Last month, when Venezuela's
anti-government protests reached peak intensity, José Rafael Becerra, a
non-commissioned officer in the National Guard, was stationed in Táchira, the
most rebellious of Venezuela's provinces. "You can launch 500 tear gas
canisters into a crowd," he told me, "but when agitators are all wearing
gasmasks and thick, layered clothing (to protect the skin from gas and rubber bullets),
there's hardly any effect." By now, Venezuelan protesters have been seasoned by
years of violent confrontation with the forces of the revolution -- and
developing defenses against tear gas, a favored tool in the regime's crowd
control arsenal, has been a big part of that experience. "They had all
protected themselves in some way against those few weapons we were actually
allowed to use against them," Becerra recounted. "And we're not allowed to
remove people's gasmasks or face rags."
moments in which he felt "physically and psychologically assaulted" by
protesters, at one point being forced to retreat from his position by agitators
hurling Molotov cocktails. Though he and his colleagues were armed with clubs
and "other weapons" that he declined to define more clearly, Becerra said, "we
were under orders to use lethal force only as a last resort, and in response to
direct threats to our lives." As a result, he told me that he and his
colleagues "felt hamstrung" -- especially in light of the fact that
tear gas alone could no longer be expected to deliver the expected results.
I was especially intrigued by Becerra's remarks, having at
one point found myself on the opposite side of the line. My own induction into the ranks of "the
suppressed" took place at a protest in Caracas's Plaza Brión in the summer of
2007. This was during the tumultuous period surrounding Hugo Chávez's
controversial closure of the opposition-leaning TV station Radio
It was an honor for which I was distinctly unprepared. The armored national
guardsmen who descended on us were equipped with water cannons, mechanized
personnel carriers, and tear gas grenades. I was armed with only a camera.
Engulfed in a sea of gas that seemed to melt my contact lenses into my eyes,
leaving me blinded, I was isolated from my friends and eventually collapsed in
a nearby alley, struggling for each breath.
While we routinely
speak of "tear gas," there are actually a number of different substances that
can be used as such. One of the most favored is CS gas (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile), a substance capable of producing intense irritation to mucus
membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and airways. At higher dosages,
exposure can result in unconsciousness, permanent eye damage, and asphyxiation
-- to say nothing of the risks posed by the heavy canisters themselves as they
are thrown or shot out as projectiles. Indeed, if it hadn't been for the
arrival, back in 2007, of a sympathetic and well-prepared stranger who poured
vinegar over my shirt and pulled it up to cover my bewildered, burning face, my
own story may have had a tragic ending. Vinegar-soaked cloth somewhat
neutralizes the effects of tear gas, allowing a person to draw in breath
through the acidified fabric. It's effective enough to give the victim an opportunity
to move to safer ground, but does little to dull the sensation of having one's
skin on fire.
Since February, when
this most recent cycle of protest and repression began -- thus far claiming
scores of lives and leading to the arrest or injury of many hundreds more --
regime opponents have gone to great lengths to disseminate these best
practices. YouTube videos offer do-it-yourself guides to making homemade
gas masks, and both civil society groups and individual protesters have flooded
the blogosphere and social networking sites with checklists on what (and what
not) to bring to protests. (Most caution, for example, against wearing contact
lenses, and I heartily agree.) With this influx of shared information, even the
use of vinegar has become out of date, almost unfashionable. Today's cutting-edge
Caracas counterrevolutionary prefers Maalox, an over-the-counter antacid that,
when mixed with water, becomes a superior antidote to the effects of gas, minimizing
the risk of irritation.
The teargas most regularly in use by Venezuelan authorities
is likewise, by accounts, a good deal stronger than the Chinese version I faced
back in 2007. Becerra tells me, not without a modicum of pride, that Venezuela
is no longer importing tear gas. Now the government manufactures its own, using
a state-owned defense company called Venezuelan Anonymous Company of Military
Industry (CAVIM). Many of the spent canisters I've come across recently,
though, actually hail from Brazil, fabricated for export by the Rio de
Janeiro-based firm Condor
Non-Lethal Technologies (as seen below). A recent report by the
Noticias indicates that the regime in Caracas bought nearly 150 tons
of tear gas from Condor between 2008 and 2011 (in the aftermath of our
protests) at a price of between $6.5 and $9 million. As a company, Condor is no
stranger to controversy, at times coming under attack for casualties produced
by its products in the hands of its overeager clientele. In 2011, Condor tear
gas used against protesters in
Bahrain allegedly led to the death of two young children. When the
corporation was singled out for criticism, it responded with claims of breach
of contract: that Bahraini authorities had failed to follow "the instructions"
for proper use.
Like Bahrain, Venezuela currently seems unable, or
uninterested, in keeping to the Condor manual. According to the company's product catalogue,
safe usage involves launching the chemical grenades several meters upwind from
the amassed protesters, thus giving the agent adequate room to safely disperse.
According to Becerra, however, this is not how tear gas is generally used.
While taking care to point out that there are specific National Guard
specialists tasked with managing the use of tear gas against agitators, in his
experience, standard procedure is to aim for the center of a group -- provided,
of course, that it is possible to do so without risk that the grenade itself
will hit someone. "If you can get the canister into the center of the group,"
he explains, "that's where you get the best chance of a scattering effect. It
doesn't work as well at a distance."
Venezuelan authorities and the protesting masses are currently
locked in a kind of arms race, with both sides struggling to adapt to the new
reality of urban conflict. Due in large part to the protesters's adroitness and
ingenuity in the face of the regime's tactics, so far the body count has
remained remarkably low, numbering only in the dozens rather than the hundreds,
despite months of very violent suppression.
There is likewise another possible explanation for the declining
marginal returns afforded by tear gas. The tear gas currently in use by local
authorities has a short shelf life, and much of those Brazilian tear gas
reserves imported between 2008 and 2011 would, today, have already
expired. Once past its "use-by" date, tear gas's eye-burning effect
is ameliorated, even as the agent itself, being cyanide-based, remains very
dangerous, retaining its capacity to cause fainting and asphyxiation.
Venezuelan National Guardsmen, upon finding that tear gas implemented
at a "safe distance" is not having the desired effect, may instead opt to throw
caution to the wind, so to speak, by launching the canisters directly into the
crowd. While this tactic may prove effective in terms of dispersing
demonstrators, it likewise runs the risk of causing potentially lethal
respiratory effects. These effects speak for themselves. On March 12, during a
protest by students from Venezuela's Central University in Caracas, the National
Guard fired nearly
850 individual tear gas canisters into the crowd, ultimately sending 25
individuals to the university hospital due to asphyxiation or acute respiratory
Francisco Marquez, chief of staff for David Smolansky, the
opposition mayor of Caracas's borough El Hatillo, told me of another protest
where, he said, the authorities launched tear gas directly into the heart of
the crowd. That incident was captured
on video by nearby onlookers. "Everyone was choking," Marquez tells me. "The
mayor was choking, a nearby group of women was choking. Even the national guardsmen
Even as the current instability in Venezuela seems to be
winding down -- and as Chávez's heirs breathe a sigh of relief at having lived
to fight another day -- a new generation of Venezuelan freedom fighters is adapting,
becoming better able to neutralize the government's myriad advantages in
resources and in materiel. As chavismo struggles to reconcile its ideologically
driven policies to a new era of depleted national reserves and to governing
absent its eponymous founder, the shortages, inflation, and human rights abuses
that fueled these dissident outbreaks are unlikely to improve. Future standoffs
are inevitable, and this violent game of cat and mouse may well become the new
normal in Venezuela.
Becerra, too, is skeptical that the protesters will remain
subdued for long. "Damned is the soldier who turns his arms against his own people,"
he tells me, paraphrasing (perhaps unknowingly) Simón Bolivar, Venezuela's
celebrated founder, "everybody knows that. And that is exactly why they'll keep
seeking to provoke us."
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is
a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a weekly columnist for
the Venezuelan daily newspaper El
Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
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