SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (AP) — The killing of a 14-year-old boy by a policeman during an anti-government protest raised already high tensions Wednesday in Venezuela amid a crackdown on the opposition and crippling economic problems.
Schools and many shops stayed closed in San Cristobal, the capital of a restive western state, the day after Kluiverth Roa was shot in the head and killed during a confrontation between protesters and police.
Roa's father spoke to hundreds of mourners who gathered in the Andean city for the boy's funeral Wednesday afternoon and said his son had neither supported nor opposed the government, but was an innocent bystander.
Police officer Javier Mora Ortiz confessed to firing on Roa with plastic ammunition, officials said. The family has said the boy's autopsy suggested it was a live round.
A photo and video of the student lying in a pool of blood, his backpack hanging over his shoulder, as a man frantically tries to staunch the bleeding and others scream and clutch their heads in horror rocketed around social media Tuesday afternoon.
Ruling party officials, including President Nicolas Maduro, condemned the killing with rare speed and forcefulness.
But as Maduro spoke Tuesday, offering condolences while also saying the police had been attacked, many residents of this university town near the Colombian border leaned out their windows to bang pots and pans in a cacophonous protest that lasted two hours. Shops closed their doors and public transportation halted as protesters hurling rocks clashed with police backed by armored trucks late into the night.
On Wednesday, police in riot gear oversaw the city and protests remained mostly peaceful, with the exception of one group that burned a truck full of gasoline belonging to the state oil company.
In the neighboring mountain town of Merida, however, students clashed with police who fired plastic ammunition. At least four protesters were seriously injured, Andes University spokesman Nelson Espinoza said. Pictures of their bloody arms and legs circulated widely on social media.
In Caracas, dozens of protesters held signs outside the diplomatic mission of the Vatican beseeching Pope Francis to intervene.
"It hurts me that they're killing our students," said teacher Carolina Castro, who wore a homemade necklace with a photo of the dead 14-year-old. "How many more Venezuelans have to be murdered before there is a reaction?"
Venezuelan ombudsman Tarek William Saab, a federal official with the responsibility of defending human rights, said on Twitter that he deplored the "vile assassination" of the teen.
Last month, the government issued a policy change to allow law enforcement officers to use potentially deadly force to control protests. At the time, human rights groups said the new regulation was dangerously vague, but Saab defended it.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said the state would investigate whether the new policy had played a part in the boy's death.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the killing as "horrendous" and of a piece with the wrongheaded direction in which he said the Venezuelan government is moving.
Tensions were already running high following of a slew of bad economic news and the arrest last week of an opposition politician who is mayor of Caracas. February marks the anniversary of last year's big street protests that choked neighborhoods around Venezuela and left more than 40 people dead. That wave of protests also started in San Cristobal.
This week, lawmakers began the process of removing legislator Julio Borges from congress. He is one of several high-profile opposition leaders recently accused of plotting to overthrow the government and could be prosecuted if he loses his seat, and thus his legislative immunity.
Growing dissatisfaction has driven Maduro's approval ratings down to just above 20 percent.
On Wednesday, Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, fell to a new low on the black market against the dollar, trading at a rate of one greenback per 200 bolivars, according to a widely used website that tracks the rate. In November, a dollar sold for half that on the black market.
Associated Press writer Luz Dary Depablos reported this story in San Cristobal and Hannah Dreier reported from Caracas, Venezuela. AP writers Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.
Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier