Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has used the military, legislative and judicial power consolidated during 15 years of socialist rule in a sudden series of blows against opponents who have spent more than a month protesting in the streets, knocking down their barricades and throwing dissident leaders in jail.
Thursday dawned with two more opposition politicians behind bars, one of them sentenced to more than 10 months in prison. And pro-government lawmakers had already started trying to put another outspoken critic behind bars as well, moving to strip an opposition congresswoman of her legislative immunity from prosecution.
Maduro has been warning his rivals for weeks that they could soon meet the same fate as opposition hardliner Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed on charges related to the Feb. 12 protests that initiated the wave of unrest, which has so far led to at least 28 deaths, most of them after Lopez was arrested.
San Diego Mayor Enzo Scarano was removed from his post by the Supreme Court, arrested and on the same day sent to begin a 10 1/2-month prison term for failing to heed a court order to have protesters' barricades removed from the streets of his city.
San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos was arrested as well on charges of rebellion and conspiracy. Maduro said in a speech last month that Ceballos would soon join Lopez behind bars for fomenting violence. "It's a matter of time until we have him in the same cold cell," Maduro said.
The federal government itself moved in this week to clear out the plaza at the heart of the demonstrations against inflation, shortages, crime and perceived official intolerance, sending national guardsmen to take over Plaza Altamira in the capital.
Luis Vicente Leon, president of Caracas-based polling company Datanalisis, said the government's recent moves were a step toward radicalizing the country's political process.
"Without a doubt (Maduro) has perceived that the protests are not going to stop so it's best to simply confront them and deal with them harshly," Leon said, adding that the opposition will likely find less room to maneuver because the government seeks to create a sense of fear that anyone even demonstrating peacefully could face danger.
Maduro's rivals said they would not be bullied into submission, vowing new marches.
Two-time opposition presidential candidate and Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles said through his Twitter account Thursday that Maduro had "thrown gasoline on the fire."
"He and only he will be responsible for the situation that unfolds in the country," Capriles wrote.
Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres on Thursday distanced federal authorities from the arrests, saying it was other government branches that were acting "to protect the right of the majority and not to protect the right of a small group that under the excuse of protesting wants to muddle the lives of Venezuelans."
San Cristobal, where the wave of protests began, is being run by an unelected official who had been serving as a city administrator, one of Ceballos' top aides, Ronni Pavolini, told The Associated Press.
Ceballos, a member of Lopez's Popular Will party, had been outspoken in denouncing the harshness with which government security forces attacked the demonstrations in his city near Venezuela's western border with Colombia.
Alfonso Medina Roa, attorney for the San Diego mayor, said that town would be run by an administrator designated by Scarano while he serves his sentence. A director of the National Electoral Council said the body would meet to propose a schedule for new elections in San Diego, where Scarano was elected in December with 75 pe rcent of the vote.
The lawyer said Scarano was "sentenced without justice, sentenced without accusation."
Potential for more violence
Protests continued on Thursday, when police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a student-called protest of several thousand people in Caracas. Some of those demonstrating against the arrests of the mayors threw objects at riot police. There were no injuries reported.
The night before, several businesses were looted or burned, including a large supermarket, in San Diego. Carabobo state Gov. Francisco Ameliach, a member of the ruling party, used his Twitter account to blame "terrorist groups that were sown and protected in San Diego by authorities."
Venezuela's National Assembly on Tuesday voted to start a process to strip opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado of her immunity so they could bring charges against her for allegedly trying to destabilize the government.
Machado, a former presidential candidate, was expected to speak Friday at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington about the situation in Venezuela. Because the Venezuelan government controls the country's seat at the organization, Panama has offered Machado its seat to make her presentation to the regional body.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed concern Thursday over the arrest of the two mayors. "The Venezuelan government should stop the violence against its citizens and opposition officials who are exercising their freedom of speech," Psaki said.