His name was David José Vallenilla. At 22, he became the latest of at least 75 fatalities tied to civil unrest in the streets of Venezuela, a country mired in economic crisis and political instability.
Protests in Caracas have largely fallen off the world’s radar, but Vallenilla’s shooting death Thursday at point-blank range brings renewed attention to the strong-arm response by the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro.
In a shocking video, a protester is seen hurling what appear to be rocks over a fence at La Carlota airbase. At least two soldiers approach from the other side of the fence. One of them fires at the young man with a shotgun or a rifle from a few feet away.
The protester, a knapsack slung over his chest and his face covered with a bandana, falls to the ground. Another protester, carrying a makeshift shield and a Venezuelan flag draped over his back, moves in as if to provide cover. The wounded protester gets up and staggers away, grasping his chest.
Moments later, at least half a dozen protesters are seen dragging and later carrying the young man away from the shooting scene as white smoke billows over the airbase.
Vallenilla was shot three times in the chest and died later at a hospital, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office, a doctor at the hospital where he died and opposition politician Jose Manuel Olivares.
“The sergeant used an unauthorized weapon to repel the attack, causing the death of one of the participants in the siege,” Interior and Justice Minister Nestor Reverol said on Twitter. The sergeant faces legal proceedings, the minister said. It’s unclear what type of ammunition he used.
Reverol also said two members of the military were injured after protesters hurled fire bombs into the airbase.
The violence underscores the widening political rifts in Venezuela, where the opposition has accused Maduro of creating a dictatorship. The government has repeatedly blocked any attempts by the opposition to oust Maduro from power by a referendum vote. It has also delayed elections.
The last vote held in Venezuela, the parliamentary election of 2015, gave the opposition a majority. But critics say new elections have been put off because Maduro is afraid of the outcome.
In late March, the Venezuelan Supreme Court dissolved the parliament and transferred all legislative powers to itself. Getting rid of the opposition-controlled legislative branch effectively meant the ruling United Socialist Party controlled the remaining two branches of government. The opposition called the move a coup. The decision was reversed three days later, but protests had already erupted.
The opposition hunkered down when, on April 7, the government notified main opposition leader Henrique Capriles that he was banned from doing political work for 15 years.
Maduro has been defiant, taking a confrontational tone with opposition and protesters, whom he calls “vandals and terrorists.”
Unemployment is set to surpass 25% this year, possibly on its way to 28% next year. Food shortages have become severe in the last couple of years. in some cases, Venezuelans have endured months without basics such as milk, eggs, flour, soap and toilet paper.
The opposition is calling for protests Saturday at military installations, including the airbase where Vallenilla was gunned down.