Looting, arrests soar as Venezuela’s food crisis mounts

LA VICTORIA, Venezuela — Hungry Venezuelans escalated attacks on trucks carrying scarce food to the country’s largest cities Wednesday, a day after hundreds of protesters were arrested by security forces.

Photos on social media showed looters attacking trucks on the highway that connects Venezuela’s main port of Puerto Cabello to the industrial city of Valencia. Others said that trucks ferrying food now can’t enter Cumana due to frequent attacks being carried out on the highways entering the city.

Looting and violent protests are threatening President Nicolas Maduro's hold on power.

“All it would take would be for the military to react violently to a protest, or just step back and let one go, and an epidemic of protests could emerge and grow out of control,” said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.

Maduro blames the looting on his opponents, who are promoting a referendum to recall him.

Looting was reported throughout the country, including Caracas, where merchants refused to open their shops.

A tense peace reigned Wednesday in Cumana — one of Venezuela’s poorest cities — following the arrival of hundreds of National Guardsmen and police. The city’s mayor decreed a three-day ban on all motorcycles, which are often used by looters to flee. More than 170 people were detained.

Maduro sent a trusted aide, Freddy Bernal, the former mayor of the Libertador borough of Caracas, to the city to evaluate the situation. “The people, the PSUV (Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and the government are united to neutralize the fascists,” Bernal tweeted.

National newspapers also reported that angry protesters Tuesday night torched the local headquarters of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in the western city of Lagunillas, while attacking the city hall. The actions took place after promised deliveries of powdered milk never arrived, infuriating residents who had waited all day in line.

Protests and looting has soared as Venezuela’s food crisis mounts. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a human rights organization, said more than 10 cases of looting are erupting daily now.