Mérida, 22nd February 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan government is to send two army battalions to Táchira state, which borders Colombia, to combat a “grave” case of opposition-promoted disorder in the area.
According to press reports and an eyewitness testimony provided to Venezuelanalysis.com, the capital city of Táchira state, San Cristóbal, has been almost brought to a standstill in recent days by street barricades set up by hard-line opposition activists.
According to such reports, in recent days almost no transport has been able to circulate, while the great majority of shops and businesses have been closed. Authorities warn that the street blockades are impeding the delivery of food and gasoline, and claim that transport workers have been threatened.
The government also suspects that “paramilitaries and criminal gangs” are involved in the actions, with the complicity of the local opposition mayor, Daniel Ceballos.
Jack Johnston, a science teacher from England, experienced the situation in Sán Cristobal first hand, spending nine days there. He told VA.com that the terminal had been closed and he was lucky to find a bus out on Thursday.
“From Monday morning there were no taxis operating, no public transport, and the city’s bus terminal was closed…on Monday one of the main squares in the city was completely deserted by nightfall, and the only thing open was a Wendy’s restaurant,” he said.
Johnston commented that the people on the street barricades in central San Cristobal appeared to be students. “They complained about insecurity, but their main demand was for the fall of the government,” he said.
When asked about the response he had observed from the authorities to the situation, he replied, “Inexplicably non-existent. It’s far from a repressive crackdown, the exact opposite. They’ve allowed a small number of students to occupy a main crossroads and dozens of blocs without any opposition…I explained to them [opposition activists] that there’s no way this would be allowed to continue for more than one day in my country”.
On Wednesday, Venezuelan foreign minister Elias Jaua mentioned events in Tachira to ambassadors of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). He described the situation there as “extremely delicate” and explained, “We’ve acted with the restraint and calm that allows us to understand what’s being played out in Venezuela”.
The foreign minister also referred to opposition protests and street barricades that have affected the country in recent weeks. The government claims a strategy is being employed by the right-wing opposition to destabilise the country and create the conditions for a state coup or foreign intervention.
“[This is] a repeated and well known scheme with disastrous consequences, where a situation of violence is generated so that the state is obliged to act in safeguard of the country’s lives and assets, to then become an object of criminalisation, demonisation, sanctions, blockades, and military intervention,” Jaua argued.
The opposition’s leadership says violent street actions are carried out by “infiltrators”, and that the government and its supporters are responsible for recent violence, claiming they have repressed peaceful student demonstrations.
On Thursday the minister of interior affairs, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, announced that two army battalions would enter Táchira state to help re-establish order there.
The first unit, a parachute battalion, will be placed on the main highways into the city, but will not enter the city itself. “It’s to reinforce the [existing] units…because we’ve detected Colombians that come to undertake missions as armed paramilitaries in the street riots,” the minister said to press.
Meanwhile the National Bolivarian Guard (GNB) will be used to re-establish order in the city, and thereafter in neighbouring municipalities. The second battalion, of army engineers, will then enter the city to clean it of the burned rubbish, tires, and other damages left by the street barricades. Carrying arms in the state is temporarily banned.
Rodriguez Torres accused San Cristobal’s mayor, Daniel Ceballos, of conspiring in the unrest. The minister said there was evidence that Ceballos had paid for paramilitaries and criminal gangs to get involved in the disorder. President Maduro said on Thursday that police forces must investigate the case, “and if he [Ceballos] should be jailed, he will be jailed”.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles criticised the measures to restore order in San Cristobal, arguing that they will not solve the city’s problems. “They don’t want tanks in Táchira, Nicolas, in Tachira they want food, and for the problem with the border [ie contraband activity] to be solved,” he said yesterday.
Authorities have also claimed that paramilitaries have been present in Mérida state, which borders Táchira. The Mérida state government reported yesterday to have captured three armed individuals suspected of being paramilitaries on their way to Mérida city.
Further, on Wednesday a machine gun of Israeli origin was found in a safe house in Mérida. United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) governor of Mérida, Alexis Ramirez, said investigations suggested the weapon was to be used against security forces and opposition protestors to provoke an escalation of violence.
The state governor also reported that hard-line opposition members at barricades on one of the city’s main avenues had begun to charge local residents a toll in order to be able to pass.
“This is a situation that we’re not going to allow, we’re going to take [the avenue] with the constitution, and the Bolivarian National Guard. We’re going to peacefully remove the debris and identify all these people to put them before a court,” he declared.
In recent days transport in up to half the city has been affected by the barricades.