SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (AP) — The young men move furtively among the would-be shoppers queued outside a supermarket, passing out pamphlets calling for the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro, whose socialist policies they blame for leaving store shelves barren and Venezuela's economy in shambles.
A lookout signals that he's spotted an armed national guardsman approaching, and the group scatters like birdshot. This is not the time to risk being detained, student activist Osmel Garcia explained.
"Nobody wants to get arrested now when things are about to heat up," he said.
One year ago, Garcia was among the thousands of people who staged violent protests in this mountain city in Venezuela's far west. Home to several colleges, San Cristobal was the crucible of student-led unrest that spread to other cities and provoked clashes with authorities and pro-government demonstrators, ultimately leaving 43 people dead and sending hundreds to jail, but failing to unseat Maduro.
The barricades of burning tires and steel manned here by rock-throwing youth only fell after the government sent in tanks, thousands of troops and even scrambled fighter jets to make low, menacing passes over the city of 1 million.
While the streets are calmer now, tension is building again as the anniversary of the February uprising nears.
Venezuela's crisis has only deepened with falling crude prices crippling the oil-dependent economy, leading to a cash crunch that has restricted imported goods to just a trickle. Basic items like flour and diapers are hard to come by even on the black market and the government has had to deploy soldiers to keep peace outside stores where people wait hours for a chance to pick through near-barren shelves.
"Things are as bad as they were a year ago but now, in addition to the crime, there are more shortages in other parts of the country and the lines are longer," says Jose Vicente Garcia, a city councilman who helped lead last year's rebellion. "All the conditions needed to end this government are coming together."
The combination of shortages and spiraling inflation have shaken support for Maduro even among the poor who rely on the social programs launched by his mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez. Polls show Maduro's approval ratings have sunk to 22 percent, a low for his 2-year-old administration and just half the support for opposition leaders Henrique Capriles and the jailed Leopoldo Lopez.
Activists who took part in the 2014 unrest say they've learned from their mistakes and are working hard to counter mistrust of the traditionally elitist opposition.
An anti-government protest called for Saturday in Caracas, the first there in 10 months, seeks to harness anger over the shortages under the slogan "March of the Empty Pots." It's a departure from the previous rally cry that called for Maduro's departure: "La Salida," or "The Exit." Analysts said that phrase helped bolster Maduro's contention he's been the target of a right-wing conspiracy led by the United States.
Activists in San Cristobal appear to be preparing for battle. One student who helped organize the 2014 uprising said protesters are lining up supplies of gunpowder needed to assemble small explosive devices called "potato bombs" and to prepare spike-strips made of nails placed on a hose to stop pro-government motorcyclists. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.
A small demonstration last week ended in clashes with police firing tear gas and stun grenades at students who'd taken refuge on a college campus. The university has yet to reopen for fear of more disturbances.
Nellyver Lugo, a ruling-party state legislator in San Cristobal, says violence should be expected.
"We know for a fact that the students, who are really criminals, have been preparing for the last year for another round of violence to spur chaos," she said.
Nearly 500 miles southwest of Caracas, San Cristobal long has been a bastion of the opposition. Capriles defeated Maduro here almost two-to-one in the 2013 vote. The 2014 protests cost Mayor Daniel Ceballos his position and he has been jailed since for allegedly instigating the violence.
As the gateway to Colombia, the city is a center for smugglers who load up on goods and gasoline at low government-mandated prices and resell them across the border at a huge profit. The illegal trade has made shortages common here for years.
Now that economic misery is spreading, opposition leaders hope they might do well enough in legislative elections later this year to take control of Congress and push for a referendum to recall Maduro.
Historically, however, the opposition has overestimated its strength and been torn apart by infighting. More importantly, last year's harsh crackdown has left many people too afraid to take to the streets again, said Margarita Maya Lopez, a political analyst in Caracas. Plus, many are too busy standing in line to buy food.
"The sense I get is that it's not the moment for demonstrations," she said.
San Cristobal resident Ruth Molina said that despite working for the government, she's fed up with Maduro's mismanagement of the economy. She spoke Wednesday night while attending the annual state fair, helping her 12-year-old daughter into a bumper car while a televised broadcast of the president's state of the union address flickered nearby.
"It doesn't matter what he says. It's all just a farce to cover up the economic reality," Molina said. "The worst part of Maduro's speech is that inflation is so bad, by the time he finishes, prices will have risen again."
Follow Garcia on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jacobogg
AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.