REPORTER:  Claudianna Blanco

This is the Venezuela I want to remember. And this is my country today - A nation on the brink of total collapse. What began as a peaceful student - led movement last month has escalated into deadly street battles that rage throughout the country.

MAN (Translation):  They are shooting outside. Be careful, bullets are hitting the wall.


But the world sees little of what is really going on inside Venezuela. The government of Nicolas Maduro has gagged media outlets and tightened its grip on the internet. So people are leaking information on Twitter and Facebook.


CROWD (Translation):  Let her go. Look at that girl! Look how they hit her. It's not a lie, they are killing us in Venezuela.


The country is split between those who support the socialist government and those who say they are sick of years of economic mismanagement, rampant crime and corruption.


CROWD (Translation):  We are not afraid!  We are not afraid!


In the cities, tens of thousands of people are pouring on to the streets day and night, demanding the government resign.


PRESIDENT MADURO (Translation):  Enough intolerance and hatred! That's enough, fascists! Enough!


President Maduro has called the protests a US-led attempt to topple his government and made this warning.


PRESIDENT MADURO (Translation):  I have given clear instructions to the security forces, whoever goes to the streets to start violence without a permit, will be arrested!


The government reports that there have been over 1,000 arrests. They say the number of deaths since the protests began is over 20. But many more people are missing - and allegations of human rights abuses, police brutality and torture are mounting.


CROWD (Translation):  Chavez, I love you!


Last year, I returned home to witness the extraordinary scenes at the funeral of Hugo Chavez. Considered the defender of the poor and a champion of the disadvantaged, the charismatic socialist leader has been given God-like status by his followers.


WOMAN (Translation):  We love him and we will never, ever forget him! A president like him will never be born again.  We will continue loving him. I swear!  We vow our loyalty to him, and we will continue to fight.


Before dying of cancer, Chavez, who had ruled for 14 years, appointed his successor - Nicolas Maduro, a trade union leader and former bus driver.


CROWD (Translation):  The people are safe with Chavez and Maduro!

In a sign of things to come, government supporters had this warning are to the opposition.


GOVERNMENT SUPPORTER (Translation):  Look, we could be facing a civil war.


Chavez supporters fear the possibility of the opposition returning to power. They believe the corrupt and wealthy politicians of the past would act in their own economic interest and scrap Chavez's popular social programs.


GOVERNMENT SUPPORTER (Translation):  those people are power-thirsty, they want to get a hold of the country's wealth.


Maduro won last year's presidential election by an extremely narrow margin of less than 2%. The opposition denied his victory and claimed electoral fraud.


HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI, OPPOSITION LEADER (Translation):  We are not going to recognise these results until the vote of each and every Venezuelan is counted.


That full recount never happened and within months, the country was on a path to social, economic and moral disintegration.


ESTHER FERNANDEZ, STUDENT (Translation):  Gradually the chaos built up, emotions were high.... People were screaming, I felt very confused and then I got down on the ground.  When I was on the ground, a guy came up to me and told me they were firing for real.


On February 12, Esther Fernandez was at a student march in the centre of Caracas. What started as a peaceful demonstration quickly grew violent. Esther was shot in the leg - allegedly by armed pro-government vigilantes known as colectivos. There have been many reports of these groups instigating violence.


LISANDRO PEREZ (Translation):  What the hell is going on? Fucking hell!


This video allegedly shows armed colectivos roaming the city streets at night and terrorising residents.

LISANDRO PEREZ (Translation):  Sons of bitches! We are a sort revolutionary militia.

Lisandro Perez is better known as Commander Mao. He is head of one of the most radical colectivos in Caracas.


LISANDRO PEREZ (Translation):  Whatever President Maduro says will be obeyed without argument by the revolutionary colectivos of Venezuela.


REPORTER (Translation):  What is the order right now?


LISANDRO PEREZ (Translation):  To generate the movement for peace.


Protesters find this hard to believe.


REPORTER (Translation):  What if President Maduro asks you to take up arms?


LISANDRO PEREZ (Translation):    No, President Maduro won't do it because we have the Bolivarian National Armed Forces.  They have the capacity to defend the motherland.


PRESIDENT MADURO (Translation):  We are inviting ourselves... those of us who disagree, who think listen to each other. You know we have had our differences - no one has a good excuse to avoid dialogue and mutual understanding.  I haven't imposed any preconditions


Maduro called for a peace conference in an attempt to neutralise the violence and promote cooperation across the political divide. The opposition didn't turn up. They called the conference a charade, while riots continued on the streets. Alessandro commands a resistance group that leads the student riots. His hideout is in a building maintenance room.


ALESSANDRO (Translation):  I couldn't run, I fell and national guards grabbed me, they put me in a cage, beat me up with their helmets and after a few hours they released me with a bag covering my face.  Well, I am afraid sometimes when I know they are after me, I'm fearful then because if they catch me, I don't know what they will do to me.


The young engineering student shows us worrying evidence that the government is shooting not only to disperse crowds.

ALESSANDRO (Translation):  This is a lead cartridge, this penetrates the skin and it is illegal to use it to repress public demonstrations. These are legal, these are rubber pellets - it is legal to use these to repress....

REPORTER (Translation):  Can they kill you?


ALESSANDRO (Translation):  They can only hurt you or kill you if they hit you in the face. The girl who died was hit in the face with one of these.


Geraldine Moreno was a 23-year-old science student and promising athlete in the city of Valencia.


SAUL MORENO, GERALDINE'S FATHER (Translation):  She was the centre of the whole family, not having her is affecting us and it will affect us forever. Every night she would come out with other people outside her home, in order to demonstrate, to contribute... banging pots and showing placards. This time the national guards charged at her, it was an ambush.


Geraldine was shot at point blank range in the face.


SAUL MORENO (Translation):  She was, I would say, executed on the ground.  She practically died instantly. The message?  What message can I give?  To continue the struggle for our motherland. They are still coming out and demonstrating, we have to get rid of this regime that is taking us to our death. Because we will all end up dead.


But in a sign of just how desperate he is for change, Geraldine's father believes the students must continue to protest.


LISANDRO PEREZ (Translation):  If there is a coup or our president is assassinated, we are ready to defend the motherland.  Obviously, we'd go out on the streets with sticks, stones, guns, to defend our motherland.


With passions running so high, I wonder how long it will be until I can recognise my country again.


ESTHER FERNANDEZ (Translation):   I was thinking about those who died, that can't be in vain, my wound doesn't hurt me... it's everything else going on. If this crisis gives us the opportunity to become better, then it's worth it.


ANJALI RAO:   Dateline's Claudianna Blanco with that report, made possible through the contribution of citizen journalists operating inside Venezuela. And Claudianna has also put together a photo gallery with more of those images, which is on our website.



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