Venezuelans are bracing for a further escalation of violence after a 17-year-old protester was shot dead by a member of the national guard.
Fabian Urbina died on Monday after security forces opened fire with handguns during clashes with demonstrators on a major highway in Caracas. Initial reports said six others were wounded – one of them critically – in the incident.
The interior minister, Nestor Reverol. confirmed Urbina’s death on Twitter, where he said the cause of death was presumed to be “excessive use of force” and added that those responsible would be “presented to their superiors to determine their responsibility”.
President Nicolás Maduro announced on Tuesday that the general in charge of the national guard was being replaced by another military officer, although he gave no reason for the change.
More than 70 people have died since protests first erupted in April, following the supreme court’s decision to strip powers from the opposition-led Congress. Violence has erupted nearly every day in clashes between the security forces and protestors hurling stones and petrol bombs.
The victims include members of the police and national guard, passersby, and demonstrators who have been struck by tear-gas canisters or targeted by government supporters, but Urbina is the first person to have been shot dead by security forces.
Video footage of the incident shows Urbina, wearing a beige hooded sweater, running alongside a group of young protesters carrying wooden shields and throwing stones at a line of national guardsmen.
One of the national guard members can be seen drawing what appears to be a 9mm pistol and shooting into the crowd. Another clip, filmed moments later, captures the moment when Urbina collapses to the ground.
Speaking outside the morgue where Urbina’s body was taken, his cousin Clemedy Flores blamed the government for his death. “The impunity is too great. The government does what it pleases. I just want this to end,” she told the digital media outlet Caraota Digital.
“It’s always young kids. It’s just kids who say they want a free country,” she added while fighting back tears.
Venezuelan law prohibits the use of lethal weapons during street protests, but the country’s security forces have been accused of increasingly repressive measures during three months of political turmoil.
In 2015, a new law sought to modify existing legislation and allow for the use of “potentially lethal force” during street protests. After outrage from human rights groups, the attorney general promised to revise the decree, but no public statement has been made on the law since.
Last week, videos emerged showing at least three members of the national guard firing handguns at protestors. Footage also showed guardsmen robbing protesters who had succumbed to tear gas, prompting the minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino López, to warn that those officers he saw committing “atrocities” would be held responsible.
After more than 80 days of upheaval, some members of the country’s opposition admit that a measure of fatigue has started to set in. But Urbina’s death has prompted fresh outrage in a country whose national hero, Simón Bolívar, once said: “Damned be the soldier who turns his weapons against his people.”
“In Venezuela, we grow up with this almost God-like admiration towards our independence hero,” said Miguel Rincón, a retired teacher who lives near where Urbina died, at the site of repeated clashes. “This happens while we are living under a so-called Bolivarian revolution. Damn the soldier, and damn his commanders!”
On social media, calls for revenge were swift, but few protesters believed that those responsible for Urbina’s death would be brought to justice.
“It is such an unequal fight,” said Laura Pérez, a shop owner who has joined in protests nearly every day. “And it’s so sad to see one of our kids dying every day. We really ought to think of a new strategy.”
But as Venezuela’s crisis heads into its third month, attempts at a political settlement have been fruitless. An attempted recall referendum was quashed last year by the electoral council on grounds that some of the signatures collected for its activation were fraudulent. Vatican-sponsored talks also failed.
On Tuesday, a meeting of the Organization of American States once again failed to approve a resolution that might have pushed for a political solution. Earlier in the day, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, walked out of the meeting, saying that her country would not recognize any motion it proposed.