VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) -- The masked gunmen emerged from a group of several dozen motorcycle-mounted government loyalists who were attempting to dismantle a barricade in La Isabelica, a working-class district of Valencia that has been a center of unrest since nationwide protests broke out last month.
The barricades' defenders had been hurling rocks, sticks and other objects at the attackers, who included perhaps a dozen armed men, witnesses told The Associated Press.
Lisandro Barazarte, a photographer with the local newspaper, Notitarde, caught images of several of the men shooting into the crowd while steadying their firearms on their palms.
"They were practiced shooters," Barazarte said. "More were armed, but didn't fire."
When it was over, two La Isabelica men were dead: a 22-year-old student, Jesus Enrique Acosta, and a little league baseball coach, Guillermo Sanchez. Witnesses told the AP the first was shot in the head, the second in the back. They said neither was at the barricades when he was killed.
Similar shootings across Venezuela by gunmen allied with the socialist-led government have claimed at least seven lives and left more than 30 people wounded since the anti-government protests began in mid-February.
President Nicolas Maduro has done nothing to publicly discourage the violence by armed pro-government militants, loosely known as "colectivos," which are also blamed for scores more cases of beatings and intimidation in multiple cities. That includes a March 19 incursion into the architecture academy at the Central University of Venezuela in the capital in which some 40 masked men and women identifying themselves as government defenders bloodied at least a dozen students.
In fact, since the protests began, Maduro and his vice president have each welcomed pro-government "motorizados," or motorcyclists, to separate events at the presidential palace -- a Feb. 24 rally and a "peace conference" on March 13.
At the latter gathering, Vice President Jorge Arreaza told his guests, "If there has been exemplary behavior it has been the behavior of the motorcycle colectivos that are with the Bolivarian revolution." He claimed the CIA was behind a propaganda campaign to discredit the colectivos.
Maduro has blamed the violence on the other side, telling supporters on March 9, "There are violent armed groups in the streets, and they are all from the right."
Colectivos have long been a fixture in poorer neighborhoods that became strongholds of the late President Hugo Chavez during his 14-year reign. They organize cultural events and community services such as youth summer camps but have also included armed motorcycle-riding militants who have long menaced opposition activists, blocking their marches and roughing up peaceful protesters.
Those violent tactics escalated when anti-government protests surged in mid-February. Fatalities since blamed on colectivo aggression have mostly involved university students, including a prominent student leader, Daniel Tinoco, shot in the chest March 10 in the western city of San Cristobal, where the unrest began amid student outrage at alleged police indifference to an attempted sexual assault.
Most were manning barricades, as were the two students in the western city of Barquisimeto wounded the following day by gunmen who pierced their university's perimeter and set fire to several cars inside.
During the attack in La Isabelica in Valencia, Acosta was hit by a bullet while he was inside an apartment with a friend near the barricades. Sanchez, 42, was out walking to buy a paint brush when the bullet that claimed his life tore into his lower torso.
One of Sanchez's neighbors, who spoke on condition he not be identified for fear of retribution, said the pro-government gang grabbed the wounded Sanchez and dragged him down the street, beating him.
"The police never came. There was no (National) Guard," the neighbor said. "It was the Wild West."
Daniel Wilkinson, managing director for the Americas for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, said such colectivo violence is nationwide.
"This is just one example of a practice we've seen across several states, of security forces not only tolerating armed groups of civilians who attack peaceful protesters, but even collaborating with these gangs when they commit beatings, arbitrary arrests and other abuses," Wilkinson said.
Video and still images chronicling apparent colectivo abuse, mostly shot by private citizens, have been widely posted on social networks in a country where, according to international press freedom groups, independent journalism has been under steady government assault for years.
In many images, the gunmen are seen menacing people and removing barricades set up by protesters as police and National Guardsmen stand idly by.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month accused the Maduro government of wielding "armed vigilantes" against peaceful protesters, and the European Parliament passed a resolution on Feb. 27 calling on the government to "immediately disarm and dissolve the uncontrolled armed pro-government groups and end their impunity."