Up close, they didn’t look how they were supposed to. To the opposition, those two young men sitting opposite me were supposed to be activists fighting for freedom. According to the government line, they were either spoilt escualidos, or possibly hardened paramilitaries. To me, they looked like two blasé teenagers. There was nothing unusual about either of them, except for a small gash on one’s face that appeared to have been caused by a stray rubber buckshot. Oh, and the one other minor detail: we were all squished into the back of a national guard (GNB) troop carrier.
I’d been hauled into the vehicle during a clash between the opposition and the GNB, after a few soldiers saw me taking photos.
“Don’t worry, just a few questions,” one of the troops told me. Trying to lighten the mood, I joked about how the only reason I’d even left my house that morning was to buy bread. As I giggled my way through the story, I popped my memory card out of my camera and found somewhere discrete to store it.
The bread story was entirely true. Indeed, the bakery just outside my barrio had become very popular since the butane gas deliveries stopped arriving. Everyone in my neighbourhood relies on butane to cook. Once it ran dry, everyone started relying on bread. Personally, I had been living off meals cooked on my kerosene camping stove, and baguettes for almost a week. However, bread was also becoming scarce, making trips to the bakery a tenuous affair.
On my way back from an unsuccessful visit to the bakery, I found that the GNB had decided to try to break down a barricade that had been set up overnight outside my barrio. They met resistance in the form of volleys of molotovs and rocks, and a battle ensued.
By the time I’d explained this awkward predicament, we’d already arrived at the barracks. While a few of the troops unloaded crates of confiscated weapons, I was ordered to join a line of soldiers leading into the mess hall. I went along with it, and soon found myself sitting at a table surrounded by troops, eating a massive plate of rice, beef and potatoes. I struck up a conversation with a soldier next to me. He had recently been on holidays to Ecuador, and seemed to relish the opportunity to tell me all about it whilst vacuuming his lunch.
Once our plates were cleaned, I was led out of the mess hall. The soldier shook my hand, and whispered in English, “I’m so, so sorry. You have big problemas.”
One of my co-workers was waiting for me outside. She looked a little concerned. “They’re saying they just want to ask you a few questions,” she said.
I looked at my lunch companion. He looked back guiltily. Since they weren’t ready to question me, my co-worker and I were left in a games room to amuse ourselves. There was a large television, a bar, a few sofas and two pool tables. We were asked if we’d like something to eat.
After about an hour my colleague started to feel uncomfortable due to a large burn she had suffered while riding a motorbike a few days earlier. When she mentioned it to a soldier, she was whisked off to see a nurse. While I waited outside, someone asked if I was hungry. I shook my head.
After our brief trip to the infirmary for new bandages, we were brought to an officer.
“No, no, we’re not ready,” the officer said. He asked if we’d eaten lunch. I said I was full.
“Erm, take them back downstairs, they can watch movies or something,” he said, gesturing for us to be sent back to the games room.
We were there for another hour. We watched Transformers with a few soldiers. Around the point where I started joking about the fact that every Michael Bay movie looks identical, we were asked if we’d eaten lunch, and invited to a game of pool. I wasn’t keen to play – I’m terrible at pool, and the grunts looked like they got a lot of practice time in. I was saved from an embarrassing defeat when someone rushed in to inform me that they were ready to question me. Before we headed off for the questioning, he double checked to make sure we didn’t need anything to eat.
We were led to a small, sterile office. I was asked a handful of questions about what I’d seen, if I’d had lunch, and if I could put a few of my photos on their computer.
“Just save them to the desktop,” he said, before wandering off to get more coffee. That was it.
While we were being driven home in another troop carrier, I got another look at the two demonstrators. They had also eaten lunch, but had turned down coffee. I wanted to ask why they had tried cut my barrio off from the outside world with their barricade. Many of my neighbours had been waiting for deliveries of gas – but the deliveries weren’t going to start coming until the road was clear. By this point I had dismissed the possibility that they were experienced political activists. I’ve been an activist for years, and they just didn’t pass the smell test. There are rumours around Merida that the blockaiders are being paid. But no one has solid evidence, so I don’t buy it. Others just say they’re all common criminals. Given how the barricaders treat people, it’s not surprising that this characterisation has arisen. They attack people randomly, and have reportedly even started charging toll fees at some barricades. Yet, dismissing them all as thugs is simplistic, and explains very little. These barricades appear to be a well coordinated, national campaign of violence. They are systematically terrorising people, trying to shut down chunks of cities. In some parts of Merida, they have even instituted a regime whereby anyone who turns their lights on inside their houses at night is attacked. Their objective appears to be to spread fear, to make people too scared to move. Yet they looked so ordinary in the back of that carrier. Stripped of their weapons, and tanks of petrol.
Nonetheless, whoever they were, those two weren’t who they were supposed to be. Neither the opposition nor government stereotypes fit.
They didn’t want to talk, so I was left alone with my thoughts.
When we arrived at the barrio, we were greeted by a small crowd of our neighbours. They were gently swaying, with their arms in the air. A rumour had spread that I had been beaten.
A few days later the barricade outside the barrio was rebuilt, but quickly torn down by some local Chavistas. We spent two days cleaning the street. Before and after shots can be seen here.
Since then, the opposition in my neighbourhood have been quiet. The last I heard from any of them was some abuse from a car window while we were knee deep in garbage, cleaning the street.
However, the clashes still continue elsewhere in town, and there are plenty of other barricades.
Merida is riddled with the makeshift barriers. Some are abandoned masses of garbage and twisted metal, others are alive with opposition groups. Sometimes they’re armed, sometimes not.
Moving around is difficult. Local buses run intermittently, as the drivers are scared of being attacked at the barricades. At the time of writing, interstate buses weren’t running at all.
It’s like living under siege – not by the security forces, but by the opposition. People are adjusting their schedules to work around the violence. For example, it’s become obvious that the barricaders like to sleep in, so last week businesses started opening early morning, and closing before midday. People have a short window of just a few hours to do what they need to do, before the city shuts down. By the afternoon buses dry up, and stores are shuttered.
Of course, the mood varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Some of the opposition dominated areas are permanently in lockdown, as for some reason they like to set up barricades outside their own doors.
However, in Chavista barrios life goes on uninterrupted. One of the poorest parts of Merida, Pueblo Nuevo, appears completely insulated from the chaos. The shops are open, and there are people on the streets. I heard a story that a few people in Pueblo Nuevo tried to start cacerolas. They were booed, and they stopped.
Outside pockets of peace, however, the opposition keep fighting.
The sounds of running street battles have everyone on edge. I’m always wary on the street, particularly since my partner was held at gunpoint a few weeks ago. She saw those supposedly peaceful opposition protesters terrorising people at an intersection. They were trying to block a main road at peak hour. To deal with the traffic, they started throwing rocks at cars. Peaceful indeed. A few of them drew guns, boarded a bus and started forcing people off. My partner started taking photos, and they turned on her. The opposition likes to pretend these people are on the streets demanding a free press, yet they assaulted my partner merely for taking photos of their supposedly peaceful protest. After they roughed her up, they put guns to her head and tried to rob her.
Despite the danger on the streets, one day I was desperate to escape from work, so I went for a stroll. I was warned there had been robberies in the area I went walking, but I didn’t care. I had to get some fresh air.
After walking a few minutes, I encountered a group of teenagers. They had their hands behind their backs, hiding things. They looked suspicious, and I eyed them closely. As I approached, I started toying with a knife in my pocket. I looked side to side for something bullet proof.
A colourful projectile soared through the air. It splattered on one of the young men. Wide-eyed, they pivoted in unison. I saw what was behind their backs – water balloons. Another group across the street lobbed a volley of balloons in our direction. The group closer to me responded in kind. The air filled with bright blobs of colour. Everyone was soaked, and laughing hysterically.
Further down the street, I discovered that the neighbourhood I was in had decided to ignore a six day ban on alcohol. The bodegas were overflowing with men drinking beer. On the balconies above, families were playing music. A boy waddled past me. He had an ice-cream cone in one hand, and a cookie the size of his face in the other. His eyes bulged as they flicked back and forth from ice-cream to cookie. He looked overwhelmed. People were dancing. Across the road a sign made of green cardboard read, “enjoy the carnival”. I sat on the curb with a beer and re-read the sign over and over. I wanted to enjoy every second.