Protests erupted across Venezuela's capital, with troops firing tear gas and hundreds of angry demonstrators blocking streets after the slaying of three young brothers by kidnappers set off an outcry against violent crime amid suspicions the culprits could include police.
Protests erupted in at least five spots across Caracas on Wednesday, and one Venezuelan journalist was shot while on his way to photograph a small demonstration at a university. Photographer Jorge Aguirre of the newspaper El Mundo died shortly afterward at a hospital, said Jose Gregorio Yepez, an editor at the paper.
Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez, meanwhile, said investigators have questioned two police officers in the killings of the three Faddoul brothers -- John, 17, Kevin, 13, and Jason, 12, with dual Canadian-Venezuelan citizenship -- whose bullet-ridden bodies were found resting in fetal positions Tuesday just outside of Caracas.
Authorities also found the body of their driver, Miguel Ribas, 30, who was kidnapped along with them more than a month ago when their car was stopped on their way to school at a roadside checkpoint by men wearing police uniforms.
Blocking the highway en masse
Hundreds of protesters demanding action against crime gathered to block a highway Wednesday night near the affluent neighborhood of Altamira in eastern Caracas, a stronghold for opponents of President Hugo Chavez.
National Guard troops arrived shooting rubber bullets above protesters' heads and launching canisters of tear gas into the air, witnesses said. As the protesters were pushed back off highway, some began setting tires and trash bins afire on nearby roads.
In a country facing rampant crime, the killings of the Faddoul brothers drew widespread mourning and a sudden outburst of frustration.
"Today it was them but tomorrow it could be my sister and me," said Fady Rahal, a 16-year-old classmate of John, as she spoke through tears at a peaceful protest earlier in the day. "What kind of a country is this?"
Some 400 protesters froze traffic on a major highway by standing in the way, some lying on the asphalt and sitting in circles holding placards.
‘You don't trust your neighbor’
Alejandro Linares, a 19-year-old university student, spoke of "a sensation of insecurity that at times you don't trust your neighbor."
Dozens of cars and buses passing through downtown Caracas had "mourning" scrawled in white shoe polish across their windows.
Some 200 protesters gathered in front of the Justice Ministry demanding the police be purged of corrupt officers and accusing authorities of incompetence.
Dozens also protested, burning tires, outside the Central University of Venezuela , near where Aguirre was shot. The photographer and a driver were approaching the university when an unidentified man on a motorcycle tried to stop their car, then shot Aguirre and fled, Yepez said.
Rodriguez said the authorities would investigate that shooting.
Organized crime to blame?
He also said authorities have some suspects in the Faddoul brothers' killing, though he did not give more specifics.
"It could be a case of organized crime," Rodriguez said, adding that some kidnappers who contacted the family spoke with a Colombian accent.
Rodriguez said witnesses told investigators they had seen active police officers at the checkpoint. He said two of those officers have been questioned, though he did not say if they were possible suspects.
"We aren't ruling out ... that police officials could have been involved," Rodriguez said.
The boys were shot in the head and neck, and two were found still clad in their school-uniform beige shirts, police said.
The Venezuela-born brothers lived with their Canadian father and Venezuelan mother, both of Lebanese descent, in an upper-middle-class Caracas neighborhood. The family has also lived briefly in Windsor, Ontario, where they have relatives.
Officials said the kidnappers demanded more than $4.5 million from the family, which owns shoe stores in Venezuela. The family's lawyer, Santiago Georges, has said it was too much for the family to pay.
Government a target, too
With the tragedy coming just days after a prominent Italian-born businessman was abducted and killed, many protesters said they were fed up with the government's incompetence but said the protests weren't intended to be political. Yet the gatherings also attracted government opponents angry with what they called Chavez's lack of attention to violent crime.
We're demanding a response from this incapable government," said protester Hortencia Fonseca, 48. "It's all populism, but there are no real answers."
Violent robberies, kidnappings and murders are frequent in Venezuela. There were 9,402 homicides reported in 2005, down slightly from 2004, according to government statistics.