CARACAS, Venezuela — As thousands of people fled tear gas at a recent anti-government protest, a young woman stood still, protected only by a gas mask and a white helmet with a green cross.
The woman took shelter under a bridge and attended to a person whose right ankle was bloody and injured. She splinted the leg and then took the man away on a motorcycle.
The rescuer belongs to the “Green Helmets,” a group of about 200 medical students, dentists and doctors who attend the marches that have rocked the South American country daily for two months. Protesters applaud the so-called brigadiers as heroes and pose with them for selfies when they arrive at rallies marching in single file, waving a giant white flag and howling military-like cadences. It’s part of a pre-protest ritual intended to steel the volunteers for another day at the frontline of violent clashes.
“When the police get aggressive, they go out to find people among the tear gas and stones, and they save them,” said Patricia Colmenares, a 50-year-old psychiatrist, as she participated in a protest in Caracas.
The group was born out of anti-government demonstrations in 2014 and reactivated in April after a new wave of protests against President Nicolas Maduro began. Green Helmet chapters have sprung up in at least six of the country’s 24 states, and students from at least 12 public and private higher education institutions have lent their support.
The group’s director, Daniella Liendo, a 22-year-old medical student, said all volunteers receive advanced first-aid training. The group generally only sends about 30 people at a time to the hottest areas of protests while the rest tend to patients in small tents or inside ambulances.
Government supporters have attacked the group as part of a terrorist movement. A prominent presenter on state television called the rescue workers a “paramilitary group” and accused them of creating “false positives” to tarnish the image of Maduro’s government.
While the group’s priority is to look after injured protesters, members are not immune from serious risks themselves.
One Green Helmet volunteer, 24-year-old medical school student Paul Moreno, was killed in mid-May when a vehicle ran him over in the western city of Maracaibo while helping the wounded.
Soldiers and police have also been hurt in the demonstrations, but they are generally cared for by official ambulances.