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Riot Police on Venezuela’s Front Lines Seek a Way Out

Venezuelan National Guard members shielding themselves from a jar of fecal matter thrown at them by antigovernment protesters in Caracas, Venezuela, earlier this month. PHOTO: FERNANDO LLANO/ASSOCIATED PRESSThe 

Wall Street Journal

By Anatoly Kurmanaev

CARACAS, Venezuela—When Ana, a five-year veteran of the national police, finishes her night shift patrolling this city’s dangerous slums, she often arrives home only to pick up her riot gear and head out again to confront rollicking protests against Venezuela’s embattled government.

On those front lines, she and her colleagues use tear gas and rubber bullets against increasingly desperate protesters armed with stones, Molotov cocktails and even bags of feces. The showdowns take place in scorching heat, and she says the authorities provide her with no food, water or overtime pay.

Ana, who along with others cited in this article asked that her last name not be used for fear of official retribution, is one of about 100,000 Venezuelan security officers, mostly in their 20s, shielding the government of increasingly unpopular President Nicolás Maduro from escalating unrest.

She and many of her exhausted colleagues say they are wavering as protests enter a seventh week with no end in sight.

“One day I will step aside and just walk away, blend into the city,” she said. “No average officers support this government anymore.”

The security forces’ once fierce loyalty to Mr. Maduro’s charismatic predecessor Hugo Chávez has largely given way to demoralization, exhaustion and apathy amid an economic collapse and endless protests, said eight security officers from different forces and locations in interviews with The Wall Street Journal.

Most of them say they want only to earn a steady wage amid crippling food shortages and a decimated private sector. Others say fear of a court-martial keeps them in line.

“We’re just trying to survive,” said Caracas police officer Viviane, a single mother who says she shows up for protest duty so she can feed her 1-year-old son. “I would love to quit but there are no other jobs.”

Opposition supporters using a giant slingshot to throw a ‘Poopootov’—a bottle filled with feces—during a rally last week against President Nicolás Maduro. PHOTO: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS

A full-time Venezuelan police officer or member of the National Guard, the country’s militarized police in charge of riot control, makes the national minimum wage of about $40 a month at the black-market exchange rates, the same as a cafe waiter.

“The security forces suffer the same as the rest of society from the economic crisis,” said retired Maj. Gen. Miguel Rodríguez Torres, who commanded national police in the last wave of antigovernment unrest in 2014.

The current round of protests, triggered in late March by an attempt by judges allied to Mr. Maduro to dissolve the congress, have led to 43 deaths so far, mostly of protesters. Thousands of demonstrators have been arrested and hundreds are being tried in military courts for treason.

The epicenter of the protests has been the line where downtown Caracas meets the opposition-run eastern boroughs of the capital. Both sides view control of the city center as vital. The last large antigovernment march that managed to reach the presidential palace there led to a short-lived coup in 2002 against Mr. Chávez. The opposition says the increasingly isolated government is scared of losing control if a rally breaches its stronghold.

A police officer looks on as opposition supporters confront her colleagues at a protest against Mr. Maduro in Caracas on Friday. PHOTO: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS

“This is a war of attrition,” said Luis García, a student activist who has been at the forefront of the protests. “Whoever tires first will lose.”

Most days follow the same pattern: An initially peaceful demonstration disintegrates into violence as security forces fire tear gas and rubber bullets to block the protesters’ advance. The bulk of the demonstrators then flee, leaving the field to hundreds of hooded youths who call themselves the Resistance, build barricades and battle officers into the night.

“I don’t fear death, because this life is crap,” said Agustín, a 22-year-old Resistance member who blames Mr. Maduro for the collapse of education and job opportunities for young people.

Most guardsmen in Caracas have been confined to barracks since the protests erupted in late March, without seeing their families, according to several guardsmen interviewed.

“I feel exhausted from it all: the lack of sleep, the constant barrage of stones and Molotovs,” said Gustavo, a 21-year-old national guardsman, adding he has to keep performing riot duty despite a leg injury from a broken bottle thrown by a protester. “We’re being used as cannon fodder.”

Officers stopped giving time off in Gustavo’s barracks after 18 guardsmen deserted during the last break last month, he said.

Police officers firing tear gas during a protest against President Nicolás Maduro earlier this month in Caracas.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGE

Guardsman Juan, 21 years old, said he has been getting up at 4 a.m. daily in his barracks outside Caracas for the past month. He gets a boiled carrot or a potato for breakfast and is sent out to protest duty, sometimes until near midnight. Back at the barracks, dinner sometimes consists of a plain corn patty known as an arepa. On a lucky day, there will be butter, Juan says.

Riot duty is sometimes followed by emergency nighttime shifts to contain looting outbreaks. Guardsmen and policemen can increasingly be seen napping on Caracas’s streets in the mornings before protests gather pace.

As the unrest drags on, both sides are escalating violence to try to break the deadlock. Videos on social media have shown policemen and soldiers firing tear-gas canisters directly at protesters at close range, running them over with armored vehicles and beating them with shotgun butts.

Some protesters throw Molotov cocktails at National Guard vehicles to try to set them ablaze and others aim for soldiers’ heads when they launch rocks from giant makeshift slingshots.

Armed pro-government paramilitaries add to the chaos, driving their motorbikes into protests to disperse them. Shots fired by paramilitary gangs have hit both protesters and policemen, according to opposition leaders and security officers.

The violence is driven by adrenaline, fear and self-preservation instincts rather than hatred, say both security officers and Resistance members interviewed by the Journal.

“These are my countrymen, I cannot hate them,” said protester Agustín of the guardsmen. “But when [gas] bombs start falling, what is there left to talk about?”

Police officer Ana says she no longer wears her uniform on the way to or from work to avoid being spit on or insulted by passersby.

“I’m ashamed to say I’m a police officer,” she said. “God willing, this government will fall soon and this will end.”

—Sheyla Urdaneta in Maracaibo and Maolis Castro in Caracas contributed to this article.

Corrections & Amplifications
Ana, who along with others cited in this article asked that her last name not be used for fear of official retribution, is one of about 100,000 Venezuelan security officers, mostly in their 20s, shielding the government of increasingly unpopular President Nicolás Maduro from escalating unrest. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of security officers. (May 17)