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Deadly crackdown, fear

Jhonny Godoy had taken to Twitter to proclaim his opposition to President Nicolas Maduro, posting a video that showed him running through the streets waving the national flag as protests erupted across Venezuela's capital.

Two days later, his family said, rifle-wielding special police agents wearing black masks stormed into their home in the Caracas slum of La Vega, pulled him outside and shot him to death.

The slaying of the 29-year-old was part of a crackdown that has spread fear among young protesters in poor neighbourhoods of Venezuela, where a history of steadfast loyalty to Maduro has begun to crack amid hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. At least 43 people have been killed in the round of protests that began last month, when Juan Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled congress, declared himself interim president of the crisis-wracked country.

Human rights groups say some of those deaths appear to be targeted slayings by the National Police Action Force, or FAES, an elite commando unit created in 2017 for anti-gang operations. Rights groups say it is now acting against disaffected youths living in the slums.

"Maduro seeks to sow fear," said Rafael Uzcategui, co-ordinator of the respected rights group Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights, known as PROVEA. More than 700 opponents of Maduro have been arrested during the latest push by Venezuela's opposition to oust the socialist leader, according to PROVEA and a crime monitoring group, Observatory of Social Conflict.

Maduro is facing more pressure than ever to cede power in the oil-rich nation. The Trump administration recently sanctioned Venezuela's state-owned oil company, squeezing the country's damaged economy even harder, and Guaido has been recognized as the country's rightful leader by the U.S. and dozens of other nations that argue Maduro's re-election to a second six-year term last year was fraudulent. A new round of sanctions Friday targeted four high-ranking intelligence officials, including the heads of the FAES commando unit and the feared SEBIN intelligence police.

The country has seen the largest protests since 2017, when 120 people died in clashes with national guardsmen and pro-government civilians who fired on the masked demonstrators in middle-class neighbourhoods. Now, critics say, Maduro is hitting back by sending security forces into the slums to try to suppress dissent.

PROVEA and Observatory say they recorded 35 deaths during a single week in January — most at night in poor neighbourhoods — in addition to eight cases of apparent targeted killings by members of the elite commando unit.

Godoy's cousin, Marvelis Sinai, said that when agents burst into the family's home on Jan. 25, Godoy's mother Ana Buitrago saw her son beaten and dragged out as she begged for his life. Minutes later, she heard two gunshots.

Godoy was shot in the abdomen and foot, and a disposable diaper was shoved in his mouth, apparently to suffocate him, Sinai said.

She said the family believes his killing was linked to the video he posted on Twitter two days earlier.

"I'm going to continue demonstrating because I learned it from my cousin," said Sinai, who works for an opposition politician who hands out free food in the slums. "He died so we can have a free Venezuela."



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