CARACAS, Venezuela — By midday on Easter Sunday, bottle rockets were exploding overhead as an effigy of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was put to flames in front of a cheering crowd. But Mr. Maduro was not the only victim in the mob justice ritual.
After two months of protests, Venezuela's bitter political strife made its way into the long standing Easter tradition, "The Burning of Judas."
Capping off Holy Week, Venezuelans set ablaze their most detested figures – politicians and those they say are to blame for the country's injustices. The Easter Sunday ceremony stems from the memory of the apostle that sold out Christ – a sort of of mob justice for those believed to have betrayed the country's citizens. The tradition has already made its way across Latin America and Europe. And now it's being used to highlight Venezuela's political divide.
Figuring out who is responsible for the country's woes, though, largely depends with where you're standing in the capital.
In the middle-class district of La Candelaria, opposition councilman José Gregorio Cáribas, 47, rallied residents to demonstrate against the harsh conditions Venezuelans have to endure while trying to make ends meet.
"It's a way to drain all the rage we have about the state of the country," said Cáribas as he doused a rag-doll representation of Maduro in kerosene.
"It's a form of protest against the president," he added, citing Maduro's policies as the source of spiraling inflation and rampant shortages.
Nearby, actor Edmundo Cay, 67, paraded a puppet of a guarimbero – slang for violent protesters who throw stones and erect barricades – throughout the city center. Passersby in Plaza Bolivar, which has long stood as a bastion of support for the government, paused to take photos and give the finger to the doll whose pants were stuffed with dollar bills and toy guns.
"They [the protesters] are trying to destabilize the country against the president," said Cay, accusing demonstrators of being part of a political plot to topple the socialist government. "But we're more united than ever."
For Cay, the effigies represented a break from the violent turn the protests have taken.
"Every year, I make one," he laughed.
Not all took the ceremony lightly. In the middle class neighborhood of Chacao, where protesters clash almost daily with police, neighbors hung effigies from trees and street lamps.
One 42-year old educator was seen putting the finishing touches on a dummy of a National Guardsman with a Cuban flag tacked to his shield.
"This is the municipality that has been most repressed," said the educator, who preferred to withhold her name. "Judas was a traitor for selling Jesus for a bag of silver, they're traitorous for taking orders from Fidel Castro."
In the working-class neighborhood of San Juan, far away from the modern shopping malls of Chacao, the interference of foreign powers was central to the ceremony. Here an effigy of former congresswoman Maria Corina Machado was draped in an American flag. The opposition activist has recently toured the U.S. and Europe campaigning against what she says is the increasingly authoritarian bent her country is taking.
"She wants the Marines to come!" shouted Edgar Monsalve, 62, a local health worker, as the Machado doll was set ablaze. For Monsalve, "It's a ploy for foreign intervention. She hates our homeland."
One protester summed up the feelings of many Venezuelans taking part in the day's ritual. In a polarized country, "everyone has their own version of Judas," said Maria Gonzalez, a homemaker in Chacao. "Sadly, we're going to have to be more united to get out of this mess," she said.
Reporter Andrew Rosati and photographer Jesús Olarte are both based in Caracas. Follow them on Twitter: @andrewrosati and @photolarte.