President Hugo Chavez is strongly condemning an armed pro-government group for allegedly allowing children to pose with assault rifles. He says it could hurt his image ahead of Venezuela's presidential election.
Chavez took members of La Piedrita to task, calling them irresponsible and questioning their revolutionary ideals for staging a Jan. 23 event in which youngsters wearing ski masks appeared brandishing assault rifles.
While adults held a political rally backing Chavez, the kids sat in front of a mural of Jesus Christ holding a Kalashnikov rifle alongside an angel in a white dress, one of the numerous pro-government murals covering walls in the capital's tough, working-class 23 de Enero district.
"This is a serious irresponsibility," Chavez said Thursday night during a nationally televised address. "This hurts the revolution."
Only soldiers, police and state security officers, along with citizens with permits, are authorized to carry firearms, Chavez noted.
Representatives of La Piedrita have not publicly commented on mounting criticism from allies and adversaries of Chavez regarding the incident.
Photographs of the armed children were recently posted anonymously on Facebook and Twitter, shocking many Venezuelans.
"Instead of teaching civic values, they are indoctrinating little ones" with violent, revolutionary ideology, said Freddy Guevara, an opposition politician.
Authorities have strongly criticized La Piedrita previously.
"We can only describe such activities as repulsive and morally unacceptable," Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said of the latest incident while speaking a news conference earlier Thursday.
El Aissami said an investigation had been launched to determine who armed the children.
Opposition politicians have repeatedly accused the government of arming thuggish pro-Chavez groups that have attacked anti-Chavez street marches, lobbed tear gas canisters at critical television stations and brandished their weapons while riding motorcycles through downtown Caracas.
Chavez, one of Latin America's most outspoken critics of U.S. policy on the region, suggested some members of the shadowy, secretive La Piedrita are doing Washington's bidding.
"I doubt they are true revolutionaries; they must be CIA infiltrators," he said.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker