MERIDA, Venezuela (Reuters) - An engineering student armed with a slingshot commands a barricade. A biologist with a PhD organizes residents of a rebellious barrio. A retired economist prays for the hooded youths who guard her building.
This is Merida, the small university city in western Venezuela where students and faculty have spent more than a month protesting against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Sick of shortages of basic products and some of the world’s highest violent crime rates, many people living here at the feet of the Andes have holed themselves up behind barriers rigged out of furniture, fences, trees, and even traffic lights.
“This is a wave of pressure and somehow, something has to give,” says a demonstrator nicknamed “El Rojo” (“the red one”), a biology professor from the University of the Andes wearing a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt, his hair pulled back in a ponytail.
Residents of Humboldt, this middle-class neighborhood of southern Merida, have blocked access roads using metal sheets taken from a building site. A life-size rag doll in a red shirt of the ruling Socialist Party hangs from a lamppost.
“We decided to close the roads because of the insecurity,” says the 40-year-old professor. Like dozens of people interviewed at barricades around the city, he declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
“We’re completely organized. We have alarm systems, doctors, a pharmacy, security 24 hours a day.”
Maduro vowed on Sunday to “liberate” areas like Humboldt that have seen the most street resistance to his rule, hoping to end violence that has killed at least 29 people.
The president accuses the opposition of seeking a coup, like the one in 2002 that briefly ousted his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez.
“There are no political parties involved here,” said “Abreu,” a 22-year-old engineering student wearing a hood at a barricade in Los Sauzales, to the north of Humboldt.
“This is civil resistance. This is people tired of having to queue to buy toilet paper, tired of being robbed.”
“WE‘RE AT WAR”
The spark for the current nationwide demonstrations was the attempted rape of a student in San Cristobal, a city in Tachira state to the southwest of Merida.
With more than 60,000 students enrolled at Merida’s University of the Andes, this city an hour’s flight from Caracas has become a major focus of the anti-government anger.
Some of the fiercest confrontations between protesters and security forces have taken place in Cardenal Quintero Avenue, in the far northeast of the city. Broadly speaking, poorer Venezuelans have yet to join protests in Merida, or elsewhere in the country.
In addition to barricades, protesters here have also strung barbed wire across streets to stop groups of armed pro-Maduro militants on motorcycles whom the demonstrators say are deployed as the government’s shock troops.
One young man guards the entrance to an apartment complex with a crude homemade mortar made out of a metal tube holding a firework wrapped in photocopier paper. To one side sit several buckets filled with stones, just in case.
In the parking lot, young men sit on the floor and eat roast potatoes. Suspicious of strangers, one bearded, bare-chested youth searches the name of a Reuters reporter on his cellphone to check out the visitor’s credentials.
“We’re at war,” explained “El Arabe” (“the Arab”), a 23-year-old student. He shows off his back, which is pitted and scabbed - he says - by plastic buckshot fired by National Guard troops during one recent clash.
“We are seeing the same thing here as happened in Ukraine, where the people were sick of their president.”
A little further up the street, a dozen women are praying, sitting on the sidewalk. They are mostly professors and other staff from the university. At the moment, they cook for El Arabe and the other young men who guard the gate to their homes.
“If they take down our barricade, we’ll put it up again,” says Belkis, a retired economist. “We’re going until the end.”
“NO ONE HERE KNOWS ANYTHING”
In one of the highest profile deaths of the unrest, a Chilean woman living in Merida was shot dead last week.
The government says Gisella Rubilar, 47, was a Maduro supporter and was killed by opposition protesters as she tried to dismantle a barricade near her home in the north of the city.
Neighbors in the poor Pie del Tiro community aren’t talking.
“We don’t know anything,” said one man standing outside the modest home where Rubilar lived, two blocks from where she was gunned down. “No one here knows anything.”
In the 2013 elections to succeed Chavez, Merida opted overwhelmingly for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who received 69.2 percent of votes, more than twice those for Maduro.
The mayor’s office is in opposition hands, while the state governor is a member of the Socialist Party.
Many protesters accuse government officials of sending armed pro-Maduro motorcyclists to threaten and sometimes attack them.
Standing outside a supermarket where hundreds of people lined up to buy toilet paper, Eduardo “Zulu” Parra, an ex-member of one of those radical pro-government militant groups, says he joins some of the rides to clear barricades.
Opposition protesters had no right to block streets, he said, wearing a crash helmet over a baseball cap after getting off his motorbike. “I‘m sad to see the situation in my country,” he added. “I‘m tired too.”
Pushed on whether the bikers carried guns, he said: “When we defend the fatherland, we go out to defend our own lives too.”
On Merida’s barricades, they swear the resistance will go on as long as necessary. But parts of the city are slowly returning to normal, due to pressure from residents fed up with barriers that stopped deliveries and worsened food shortages.
At the barrier in Humboldt, rumors run riot that a column of National Guard troops and hundreds of motorcyclists is arriving soon. After more than a month of protests, El Rojo says he knows Maduro is not about to fall. Still, he thinks the protests will help change Venezuela.
“The kids want him to go. But us, the older ones, we say it’s not that easy. The president leaving doesn’t fix everything.”
Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Hay