“Shields up! Petrol bombs ready, wait for them to shoot — then let it rip!” We’re at the gates of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, and an impromptu leader from a throng of protesters is yelling orders. Those gathered want nothing less than a change of government.
The protests against President Nicolas Maduro and those in power started more than a month ago, on February 2014. Initially, there were stark contrasts between protesters and those trying to control them — on the one hand, you had the tactical and trained efficiency of the police and National Guard. On the other, you had the protesters — unruly, unorganized and emotional.
Fast forward a few weeks and things have changed. Such distinctions have blurred.
Take for example the police and the national guardsmen. They understand well that during a riot, every member of a unit forms a vital part of a bigger whole. Discipline is key in an anti-riot formation. The front row of officers creates a wall of shields. Behind them are shooters — launching teargas canisters or less-lethal rounds. And behind these guys are other officers who make sure there’s always enough ammo.
Standing at the very back of the formation, another group is poised to take over when their front-line colleagues need relief. Each group is directed by a commander barking orders.
Protesters have learned to emulate some of these tactics. The banners, whistles and songs from the early protests have been replaced by masks, stones and improvised shields. Demonstrators have grown savvy to police methods and adept at keeping the authorities in check.
Guys at the front hold shields, behind them are petrol bomb throwers, and behind them are the “carers” who distribute milk of magnesia, which is supposed to counter the effects of teargas.
When the police launch gas, demonstrators no longer flee. They rest huddled behind their improvised shields, made from satellite dishes, fridge doors or corrugated metal. Soon, you hear someone yelling “Maalox!” — a brand name for milk of magnesia. Immediately, a carer comes and tends to the victims.
Behind the front line, other demonstrators play an equally important role. These are the ones who throw the teargas grenades back at the police, or who monitor side streets for potential police ambushes. There are also lots of spectators who block the road and film events with their mobile phones.
“Quick, fall back! We’ll be screwed if we carry on,” yelled one commander of the National Police on March 10 in a road in Altamira, one of the more chic Caracas neighborhoods, which has become something of a war zone.
On that day, it seemed like the officers were afraid. Behind their shields, bulletproof vests and various other equipment, they started to have a sort of respect for their adversaries. The feeling wasn’t reciprocated, and demonstrators were clearly growing increasingly emboldened, getting much closer to police and throwing petrol bombs directly at officers, singeing their feet.
The apparent fearlessness of the protesters also led to a breakdown in discipline among the ranks of the anti-riot police. Some officers broke formation, or tried their own techniques to deal with demonstrators.
“What the hell are you doing?” yell their enraged commanders. “Stay calm! Stop shooting or we’ll run out of ammunition.”
Most of the gas masks used by demonstrators have been cobbled together from old soda bottles that have been cut in half, some of them painted. Clearly, their effectiveness leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes, when I put on my professional mask in the street, I hear people yelling at me to give it to them.
But the vast majority of police don’t use masks. Some of them have them hooked onto their belts, others don’t have them at all. I asked a commander why this is so. “We have to be ready for the fight. We all have masks but we don’t like to use them”. It seems that there’s sort of a manly code of conduct around masks and many in the ranks prefer not to use them. This means the police are often as affected by the teargas as are the demonstrators. And it doesn’t matter how well trained they are, they still cry.
Will the protests achieve their goal of toppling the Maduro government? Many are skeptical. One thing is certain: The rain of tear gas canisters, petrol bombs, stones and bottles is creating a new generation of protesters who are very well versed in the art of rioting.