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Venezuelan military propped up the government for years, but cracks are showing

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CARACAS, Venezuela — It was 10 a.m. and the newly promoted lieutenant was already sweating under his plastic face shield and black flak jacket.

A few days before, the 28-year-old who goes by the name of Catire had watched a national guardsman get his arm broken at a protest. A week earlier, a friend collapsed several paces from him on the riot line, shot through the groin. Catire pulled up his visor and chain-smoked by his motorcycle, hoping the day would pass quickly.

Several miles away on the other side of the city, tens of thousands of Venezuelans in white shirts and homemade gas masks gathered to march toward Catire and his unit, part of a bloody protest movement that has seen dozens of deaths in more than two months of turmoil.

Catire’s family suffers along with protesters who skip meals while watching their money become worthless. The lieutenant is unsure whether to blame the government or the opposition for the crisis. What he and other soldiers decide in the coming months could decide the country’s fate.

President Nicolas Maduro has greatly expanded the military’s authority and is leaning on the armed forces as his own grip on power weakens. The military has helped hold up the socialist administration for more than a decade, but never before was it the government’s main crutch. And despite the outward loyalty of top officers, cracks are beginning to appear.

In April, three lieutenants publicly rejected Maduro as commander in chief and sought asylum in Colombia. Another lieutenant in a restive western state cut up his official military ID card as supporters cheered. “Soldiers must not turn their arms on the people,” he said. Days later, he was in military prison.

“The country is unhappy with the situation right now, and the armed forces are no exception. The military has traditionally been on the right side of history here. If they turn, it’s all over for Maduro,” said Cliver Alcala, a retired general who participated in an unsuccessful 1992 coup led by a then-unknown junior officer named Hugo Chavez.

These days, Alcala is a vocal opponent of the socialist government installed by Chavez after he won election to the presidency in 1998. Despite counterintelligence and close surveillance in the barracks, Maduro is unlikely to know an uprising is brewing until it’s already upon him, Alcala said.

Any actual coup would cause an international crisis across a hemisphere profoundly scarred by the bloody military takeovers that marked much of the past century. But most opposition figures are hoping for much more passive support: for soldiers to hold back from attacks on protesters.

More than a dozen military officers were arrested during the first two weeks of the protests and thrown into a military prison on suspicion of rebellion, according to military documents provided to The Associated Press by a third party.

The government has pampered the armed forces as much as an economy in shambles will allow. Before Catire put on his green fatigues, knee-high boots and black body armor before the protest, he sat down to a breakfast of two corn cakes, beans, eggs and coffee with milk — more than many Venezuelans eat in a day.

He gets bonuses in dollars, and his status has allowed his relatives to cut the line for government-subsidized apartments, household appliances and cars. But those perks have not been enough to insulate military families from shortages and crime. In Caracas, Catire, whose name is local slang for blond, feels increasingly hemmed in. Like most other soldiers, he has been confined to barracks since the protests started at the end of March.

Opposition leaders have used social media to broadcast appeals to young soldiers killing time in the barracks. In one recent video, lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares emphasized the potential consequences for soldiers who fire on protesters.

“Captains and lieutenants, we are the same age, we have the same dreams and expectations from life. But you are the ones carrying out orders to repress on the street while your bosses try to figure out how to preserve your special privileges. You’re the ones who risking prosecution,” Olivares said.

Like many leading politicians, the 31-year-old Olivares has been photographed multiple times stumbling away from blooms of tear gas at protests with blood streaming down his face.

The opposition has said it will hold officials to account for human rights violation and the message seems to be getting through. In 2014, the U.S. sanctioned officers involved in a far tamer crackdown on protesters. On a secret recording The Associated Press obtained last month, high-level military officers are heard debating the use of snipers against protesters, with some expressing concerns about possible prosecution should the opposition gain power. The recording’s authenticity could not be verified.

Catire has taken extra precautions since the day he saw a friend collapse next to him as his unit shot tear gas at protesters near an upscale eastern Caracas plaza. A bullet passed through his friend’s upper thigh and punctured his groin, causing rapid blood loss. A teenage protester was killed at the same plaza that afternoon, his chest crushed by a tear gas canister.

While the soldiers inflict more injuries than they receive, Catire is wary of protesters throwing gasoline bombs and rocks. Shots also often come from pro-government militias who ride into the scrum on motorcycles. At least two National Guard soldiers and two policemen have been killed in the protests.

Along with asking soldiers to break up demonstrations, Maduro relies on military tribunals to jail protesters and gives the armed forces a prominent role in his effort to rewrite the constitution. He has invited uniformed military members to appear at televised rallies since the protest movement started, and has promoted waves of officers to general.

Although he lacks the military background of Chavez, his late mentor, Maduro has been at pains to point out he shares soldiers’ working-class background and emphasize that he and many soldiers have browner skin while opposition leaders and elite Venezuelans in general look more European. In May, he appeared before a group of grim-faced young soldiers and told them opposition protesters had burned a bystander to death “just because he had dark skin like you and me.” Witnesses say the bystander was caught stealing.

Catire, who did not give his full name because he was violating protocol by speaking to a reporter, said he feels the country is descending into civil war. He grew up poor near the Colombian border, and joined the military because he liked the idea of bringing order to a chaotic country. He disapproves of the opposition calling on the armed forces to pick a side and believes the military must stay neutral and wait for elections.

By noon on the day of the protest, he and other soldiers were turning back the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.

Toward the day’s end, a group of women approached Catire’s post and shouted, “Lay down your arms and join us!” Some stripped naked and threw their clothes over the 12-foot barricade the soldiers had set up. But the young men stayed immobile and silent. “Take down this wall,” the women insisted.

After a few more hours, both sides went home to cool down and prepare to repeat the whole process the next morning.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.

Colorado

Western wild fires continue to rage as authorities worry over July 4 fireworks

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A growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched U.S. West kept hundreds of other homes under evacuation orders and derailed holiday plans.

Authorities announced late Monday that a fire near Fort Garland, about 205 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Denver, had destroyed 104 homes in a mountain housing development started by multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes in the 1970s. The damage toll could rise because the burn area is still being surveyed.

Tamara Estes’ family cabin, which her parents had built in 1963 using wood and rocks from the land, was among the homes destroyed.

“I think it’s sinking in more now. But we’re just crying,” she said. “My grandmother’s antique dining table and her hutch are gone.”

“It was a sacred place to us,” she added.

Andy and Robyn Kuehler watched flames approach their cabin via surveillance video from their primary residence in Nebraska.

“We just got confirmation last night that the house was completely gone. It’s … a very sickening feeling watching the fire coming towards the house,” the couple wrote in an email Tuesday.

The blaze, labeled the Spring Fire, is one of six large wildfires burning in Colorado and is the largest at 123 square miles (318 square kilometers) — about five times the size of Manhattan. While investigators believe it was started by a spark from a fire pit, other fires, like one that began burning in wilderness near Fairplay, were started by lightning.

Nearly 60 large, active blazes are burning across the West, including nine in New Mexico and six each in Utah and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, authorities have evacuated 200 to 300 homes because of a growing wildfire near a popular fishing reservoir southeast of Salt Lake City amid hot temperatures and high winds. Several structures have been lost since the fire started Sunday, but it’s unclear how many, said Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands.

Darren Lewis and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at a cabin built nearly 50 years ago by his father and uncle in a wilderness area nestled between canyons and near a mountain river.

Instead, Lewis and his family will spend the holiday nervously waiting to hear if a half-century of family memories go up in smoke because of the fire, which has grown to 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).

“There’s a lot of history and memories that go into this cabin,” said Lewis, 44, of Magna, Utah. “The cabin we could rebuild, but the trees that we love would be gone. We’re just hoping that the wind blows the other way.”

Meanwhile, a wind-fueled wildfire in Northern California that continues to send a thick layer of smoke and ash south of San Francisco was threatening more than 900 buildings.

The massive blaze was choking skies with ash and smoke, prompting some officials to cancel Fourth of July fireworks shows and urge people to stay indoors to protect themselves from the unhealthy air.

At least 2,500 people have been told to evacuate as the so-called County Fire continues to spread, said Anthony Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Brown said the blaze, which started Saturday and is surging through rugged terrain northwest of Sacramento, has grown to 113 square miles (294 square kilometers) amid hot and dry weather expected throughout the day. It was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

“The weather is better than what we had over the weekend. But it’s still hampering our efforts and it’s an area of concern,” he said.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 4,200 square miles in the United States, according to the fire center. That’s a bit below last year’s acreage to date — which included the beginning of California’s devastating fire season — but above the 10-year average of 3,600 square miles.

Because of the Independence Day holiday, authorities are also concerned about the possibility of campfires or fireworks starting new fires because of the dry, hot conditions. In Colorado, many communities have canceled firework displays, and a number of federal public lands and counties have some degree of fire restrictions in place, banning things like campfires or smoking outdoors.

In Arizona, large swaths of national forests and state trust land have been closed since before Memorial Day. Some cities have canceled fireworks displays because of extreme fire danger.

In New Mexico, all or part of three national forests remain closed because of the threat of wildfire, putting a damper on holiday camping plans. The forests that are open have strict rules, especially when it comes to fireworks.

“We’re just urging people to use extreme caution,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. “We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we prefer they leave the fireworks shows to the professionals.”

____

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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News

More firefighters called in to rein in Southern Colorado fire

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Crews struggled to rein in a wildfire that was spreading in several different directions Sunday in southern Colorado.
More firefighters were arriving to battle the blaze that has prompted the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes.
“It’s a very challenging fire, I’ll be honest with you, with all the wind changes,” Shane Greer, an incident commander with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, told residents Sunday.
Authorities said the fire east of Fort Garland was estimated at 64 square miles (166 sq. kilometers) after unpredictable winds pushed the fire both north and south over the weekend.
About 500 firefighters have worked to contain the flames since the fire began Wednesday. A second team arrived in the area Sunday and plans to take over fighting the fire north of Highway 160.
The first team will focus on the area south of the highway.
“Usually with a fire we can chase it … we haven’t been able to chase this because it keeps going in at least three different directions,” Greer said.
Authorities said they began assessing some areas this weekend to track destroyed or damaged structures. But they cautioned that conditions remain dangerous and said they want to be sure that information is correct before notifying property owners.
The fire was expected to remain active and grow in intensity with a warm and dry forecast on Sunday.
Highway 160 remains closed and officials said they could not estimate when it will reopen or when the evacuation orders will end.
The Costilla County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said a man was being held on suspicion of arson in connection with the fire. It is not clear if Jesper Joergensen, 52, has an attorney.
At Sunday’s public update, officials said they do not believe Joergensen started the fire intentionally.
State emergency management officials reported nine other fires remained active around the state on Sunday. Officials near Durango hoped that a cold front would slow down one of those. The fire began a month ago and is estimated at 77 square miles.
The Durango Herald reported that authorities planned to relocate some crews and equipment to help firefighters guarding communities as the flames moved north.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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News

Today we launch the PULP Journalism Project to Support the Capital Gazette and more

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From the Publisher of Colorado’s PULP Newsmagazine to the people who make The Capital Gazette possible.

In this space, we at the PULP had plans to launch Rocket PULP, our PULP Journalism Project. We had planned a huge roll-out of PULP Universe memberships, collaborations with national writers, universities, and local creatives. Most importantly, I wanted to talk about how we rebuild Colorado storytelling for the 21st century.

But with what happened yesterday in Annapolis, Maryland – where journalists at The Capital Gazette were attacked and five people were killed – it’s more appropriate to show you what I believe in as a local publisher to help rebuild another newsroom.

I want the PULP to stand for something more than corporate profits off of local people.
We have been fighting and scratching for Southern Colorado for years now, trying to tell the local story of us as a people. At our core, beyond breaking news and telling stories in this hard region to live, PULP is about the spirit of Southern Colorado through collaboration. I believe if we all win – we all win. In fact, this spirit of “We Are…” has been our guiding principle since 2010.

So instead of asking you to join the PULP Universe in July to fuel Colorado journalism, I’m asking you to join the PULP Universe to help the families in Annapolis. For any new PULP Membership for the entire month of July, we will give half — 50 percent — to The Capital Gazette family.

Why do this? Speaking to you as an owner and publisher, well before the shooting in Maryland, I’d often look out our massive storefront windows and think, “My god, what if we are attacked? How in the world would I take care of my people?” This shooting has affected me personally and this is what I can do to help others.

We may be the new kids on the news block in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean we should act small. In Southern Colorado, you’re taught that we may not have much here, but we are all family – so give if you can, but more importantly, always look to help when you must. Supporting the Capital Gazette is something the PULP Journalism Project must do.

Please give what you can, even if it’s just $1. Let’s show a fellow newsroom that the PULP Universe in Colorado stands for supporting the storytellers across every universe.

To learn more about the PULP Journalism Project follow rocketpulp.com for updates. Our news site can be found at pueblopulp.com, but today go to capitalgazette.com instead.

We Are Friends and Family,
John Rodriguez and the PULP Team
Owner / Publisher of PULP

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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