CARACAS: After her bus was stopped at a barricade set up by protesters in Venezuela one night last week, a pregnant 28-year-old got off to walk home in the dark.
Adriana Urquiola, who worked as a sign language interpreter at a TV station, was returning from a shopping trip. Moments later, she was shot several times and died.
Witnesses say she was hit by a man who got out of a black SUV at the barrier and opened fire with a pistol. But the exact circumstances are unclear and that is often the case when trying to identify the killers in Venezuela’s worst unrest in a decade.
Both sides blame the other in many of the roughly three-dozen deaths, and each suspects hardliners among their rivals of morbidly desiring a higher toll for political reasons.
The government accuses the opposition of wanting more fatalities to make their case of state-sponsored violence against peaceful rallies and justify international sanctions against members of President Nicolas Maduro’s administration.
The opposition says the government wants a higher toll as it blames the chaos on opposition gunmen and hooded demonstrators blocking roads, and to distract from the issues that started the protests, such as high inflation, food shortages and crime.
The drip-drip of new fatalities, and fierce disagreements about what caused them, are driving the political debate and are being used by both sides to rally supporters.
In a country with at least 15,000 homicides last year, there is ample scope for confusion and propaganda. Many of the deaths occurred in chaotic circumstances, often after dark, amid clashes between opposition protesters on one side and pro-government militants or National Guard troops on the other.
“Each and every fatality is the fault of the crazy ‘guarimberos’,” Maduro said last week, using the local term for demonstrators who barricade streets. There is little agreement even on how many deaths can be attributed to the turmoil, which began with student protests and intensified when three people were shot dead after a February 12 opposition rally in downtown Caracas.
The government says 39 people have died while the opposition says the toll is 28. More than 550 people have been injured.
Prosecutors have accused at least 20 people in connection with the deaths, but in most cases have not released enough details to verify who is responsible. Few details are universally agreed on in any of the other cases. Both sides’ lists show that at least 18 victims were killed by unidentified gunmen, although they blame their foes.
The government says 10 people were killed while trying to get through or dismantle barricades, many of them felled by gunshots that it blames — without definitive proof — on armed opposition hardliners wanting to keep the barriers in place.