San Cristóbal, Venezuela (AP) – The violent protests that have roiled Venezuela's major cities and challenged its socialist government have their roots in a little-known incident on a college campus in a city far from the capital.
Just over a week before the Feb. 12 opposition rallies across Venezuela, students at the University of the Andes in San Cristóbal in the border state of Tachira were protesting an attempted rape of a young woman on campus.
The students were outraged at the brazen assault on their campus, which underscored long-standing complaints about deteriorating security under President Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez.
But what really set them off was the harsh police response to their initial protest, in which several students were detained and allegedly abused, as well as follow-up demonstrations to call for their release, according to students and people who live in the city of San Cristóbal.
"It was shocking not just to students but to all of San Cristóbal," said Gaby Arellano, a 27-year-old student leader who has been involved in the national opposition campaign. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back."
The protests expanded and grew more intense, drawing in more non-students angry about the dismal economy and crime in general, which led to more people being detained. Students at other universities decided to march in Caracas and the protest movement became a nationwide campaign when prominent opposition leaders decided to get involved.
The main rally on Feb. 12 in the capital turned violent, resulting in three deaths from gunshots and then the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Now, protests that continued throughout the country Friday, and are particularly fierce in San Cristóbal, rarely, if ever, mention the attempted rape.
"I'm protesting because of the insecurity, for the scarcity and the abuse of power that we have been experiencing," said Maria Garcia, a 30-year-old mother in the Los Agustinos neighborhood of San Cristóbal, where patrolling soldiers have strung coils to control protesters who lob rocks and Molotov cocktails. "I'm tired of waiting five or six hours in line for a kilo of flour."
Today, as the anti-government movement has snowballed into a political crisis, the likes of which Venezuela's socialist leadership hasn't seen since a 2002 coup attempt, San Cristóbal remains a hotbed of unrest. Protest rallies are expected throughout the country on Saturday.
The government on Thursday said it would send paratroopers to aid hundreds of soldiers already in place to restore order and the president has said he would consider imposing martial law in the area.
Maduro, it should be noted, has a very different version of events in San Cristóbal, which is in the western state of Tachira that borders on Colombia.
Maduro says the city is under siege by right-wing paramilitaries under orders from former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who dismisses the allegation as an attempt by the Venezuelan leader to distract people from an economy beset by shortages of basic goods and inflation of more than 56 percent.
Maduro said Friday that San Cristóbal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, a member of the same party as Lopez, would soon join the jailed opposition leader behind bars for fomenting violence. "It's a matter of time until we have him in the same cold cell," Maduro said.
Residents on Friday tried to resume their normal activities as the smell of burnt trash still lingered. Public transportation has yet to be restored, many stoplights are out and students are gearing up for what they promise will be an extended fight. As warplanes buzz the sky, there is also widespread resentment of the heavy troop presence.
"Why is the president sending these troops here? As far as I know, the military is supposed to protect Venezuelans, not attack them," said Jose Hernandez, a 31-year-old construction worker.
San Cristóbal, a rural city 400 miles (660 kilometers) from Caracas, would seem an unlikely place to be at the center of a national crisis. But with its disproportionately large student population and longstanding cultural and economic ties with its more conservative neighbor, it has long been an opposition stronghold.
The state of Tachira, of which San Cristóbal is the largest city and capital, was only one of two where opposition candidate Henrique Capriles defeated Hugo Chávez in 2012 presidential elections. Last April, residents of San Cristóbal voted nearly 3 to 1 in favor of Capriles in the race against Maduro to elect Chávez's successor.
Its independent streak may have to do with its isolation, said Arellano, who grew up in Tachira.
"I think people in Tachira have always stood against abuses and being trampled," she said.