Venezuelan lawmakers who oppose President Nicolás Maduro were beaten and bloodied on the floor of congress Wednesday, as pro-government mobs stormed the building, apparently facing little or no resistance from security guards.
The attack left at least 15 people injured, according to opposition leaders, including one lawmaker who was rushed to the hospital with broken ribs and a head wound.
Scenes of the melee shared on social media showed masked pro-Maduro assailants kicking and punching lawmakers in the chambers of parliament and in the streets outside. Reporters inside the building were also attacked and robbed of their equipment.
The assault appeared to mark a dangerous new escalation of violence against opponents of the leftist government, although it was not the first time lawmakers have been bloodied by the pro-Maduro gangs, known as “colectivos.”
The armed gangs move around the city on motorcycles and often work closely with Venezuelan security forces, which direct them to attack protesters and intimidate others from joining the demonstrations, according to human rights groups and opponents of the government.
Earlier this month, a similar pro-Maduro mob gathered outside the parliament building and prevented lawmakers from leaving for several hours. That group did not force its way inside, however.
How the attackers were able breach security Wednesday was unclear, but opposition leaders blamed the National Guard officers who are responsible for protecting the building.
Shortly before 10 a.m., a crowd of 80 to 100 pro-government demonstrators began throwing rocks at the building and shooting fireworks, then forced their way through a gate left unattended by Venezuelan guard troops, according to Jennifer Lopez, a staffer in the National Assembly press office who was reached by phone at the parliament building Wednesday afternoon.
She said she was standing with other staffers on an outdoor patio when the mob burst in, some carrying clubs and pipes.
“The colectivos came in hitting everyone in the gardens,” she said. “A photographer was knocked to the ground and his camera was taken. Several people were hit in the head with blunt objects.”
Then the attackers began shooting, Lopez said. “There are bullet holes in the windows and in the walls of the palace,” she said.
Opposition candidates won control of parliament in a landslide 2015 win, but their attempts to steer the country out of its political and economic crisis have been systematically blocked by the unpopular Maduro and supreme court judges loyal to him.
On Wednesday, opposition lawmakers had gathered to commemorate Venezuela’s independence day and organize a campaign opposing Maduro’s plans to convene a special “constituent assembly” later this month that would attempt to rewrite the country’s constitution.
The attackers were eventually cleared out of the building Wednesday by security forces using tear gas and fire extinguishers. Opposition lawmakers remained in the parliament chamber. They sang the country’s national anthem and said they would continue with their legislative meetings.
Some held up bullet casings they said were found on the floor, though there were no immediate reports of gunshot victims. Photos from the hallways outside the legislative chambers showed walls smeared with blood.
“Nearly 100 young people have been killed in this mess,” said opposition deputy Armando Armas, referring to a running tally of Venezuelans who have died in more than three months of unrest.
“A few punches are nothing,” Armas told reporters, as blood streamed from his head and stained his collar.