A memorial was held for a university student beauty queen slain this week during a political protest in Valencia, a victim of what government opponents say is indiscriminate violence used by President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters to stifle dissent across the country.
Family members and friends of 22-year-old Genesis Carmona say the former Miss Tourism 2013 for the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo was shot down by members of the armed militias – known as colectivos – who opened fire on a demonstration in Valencia on Tuesday.
Ms. Carmona is one of at least eight people who have been killed during political protests roiling this South American country since massive opposition rallies on Feb. 12 ended with three deaths in the capital, including one government supporter. With even Mr. Maduro lamenting the tragedy during a speech on national TV, the young woman’s death has resonated in part because she was a pageant winner in a country that has long prized its production of more Miss Universe winners than any other country.
Her death also came amid increasing concern about escalating violence in the country, and has left many on edge as the opposition plans large rallies for Saturday.
The government says Ms. Carmona’s death is under investigation but has suggested she may have been shot by an opposition protester, a suggestion that drew scorn at the private mass and graveside memorial attended by several hundred people.
“She wanted to support her country and, well, look what it cost her for going out with a flag and a whistle. Killed by government mercenaries,” said Jose Gil, an uncle of Ms. Carmona.
Ms. Carmona, who was in her final year of earning a marketing degree at a university in Valencia, was not ardently political, friends and family said. Her uncle said she was drawn to the rally by the dismal economic conditions that the oil-rich country has experienced after 15 years of socialism-inspired policies, and that her mother had gone with her to protect her.
Also on Friday, Venezuela’s jailed protest leader urged supporters to keep demonstrating peacefully against Mr. Maduro despite the violence.
“I’m fine, I ask you not to give up, I won’t,” Leopoldo Lopez told his followers in a handwritten note passed to his wife at Caracas’s Ramo Verde prison which was then posted on the Internet.
The 42-year-old Mr. Lopez spearheaded protests against the socialist government that began at the start of February. He surrendered to the military this week after an arrest warrant was issued accusing him of instigating the violence.
The government puts the death toll at eight, including indirectly linked cases of a woman who had a heart attack and a judicial official who crashed his car swerving round a barricade. Some 100 civilians have also been injured, as well as 37 members of the security forces, authorities say.
Both sides are blaming one another for murder and brutality.
The government says sharpshooters are appearing on the opposition side and radicals are seeking to create chaos by smashing property, attacking police and blocking highways.
The protesters, mainly students, accuse Mr. Maduro of worsening repression. They say police are firing shots, allowing pro-government gangs to attack protesters and mistreating some detainees.
“To the police, soldiers, prosecutors and judges: Do not obey unjust orders, do not become the face of repression,” Mr. Lopez said in his note from prison.
“To the youth, to the protesters, I ask you to stay firm against violence, and to stay organized and disciplined. This is everyone’s struggle.”
Having initially accused Mr. Lopez of crimes including murder and terrorism, authorities are now charging him on lesser counts of instigating arson, damage and criminal gatherings.
Once again, the worst trouble on Friday appeared to be in the western border town of San Cristobal, which residents are calling a “war zone,” with running battles between students and security forces on barricaded streets for days.
Venezuela’s military has moved into the town in force, residents say, with helicopters and planes flying overhead.
There was also trouble in Merida, another Andean town, and protesters blocked a few streets again in Caracas on Friday.
In the biggest challenge to Mr. Maduro’s 10-month-old government, the protesters are demanding his resignation over Venezuela’s rampant crime, inflation, shortages of basic products and alleged repression of opponents.
Demonstrators bang pots and pans from windows every night.
“I recommend they buy some stainless steel pots to last for a good 10, 20, 30 or 40 years,” Mr. Maduro said as he mocked them. “Because the revolution is here for a long time!”
While the Caracas protests began in middle-class neighbourhoods and are still strongest there, sporadic demonstrations have also spread to poorer areas.
Mr. Maduro says the protests are a pretext for a planned coup, similar to the short-lived ouster of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in 2002. There is no evidence that the military, which was the decisive factor in 2002, may turn on Mr. Maduro now.