My dream is for my friends and family to return to my country to share with them. I also want to go out at night without the risk of being robbed, kidnapped or murdered".

Resistance members don't care if they are injured or apprehended. Luis explains that he is pleased to belong to the shield-bearers' movement, because he doesn't lose hope of living the end of the conflict. He says that in the meantime, he has been able to meet people and experience the adrenaline rush. "Maduro has imposed the model of papa government, who has the ladle to distribute food to whom he wants and the one that puts people in queues to buy food. And I don't feel like putting up with that. I prefer to be here in this square, bearing sun and fighting. My dream is for my friends and family to return to my country to share with them. I also want to go out at night without the risk of being robbed, kidnapped or murdered".

While Luis gives the interview, some of his companions cross the avenue with posters and shields that say resistance. They greet the drivers and shout: "Venezuela!". Some citizens lower their windows to donate clothes, money or food. Those who receive the most help return, tell their stories and share food with their friends. Most of them, even though they are minors or people under 30 years, retain the innocence of a child: they play cards and run to play hide-and-seek.

And how do these groups emerge? The government claims that the resistance members are financed by the opposition, but this hypothesis has not been confirmed. It has been proved, yes, that discontent with government and hunger are the elements that unite these people who have formed resistance groups in popular sectors such as La Vega, Caricuao and Petare.

This is not the first time Luis has protested with other youths. In 2014 he also participated in the protests that began in February and ended in June of that year. He says that, although the conflict in Venezuela is not similar to that in Ukraine, he believes that street pressure is key to progress towards the end of the crisis.

"The protesters' impotence in these protests of 2017 is totally different from that of 2014. The lack of tolerance and the level of violence are, in some way, the channeling of anger that people have because they don't find food, medicines and opportunities for progress (... ) I have done quite a lot of research and compared the conflict in Venezuela with that in Ukraine. However, I believe that the end will be achieved with a negotiation between opposition political leaders and the ruling party. But we can't give up", he claims.

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Hunger and solidarity

At 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of that June 4, Luis suddenly gets up. Two women arrive with several food containers with soup, pasta and rice. In a bag there are several bananas. He tries to make sure all of them gets some food. A 16-year-old boy just picks up a fruit and asks one of his companions for a call to ask his aunt to bring him some food. "I'm from Santa Fe North, but I come to the square to skateboard with them and during the days of war, I accompany them. We don't care about what area or social class we are from, we're all fight partners", says the teenager who studies fourth year of high school.

"Pinto Salinas" also arrives at the cement bank, a 23-year-old young man who lives in this popular sector and works in a surveillance company. Unlike the previous day (Saturday, June 3), his face is uncovered. He has a scar on the left cheekbone and melancholic gaze. He says in a faint voice that he is hungry and thirsty.

At the other end of the square is another resistance group: Fraternidad Charallave. As Luis approaches to bring them some of the food they received, one of their members explains that they are a "ligadito" (a mix), because they are integrated by people who live in La Guaira, Charallave, Petare and a 16-year-old teenager who came to Caracas from the state of Trujillo in April.

To move in these sectors, you have to pass the National Guard and National Police cordons

During the protests in Caracas, conflict zones have arisen in middle-class housing estates such as Bello Monte, Las Mercedes and Altamira, where shield-bearers are active. To move in these sectors, you have to pass the National Guard and National Police cordons. Then, about two kilometers away from the areas where these young people make barricades, municipal police officers are stationed to divert traffic. In the conflict area, we need to know how to deal with these protesters, who do not allow themselves to be recorded without hoods, supervise which journalists they concede interviews to, and avoid the entry of armed civilians, also known as collectives.

Different optics

Shield-bearers are in the government's sights because of the violence that surrounds the protests. Luis refers to two recent events to explain that there are no unanimous opinions among young people. On Monday, May 29 at 5:30 p.m. near the Altamira Distributor, you could see the shreds of shoe boxes of the brand RS21. Minutes before, a truck had been looted by hooded people. The protesters did not agree to set it on fire. Some refused to plunder, while others split the shoes to put them away in their bags or burn them.

"the driver of the truck to cross the vehicle to block the road. But the man said that the owner of the company is Diosdado Cabello. It seemed like a provocation."

"I wasn't here. The brothers tell us that they asked the driver of the truck to cross the vehicle to block the road. But the man said that the owner of the company is Diosdado Cabello. It seemed like a provocation. How's that truck going to block a road in an area where they don't support the government? Since there are several poor boys who don't have shoes, some of them grabbed some and others burned them on the barricades", explains Luis.

On Wednesday, May 31st, a truck, which said: "No to looting", burned at dusk. Hooded men wanted to take the battery and the tires of the vehicle. Others avoided it and demanded that they couldn't. "We are the resistance", they say. With regard to this other incident, Luis assures us that the truck was not burned by his fellow combatants and attributes it to some infiltrators.

Although some of the shield-bearers live on the street, who have a home have also spent the night in Altamira square and other public spaces. Even though the faces that frequent the zones of conflict are almost always the same, the members of these movements are prepared to accept that their friends, or even themselves, can be arrested. For example, militants of the group Resistance Against Repression last saw three friends on Monday, May 29, who were scheduled to sleep near a barricade on Miguel Ángel avenue in Bello Monte. But they assume that they were arrested by the judicial police during an operation on Tuesday morning, May 30.

That Sunday protesters lament the arrest of a 32-year-old man who works as a driver in a family home and is known as "el colador" (the strainer) because of the pellet wounds on his back, buttock and left leg. He walks curved and leans on a golf club since he was injured. He was last seen on Saturday, June 3, when he boarded one of the four buses that departed from Chacao to Montalbán for the march of the empty cooking pots. On the way, a unit was intercepted by the Sebin, the political police, and 51 protesters were arrested.

While the protests in Venezuela have lasted for more than 70 days, the government insists that the shield-bearers are terrorists financed by opposition leaders. The state security forces have carried out operations in the conflict zones to find these protesters. But opposition leaders such as Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles and deputy Juan Requesens say that these young people fight for change and have attributed violence in demonstrations to government infiltrators.

However, the sectors where these groups protest have been hot spots of violence and anarchy. On Sunday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m. one of the militants of the resistance, Jesús Rojas, 33, who is known as "El Gringo", was killed by several stab wounds to the neck and thorax in Francia square. Members of the movement denounced that the man was killed by an infiltrator who, after attacking him, stole his belongings. The government, on the other hand, claims the victim was killed during a fight between resistance militants.

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In the front row

Monday, 12 June. After 3:00 p.m. the roads leading to Francisco de Miranda Avenue, near the Chacao subway Station, are closed. More and more shield-bearers arrive. They set up barricades in the vicinity of the Executive Directorate of the Magistracy (DEM) and also place barriers that prevent traffic to the San Ignacio Shopping Center and to the Sambil Mall. There are no police officers in the area. They feel free. Neighbors and workers in the area stand at the corners to watch and record what happens. Motorcyclists also arrive to see how hooded people organize themselves to besiege the DEM premises.

"That guarimbín is dressed chiquiluki! People fall in love with him and give him clothes"

At the corner of the subway at the end of the street leading to the San Ignacio Mall stands "Guarimbin" with binoculars for children watching from 300 meters away as their friends throw Molotov bombs and stones against the DEM. "That guarimbín is dressed chiquiluki! People fall in love with him and give him clothes", comments one of Venerescate's paramedics, who is located near the places where the fighting takes place to treat the wounded. The people present laugh out loud. "Guarimbín" smiles and shows a wound in his leg.

Among the crowd is Luis, wearing a motorcycle helmet and a metal shield with Jesus Christ painted on it. "Today I came to fight, as always, with my shield that doesn't let me down", says the young man. You immediately lose sight of him.

It's 4:35 p.m. From inside the DEM they launch tear gas bombs and shoot pellets. Hooded men move around crouching down without looking straight ahead. Those who throw objects at the Supreme Court dependency rely on the shield-bearers. One of them is Luis. "Shield-bearers ahead!", shouts one of the hooded men. Every time the detonation of a Molotov is heard, the young people applaud and some spectators respond in the same way. In the same block of that building, there are paramedics of the Universidad Central de Venezuela who also help the wounded. However, those who are hit on the head are transported by motorcycle to health care centers. When the shield-bearers scream that someone has been injured, motorcyclists offer to take them away.

15 minutes before 6:00 p.m. the youths celebrate that the DEM headquarters is on fire. Luis, who received at least 20 pellets in his left arm, comes out of the smoke. "Do not touch me, do not touch me!", he yells at his friends who try to convince him that he must be treated so he doesn't bleed out. He resists and tells them "that he is a warrior" and that he must "endure" in the front line, like a real men.

Venerescate's paramedics convince Luis and help him. But within seconds there's a stampede in the area. Officials of the National Guard and the Bolivarian National Police break into the avenue and throw tear gas bombs. After running less than 100 meters, Luis sticks his left foot to prevent a woman from closing her building entrance door. He walks in with some friends and asks her to let them be there for a while. Nearly half an hour later, the young man communicates with other friends who are waiting for him on Libertador avenue: "Ma'am, please, keep my shield and give me your phone number so I can come back later to pick it up". The woman accepts and he goes out to meet his companions.

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