One Checkpoint, Then Another, Then Mayhem: Maduro's Men Set Trap





(Bloomberg) -- At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the caravan to downtown Caracas began, a motorcade of opposition lawmakers to Venezuela's National Assembly trailed by a phalanx of reporters and photographers on motorcycles.

After 15 minutes, the procession passed the regime's first security checkpoint. Police moved traffic cones out of the way. The same happened at the second checkpoint and the third. But near the National Assembly, it became clear that the officers were setting a trap: About 50 men carrying weapons and rocks stood a block away and hurtled toward the vehicles.

There were screams, the stench of tear gas and the crack of gunshots.

The mayhem that ensued blocked Juan Guaido, recognized by more than 50 nations as Venezuela's rightful leader, from calling the National Assembly into session. Loyalists of strongman President Nicolas Maduro have tried to depose him from his position as president of the National Assembly.

This was the day when supporters of the Maduro regime known as colectivos ran rampant against the nation's last functioning democratic institution. "What we saw was a senseless aggression, an ambush by paramilitary groups trying to prevent deputies from accomplishing their mission," said Guaido, who wasn't in the caravan.

The colectivos went after both lawmakers and the journalists trying to relay the event to the world outside the ravaged nation. I heard shots, but couldn't tell where they were aiming. Another reporter who had stepped off her bike was pulled to the ground by her backpack. Men began to kick SUVs carrying lawmakers and to pull on their door handles. A man threw a railing onto the street to keep the cars from moving. The men robbed journalists at gunpoint, snatching away their gear.

Suddenly, hundreds of men in red hats and shirts were charging and a high-speed escape began. I was separated from photographer Carlos Becerra, and grasped onto the motorcycle-taxi seat as the SUVs drove over a sidewalk and into a pedestrian park. It was the only way to reach a clear road ahead.

On Jan. 5, Guaido had been up for re-election as president of the National Assembly but was blocked from entering the chamber by security forces. Opposition lawmakers decamped to hold the re-election vote at a local newspaper office. Back in the assembly chamber, Maduro's backers -- a minority of the body -- elected Luis Parra on a voice vote. He has since moved into Guaido's former office.

On Wednesday, Socialist Party leader Jesus Torrealba insisted in a text message that Guaido's claim on the position is null.

"Guaido's call for a session isn't acknowledged, since he's not the speaker anymore," he said.

Before the violence, both the Guaido-led congress and the powerful National Constituent Assembly, dominated by Maduro loyalists, had been set to meet at the Legislative Palace. "We'll convene in Venezuela, no matter where," said National Assembly member Carlos Prosperi. "The National Assembly is not represented by a building, but by its lawmakers."

After the violence, Maduro's handpicked Constituent Assembly convened -- behind closed doors, guarded by heavy military security.

Elsewhere, opposition lawmakers and journalists nursed their wounds and assessed their losses. Minutes after the escape through the park, Becerra called: He had been held at gunpoint and ordered to hand over his camera.

--With assistance from Nicolle Yapur, Alex Vasquez and Fabiola Zerpa.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patricia Laya in Caracas at playa2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Juan Pablo Spinetto at jspinetto@bloomberg.net, Stephen Merelman, Paula Dwyer

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

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