SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (AP) – The killing of a 14-year-old boy by a policeman during an anti-government protest is raising already high tensions in Venezuela amid a crackdown on the opposition and crippling economic problems.
Protesters hurling rocks clashed with police backed by armored vehicles late into the night, and the country was braced for further demonstrations Wednesday after the student, identified as Kluiverth Roa, was shot in the head and killed during a confrontation in San Cristobal, the capital of a restive western state.
Police officer Javier Mora Ortiz, 23, confessed to firing on the boy with plastic ammunition, officials said.
A photo and video of the student lying in a pool of blood, his backpack hanging over his shoulder, as a man frantically tries to staunch the bleeding and others scream and clutch their heads in horror rocketed around social media. Mourners were gathering in San Cristobal for the funeral, expected Wednesday afternoon.
Ruling party officials, including President Nicolas Maduro, condemned the killing with rare speed and forcefulness.
But as Maduro spoke, many residents of the university town near the Colombian border leaned out their windows to bang pots and pans in a cacophonous protest that lasted two hours. Shops closed their doors and public transportation halted as protesters set up flaming barricades on main thoroughfares.
Buses began running again Wednesday morning, but schools remained closed.
In Caracas, small groups gathered Wednesday to protest the killings. Teacher Carolina Castro was among dozens of government critics who held signs outside the diplomatic mission of the Vatican beseeching Pope Francis intervene.
"It hurts me that they're killing our students," said Castro, who wore a homemade necklace with a photo of the 14 year-old. "How many more Venezuelans have to be murdered before there is a reaction?"
Maduro said in a nationally televised address that masked protesters used rocks to attack police who sought to quell the demonstration. He called on young people to resist instigating such confrontations, but also condemned the killing.
Venezuelan ombudsman Tarek William Saab, a federal official charged with defending human rights, said on Twitter that he deplored the "vile assassination" of the teen, who he named as Kluiverth Roa, though other officials spelled his first name differently.
Last month, the government issued a policy change to allow law enforcement officials to open fire and use deadly force to control protests. At the time, human rights groups said the new regulation was dangerously vague, but Saab defended it. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said the state would investigate whether the new policy had played a part in the boy's death.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the killing as "horrendous," and of a piece with the wrongheaded direction in which he said the Venezuelan government is moving.
Tensions were already running high following of a slew of bad economic news and the arrest last week of the opposition mayor of Caracas. February marks the one year anniversary of massive street protests that choked neighborhoods around Venezuela and left more than 40 people dead. That wave of protests also started in San Cristobal.
This week, lawmakers began the process of removing Julio Borges from the congress. He is one of several high-profile opposition leaders recently accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and could be prosecuted if he loses his seat, and thus his legislative immunity.
Growing dissatisfaction has driven Maduro's approval ratings down to just above 20 percent.
On Wednesday, the bolivar fell to a new low on the black market against the dollar, trading at a rate of one greenback per 200 bolivars, according to dolartoday.com, a widely followed website that tracks the rate. In November, a dollar sold for half that on the black market.