The death toll from nearly eight weeks of Venezuelan street protests rose to 56 on Wednesday after three opponents of President Nicolas Maduro were reported killed by gunfire in Barinas state, the birthplace of late President Hugo Chavez.
Violent clashes between demonstrators and police and national guardsmen trying to contain the protests have been reported across the country, with more than 1,000 reported injured and 2,700 arrested, according to the civil society group Penal Forum.
The rising toll and the use of firearms by armed forces in most of the killings provoked claims by Maduro opponents that the government is using excessive force.
With eight reported deaths since the demonstrations became almost a daily routine, Barinas state and its capital of the same name have become a focal point of ongoing violent clashes.
For Venezuelans, Barinas is fraught with symbolism. Chavez was born there in 1955, and Maduro has portrayed himself as perpetuating the vision of his highly popular socialist predecessor. Protests in Barinas undermine the narrative he's crafted of being the leader capable of carrying out the political philosophy of chavismo.
Chavez remains popular in many parts of the country, but even his reputation is in tatters in some quarters. Five statues of Chavez, portraying him as the father of the revolution, have been reported pulled down and destroyed in recent days in Anzoategui, Lara, Zulia, Tachira and Falcon states. On Tuesday, protesters in the Baruta borough of metropolitan Caracas pulled down a billboard with Chavez's image.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest a series of actions taken by Maduro that, in their view, cripples the country's democratic institutions. They include his plan to convene a new constitutional assembly this summer that in effect would cancel out the National Assembly elected in 2015 that is composed of two-thirds opposition legislators.
Increasingly unpopular since winning an April 2013 election to replace Chavez, Maduro has used a stacked supreme court to nullify new laws meant to limit his power, critics say. Maduro's government also has disqualified several leading opposition leaders from opposing him in the election next year, including Henrique Capriles, the popular governor of Miranda state whom Maduro defeated in 2013's presidential race.
Anti-Maduro protests also target his handling of the country's worsening economic crisis. Store owners reported that food scarcities have become even more acute in recent days because blockades by protesters of many highways in Venezuela are inhibiting distribution of scare food and household items.
On Wednesday, several structure fires were reported in Barinas, including one that partially destroyed the National Electoral Council's state headquarters as well as a National Guard headquarters building, according to local media.
Reported killed Tuesday in Barinas city were Juan Antonio Sanchez and Frieber Perez Vielma, both 21, and Erick Antonio Molina, 35. All died of gunshot wounds, according to public officials. Two other protester deaths were reported Tuesday in the city of Valera in the western state of Trujillo. The source of the gunfire was unclear Wednesday.
At a news conference Wednesday, public legal advocate Luisa Ortega Diaz noted that a number of people have been hurt by gunshots and by being struck with tear gas canisters aimed at them.
Of the dead, 53 are civilians and three are police or National Guard members, the government said Wednesday. Of the 1,000 injured, 771 are civilians and 229 are members of the armed forces.
Meanwhile, a second judge on the 32-member supreme court said she was against holding a special assembly to rewrite Venezuela's constitution. In a radio interview Tuesday, Judge Marisela Godoy said she was joining Judge Danilo Mojica in publicly opposing the assembly tentatively set for mid-July.
"I entreaty Nicolas Maduro to not keep Venezuela in mourning," Godoy said. Earlier, Mojica released a video over social media in which he said the constitutional assembly would "put the structure of the state and social peace at risk, given the current political upheaval."
Maduro on Tuesday presented his plan to select members of the new assembly. Half the 540 delegates will be appointed by Maduro-friendly social and political groups aligned with his PSUV party. The other half will be voted on in nationwide elections, a process that ensures Maduro's control over how the new constitution will be drafted, Capriles has said.
Luis Emilio Rondon, the only opposition member of the National Electoral Council that will hold the voting, said he questioned the legality of the assembly vote as described Tuesday by council President Tibisay Lucena, noting the public at large won't be asked to approve the final text of the new constitution.
The National Assembly, which has been declared to be in contempt by the supreme court, on Tuesday said it would hold a nationwide referendum in which Venezuelans will be able to vote whether they favor cutting short Maduro's term this year.
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and Bogota, Colombia.