A university student beauty queen was mourned yesterday in the provincial Venezuelan city where she was killed this week during a political protest.
Government opponents say she was a victim of indiscriminate violence used by President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters to stifle dissent across the country.
Family members and friends of Genesis Carmona say the former Miss Tourism 2013 for the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo was shot down by members of the armed militias known as “colectivos” who opened fire on a demonstration in Valencia on Tuesday.
The government says the incident is under investigation, and Mr Maduro said at a news conference yesterday it has been “well-established” by ballistics experts that shot came from the opposition protesters.
Mourners at the private Mass and graveside memorial for 22-year-old Ms Carmona said they have no doubt which side fired the fatal round.
“She wanted to support her country and, well, look what it cost her for going out with a flag and a whistle. Killed by government mercenaries,” said her uncle Jose Gil.
The violence drew condemnation yesterday from US based watchdog group Human Rights Watch, which said “Venezuelan security forces have used excessive and unlawful force against protesters on multiple occasions since February 12, 2014, including beating detainees and shooting at crowds of unarmed people”.
The report also said “the government has censored the news media, blocking transmission of a TV channel and threatening to prosecute news outlets for their coverage of the violence”.
The US news channel CNN said yesterday four of its journalists were notified by the information ministry that they are no longer allowed to report in the country.
The US State Department also issued a warning to US citizens in Venezuela to “maintain a low profile and to avoid all areas of civil disruption”.
Secretary of State John Kerry criticised Venezuela’s government for confronting protesters with force, imprisoning students, limiting freedoms of expression and assembly and revoking the credentials of CNN reporters.
“This is not how democracies behave,” he said, urging all sides, including the protesters, to refrain from violence.
Mr Maduro has insisted that the protesters are “fascist” elements intent on a coup and pledged to crack down.
On Thursday, a judge determined there was enough evidence to detain opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who surrendered to authorities a day earlier. The charges against him include arson and criminal incitement related to a massive February 12 rally.
People at Ms Carmona’s service who were also at Tuesday’s rally said they saw a group of up to 50 men on motorcycles, armed with handguns fire directly into the crowd of about 3,000 demonstrators, setting off a panicked stampede through the street.
“We were protesting peacefully and this was like a war,” said Emilio Morillo, an 18-year-old university student.
Kendry Gill, a 22-year-old law student also at the rally, said nine people were shot, including a young woman who remains in critical condition in hospital with a perforated lung.
Ms Carmona, who was in her final year in a marketing program at a university in Valencia, was not ardently political, friends and family said.
Her uncle said she was drawn to the rally by the dismal economic conditions that the oil-rich country has experienced after 15 years of socialism-inspired policies and that her mother had gone with her to protect her.
She is one of at least eight people who have been killed during political protests since massive opposition rallies on February 12 ended with three deaths in the capital, including one government supporter.
With even Mr Maduro lamenting the tragedy during a speech on national TV, the young woman’s death has resonated in part because she was a pageant winner in a country that has long prized its production of more Miss Universe winners than any other nation.
Her death also came amid increasing concern about escalating violence in the country, and has left many on edge as the opposition plans large rallies today.
National Guard troops and members of pro-government militias have swarmed through the streets of Caracas and other cities firing volleys, at times indiscriminately, in repeated spasms of night-time violence in recent days.
Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate of an opposition coalition, said the government is engaging in “brutal repression”.
While several large demonstrations by thousands of people have been peaceful, smaller groups of protesters have lobbed fire bombs and rocks and blocked streets with flaming barricades of rubbish.
Troops and police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and blasts from water cannons – as well as raids by gun-firing men from motorcycles.