CARACAS, Venezuela – The latest youth to die during Venezuela's crackdown on anti-government protests has a unique connection to President Nicolas Maduro: His father once worked with the socialist leader.
David Vallenilla told journalists that he'd been Maduro's supervisor when the future president drove a bus for Caracas' mass transit system more than two decades ago. He said he no notion at the time of Maduro's political beliefs and described him as someone very focused on his work.
Tragedy brought the two together again on Thursday when Vallenilla's 22-year-old son was hit at short range by security forces firing rubber bullets on protesters in the capital. The incident caught on cellphone videos came hours after Maduro said security forces were under orders to only use tear gas and water cannons to disperse protests.
"Nicolas, it's clear there was an attack on Jose David, who you met as a little kid in Plaza Venezuela," a distraught Vallenilla told journalists outside the Caracas morgue where he identified his son's body Thursday. "Nicolas, please, I don't want to say this is how justice is carried out — this can't be left the way it is."
More than 70 people have been killed during almost 90 days of protests seeking Maduro's removal. Villanella is the second protester this week whose death at the hands of security forces was captured on cellphone videos, undercutting the government's argument that it is exercising restraint in dealing with protesters it frequently condemns as "terrorists."
On Monday, 17-year-old Fabian Urbina was shot dead as security forces opened fire with handguns during clashes on a major highway. As photos of the incident went viral, normally hardline Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said the death was the result of excessive use of force and in a rare rebuke said those responsible would be held accountable.
Maduro in a press conference Thursday said he regretted all deaths as a result of the protests, but criticized his opponents for violent tactics, including allegedly providing teenage protesters with amphetamine-based drugs and using them as human shields. He provided no evidence for the claim.
"The national guard and police are doing heroic work, without firearms, which are prohibited, and without rifles firing rubber bullets, which are prohibited," Maduro said just a few hours before Vallenilla's death. "Only water and a little tear gas, that's all that's permitted."