Since opposition protests began in Venezuela in early April, much of the media coverage has focused on clashes in Caracas. However, the opposition’s campaign to bring down the government of Nicolas Maduro has not been limited to the country’s capital.
Marco Teruggi reports on a recent visit to the small, but strategic town of Socopo, in the largely rural state Barinas, which has been the site of a campaign of terror and an all-out struggle for power.
More than two months after the right-wing opposition began its campaign of full-frontal confrontation, we can start to see particular episodes as model cases.
Such is the case with Socopo, a town of 20,000 residents in the state of Barinas that for five days, during a period of time that can be divided into three moments, was an epicentre of violence: April 19 and 20; the intermediary phase; and May 22, 23 and 24. Behind closed doors, people are already saying there will be a fourth moment, based on an analysis of the plans to escalate the violence.
Socopo has various characteristics. It is situated along a main highway that unites San Cristobal, the capital of Tachira, with Barinas, and then continues to Caracas via Guanare, the capital of Portuguesa.
Its proximity to San Cristobal is important for two reasons: the first is that it is the rearguard of paramilitarism in Venezuela, from where they can restock on fighters, weapons and logistics.
The second is that it is where many of the vegetables that go to Caracas come from. Cut off Socopo, or more precisely its bridge, and you cut off transit for part of the food heading to Caracas, epicentre and designated site of the final battle.
Another key characteristic is the strength of the opposition in the area, comprised of a political wing, via the opposition-aligned mayor who guarantees, for example, that the municipal police will not intervene; an economic wing, with ranchers and a section of local traders providing funds; and an armed wing, in the form of paramilitaries that for years has been infiltrating the area.
All of this provides the opposition with an organisational, economic, intelligence and military structure, to go with the approximately 150 men and women it can count on to carry out its orders. This unity of action gives the opposition the ability to coordinate its movements in the area and the capacity to control it.
Day the cycle begins. It coincides with national mobilisations in Caracas.
The right wing attacks a pro-government Chavista mobilisation with rocks, firebombs and homemade rockets. No firearms are detected.
They attack the house of a leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, burn the state-owned Bicentenario Bank and attempt to take over the local command station of the state police, an objective they fail to achieve
Coincides with a night of attacks in El Valle, Caracas.
From the morning, a group of 15 motorbikes and two cars circulate, carrying with them a list of Chavistas to kill. In the afternoon, right-wing groups now use firearms in a visible manner and 30 armed motorcyclists go shop to shop, forcing them to close.
They force the Bolivarian National Guard to retreat from the bridge. Once the strategic site is occupied, they cut off electricity to the town and set off a flare, a signal for the attack on the government-subsided Mercal food distribution outlet to begin. An armed group head there, leading a mobilisation; they open the gates and allow the looting to occur. Twenty-one tonnes of food are stolen.
Intermediary phase - April 21 to May 22
It is marked by almost daily, though smaller actions, including the setting up of roadblocks on the highway, charging tolls, looting trucks.
The support of the ranchers is explicit. They take meat to the roadblocks so that those participating can eat and stay the whole day.
It is an exercise in measuring the reaction of the state security forces, the time needed to reinforce their numbers, the reaction of the people.
One day stands out during this month: May 16. That day, they rob a truck with 1600 gas bottles, set them alight, attack a gas plant, the government-run agricultural supply outlet Agropatria and the state-owned Agricultural Bank, using the same method of cutting off electricity during the times of the attacks, which occur between 7pm and 5am.
They have access to radio transmitters, two drones, cars, motorbikes, satellite telephones, firearms, rifles with telescopic sight, chainsaws.
At 9am they hijack a PDVSA tanker truck and use it to cut off the highway. During the day, motorcyclists ride through the town, guns in hand, forcing shops to close. The lesson has been learnt: as shopkeepers see them arrive, they pull down the shutters.
The slogan repeated throughout the day on social media and in the streets is, “Fucking red rats, we are coming for you”, in reference to Chavistas. By now no one leaves home. The town has been almost completely taken over; the bridge is cut off until 6am the next day.
Actions occur simultaneously with events in Barinas. Socopo is cut off in both directions. Then comes the qualitative leap: the attack on the local command station of the state police. A group of 20 people with firearms, and a sniper, initiate the offensive. Behind them is a mob of approximately 150 people.
A shootout ensues for four hours – how many bullets are needed to last for this long? Six police officers are shot.
At the same time, in the same municipality, an assault is carried out on a detachment of the national police in Bum Bum, a few minutes away from Socopo. Six police stations are attacked that day in the city of Barinas.
The police station is empty. The mob returns, sets it alight with petrol donated by a local trader, and then knocks it down with a backhoe lent to them by a rancher. They then advance with the backhoe, forcing open the shutters of shops that have not collaborated and looting them. They are led by a group of people in balaclavas and carrying guns.
They attack the Seniat tax office, Mercal and offices of the Barrio Nuevo Barrio Tricolor government housing project.
All access to Socopo is cut off. It has become a lawless town – that is how residents refer to it.
Many residents did not leave their homes for three days. Each night was pitch black, filled with the noise of gunshots and destruction. It was a campaign of terror, one of the methods of territorial control used by paramilitaries.
It was a demonstration of strength, of capacity to act and retreat by an armed force camouflaged as civilian; and an attempt to measure the response of the state, in particular its security forces.
This did not just occur in Socopo. Similar events occurred in Barinas, Valencia, San Antonio de Los Altos, Los Teques, La Grita, San Cristobal and other places in the country.
It was as if each town was converted into a battleground for one or more days. In places where paramilitaries have not taken hold, groups were dispatched to lead the campaigns.
These were actions with a symbolic and military impact, that sought to demonstrate to the right-wing’s base their power and how close they are to victory, and to impose terror and the sensation of a lack of protection in the Chavista ranks and the popular sectors.
This is the type of war they trialled between April 20 and the last days of May.
A new phase of violence
Starting in the second week of June, we have entered a new phase of violence.
Caracas has once again become the epicentre, with the objective of surrounding the Presidential Palace and generating a stirring sensation of being in reach of the final objective. One of the distinctive marks of this phase is the combination of attacks in the west and east of the city, like a siege dealing multiple blows day-by-day, not allowing a moment’s rest.
One hypothesis is that in the next few days or weeks, all the tactics used since the start of April will be employed simultaneously: attacks on localities in the interior like the one in Socopo, roadblocks on main arterial highways, mobilisations from the east of Caracas, a show of force in popular neighbourhoods. It will be an attempt to unleash all the attacks simultaneously and generate a point of rupture.
Given what has occurred up until now, the plan will be accompanied by a political/media offensive, involving international support, the Attorney General (who has challenged the government in recent weeks) and the opposition-controlled National Assembly, in an attempt to press the accelerator on the clash between the different branches of the state.
This would create a combination of full-scale violence deployed across the country, with an extreme exacerbation of institutional conflict.
The possibility of a rupture grows. They have some 40 days to achieve it, according to some of their strategists.
This is the putschist route that the right has set out, the strategy of terror it has deployed. The question is: what should the government, the state security forces, Chavismo do?
It seems obvious that at the political level, the answer is to be found in the Constituent Assembly process; in ensuring it achieves deep-rooted popular support and a big vote on July 30.
But what about the violence? We can no longer allow ourselves to be taken by surprise.
The people, in their communities, are debating this issue.