By WILLIAM NEUMAN NYTimes.co
CARACAS, Venezuela — A prominent Venezuelan opposition leader surrendered to the authorities on Tuesday in the midst of a large crowd of supporters who tried to block his arrest on accusations that he was responsible for violence that erupted during recent antigovernment protests.
Before giving himself up, the opposition politician, Leopoldo López, walked through a sea of thousands of supporters in the largest rally in more than two weeks of growing protests fueled by discontent over runaway violent crime, a stalled economy, government pressure on the news media and other issues.
“We are living in a dark time when criminals are rewarded and they want to imprison the Venezuelans who want peaceful, democratic change,” Mr. López said, standing on the base of a statue of the 19th-century Cuban independence hero José Martí. Clutching a Venezuelan flag, he spoke through a megaphone, and although the large crowd fell into a hush, only those nearby were able to hear him.
The drama played out a day after the government of President Nicolás Maduro ordered three American diplomats to leave the country, saying they had been recruiting students to take part in violent demonstrations, an accusation the State Department denied. On Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement of concern over the recent violence and the possible arrest of Mr. López, saying it would have a chilling effect on Venezuelans’ ability to express their grievances.
Mr. López, 42, a former mayor of a well-off section of Caracas, has helped promote the recent protests against Mr. Maduro’s 10-month-old government.
But after a march here last Wednesday, a group of a few hundred youths threw rocks at the police, broke windows in government buildings and set some police vehicles on fire. Two protesters and a government supporter were shot to death.
The government quickly accused Mr. López of being responsible for the unrest and the deaths, claiming he had trained activists to unleash a campaign of violence that was part of a coup attempt against Mr. Maduro. They have provided no evidence for the charges but have demonized Mr. López in speeches and in programs on government-controlled television and radio.
Mr. López, who left the rally last week before the violence started, has denied he had anything to do with the unrest. He has routinely called for peaceful protests.
An investigation published in a local newspaper, Últimas Noticias, which examined photographs and videos taken at the scene of the shooting of one of the protesters, said it appeared that shots had been fired into a crowd of demonstrators by a group that included uniformed security officers and men accompanying them in civilian clothes.
Local news media reported the day after the rally that a judge had issued an arrest warrant for Mr. López, saying that he was wanted on charges that included murder and terrorism.
At first Mr. López challenged the authorities to arrest him, but later he went into hiding. A cat-and-mouse game began as heavily armed officials looked for him at his home and his parents’ home. Meanwhile, he taunted Mr. Maduro through Twitter posts, calling him a coward, and Mr. Maduro railed against him in speeches and television appearances, calling him a “fascist coward” and a “fugitive from justice.”
The tension built on Monday when security forces raided the offices of Mr. López’s political party, Popular Will, kicking down an office door and drawing guns on startled workers.
Mr. López told followers in an online video and in Twitter posts that he would turn himself in after a rally and march on Tuesday.
City officials said that he did not have a permit and vowed to prevent the event. Masses of police officers and national guardsmen, many in riot gear, were in position on Tuesday morning around the plaza designated by Mr. López for his rally, keeping crowds out.
Instead, thousands of his supporters filled a long city avenue nearby.
Suddenly a shout went up from the crowd and Mr. López appeared in the midst of the throng, wearing bluejeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt with a connect-the-dots map of Venezuela on the front. Supporters jammed around him, and he made his way to the Martí statue. After a short speech, he climbed down, and in a press of supporters and news photographers, reporters and camera operators, he made his way to a waiting line of riot police officers, holding four white daisies above his head.
But the crowd surged through and carried Mr. López for several more blocks, until he finally arrived at a white armored police vehicle. After turning to the crowd and holding the flowers and a small Venezuelan flag over his head in a gesture of defiance, he climbed into the vehicle.
On a building behind him were posters from last year’s presidential election, with Mr. Maduro’s mustached face looking placidly down on the scene.
Hundreds of people surged around the vehicle, shouting “Freedom!” and “Let him go!” There was pushing and shoving, and the heavy back door to the vehicle was pulled from its hinges. Other protesters sat or stood in front of the vehicle, blocking it.
Finally, Mr. López, who had declared his intention to surrender peacefully, spoke over a loudspeaker, urging the members of crowd to let the vehicle pass. Eventually they did, but his supporters still crowded around and accompanied it. At one point, when the crowd again refused to let the vehicle pass, he got out and boarded a black Jeep to continue the trip. The crowd around the car eventually swelled into the thousands, and Mr. López’s trip to prison took on a paradelike air.
In a televised speech at an oil workers’ rally, Mr. Maduro said Mr. López was being taken to a jail outside Caracas “to answer to justice.”
At the rally for Mr. López, Garcelis Montilla, 53, a merchant, said she hoped that public reaction to his arrest would bring about change. “Leopoldo’s arrest for crimes that he didn’t commit is the drop that caused the glass to overfill,” she said, using a local saying.