The Forgotten Victims of April 11, 2002
Political polarization vanished from the collective memory the 19 victims of the fateful April 2002 events. Failing to find justice on Venezuelan soil, their stories are now part of the cases brought before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR)
Political intolerance and radicalism thrust upon the Venezuelan society have buried an episode that marked and changed the lives of hundreds of Venezuelan families forever. Nineteen families were forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night and wander through a city in turmoil to find their dead.
Some had to travel hundreds of kilometers from remote locations while others were haunted by TV images of bodies strewn on the pavement or covered with a Venezuelan flag. Others sought their loved ones amongst the hundreds of wounded and injured in hospitals while a brave few headed directly to the dreaded Bello Monte morgue fearing the worst. They are the forgotten victims of April 11, 2002. They never found justice, and their bodies have been vanished from the collective memory to give way to a parallel imaginary epic.
None of those 19 victims found justice. Politics outweighed institutions, and only two cases were heard: those of Erasmo Sánchez and Rudy Urbano Duque. Both cases were used by the government to sentence nine officers of the Metropolitan Police and three police chiefs in charge of that group to jail. No evidence was given to prove that they perpetrated those crimes. But, from a political perspective, these cases were used to fabricate a story in which the deaths of April 11, 2002 had culprits, though instead of being accountable for those actions, they were "scapegoats."
The stories of these victims speak volumes on the reality hidden by the government's denial to establish a "Commission for Truth" probing into the murders as an entity distant from the conflict affecting Venezuelans.
Areas of conflict
Because there was no investigating entity that, following the events of April 11, 2002 assumed responsibility for dealing with the crime scene, the bodies of the victims and investigations outside the political bubble, much of the evidence disappeared or was altered, and protection of evidence was lost in the midst of a distorted structure of power.
As the dead fell and power changed hands within a 24-hour span, investigation units and courts of justice played a role in obstructing justice. Nevertheless, four areas of conflict were identified, three of them marred by death.
Corners of Solís and Marcos Parra
When the opposition protest reached the Nueva Republica viaduct in the direction of Miraflores, it ran into the National Guard, which had cordoned off the area and prevented the march from moving forward. Many backtracked to find a new route toward Miraflores, which caused the huge mass of protestors coming from Bolívar Avenue and other directions to meet at O'Leary Square, El Calvario and Fermín Toro High School.
Part of the protest tried to move ahead from the corners of Marcos Parra and Solís to reach Baralt Avenue. The National Guard had cordoned off the area and blocked any efforts to enter.
Three protesters from the opposition march died there, namely, Juan David Querales, Víctor Reinoso and Jhonny Palencia.
Juan David Querales fell victim to rifle shots piercing through his leg. Aged 25, Querales had not planned on going to the protest, but upon seeing so many people taking part, he joined in. He knew nothing of conspiracies or coup d'états. He wanted to attend Engineering School. Earlier that day he said goodbye to his sisters, oblivious to the fact that it would be the last day of his life. When he reached the area of El Calvario, he sat down on the stairs to rest until a cloud of gas and gunfire emerged. In the frenzy, he ran to help a young woman and was shot. No one could rescue him, and he bled to death. His sister Yanfri was handling his case. Failing to find answers from the Venezuelan justice, she joined in on the complaint before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) of the OAS. The government offered her handouts to desist, but she refused. She was subject to intimidation and threats, which ultimately led her to seek political asylum and move to Spain.
Jhonny Palencia was a member of the Red Flag Party. He lived in Ocumare del Tuy, in the outskirts of Caracas, and went with a group of friends to Caracas to take part in the opposition protest. His group made it to Fermin Toro High School, but at some point one the members of his group stopped to have some fruit. At that moment, the tear gas and gunfire began. The group of friends dispersed among the crowd. It would be the last time they would see him alive. A bullet went through his chin and fractured his skull; his corpse remained near a subway station until the next day. Two days later, his mother identified his body at the morgue. He was 30 years old and his family's sole provider. His mother, Catalina Palencia, has pleaded his case before international authorities.
Víctor Reinoso was supposed to travel the next day to visit family in the Dominican Republic. He had said that nothing would stop him from taking part in the April 11 protests. Reinoso was 29 and had a small daughter. Gunfire pierced his spinal cord and killed him on the spot; he was taken to the morgue. Ten years later his case remains open under number G-136.002.
In this sector, 11 persons died within 5 blocks leading to the Llaguno Bridge, an overpass soaring above Baralt Avenue.
Leaders of the pro-government Bolivarian Circles had gathered at the Llaguno Bridge. Some of them were armed and three days earlier had been ordered to prevent any opposition protests from reaching the presidential palace of Miraflores. Several gunmen were stationed throughout the avenue, and from kiosks and trees they fired against protestors coming from the south.
One of the first to fall was photographer Jorge Tortoza, who had been covering conflicts throughout the country for several days. Much loved by his peers in the media, Tortoza died of a shot to the head coming from the north area of the avenue.
Jesús Orlando Arellano, 34, also died there from a shot to the chest. The moment he was shot was caught on camera by television channel Venevisión. In the background, a hooded gunman can be seen firing away behind a tree, next to groups supporting the official sector. His farewell was organized by hundreds of his friends, donning shirts with his name and photograph, in his hometown of La Fría in the southwestern state of Táchira.
Further north, another group of gunmen fired away from behind a kiosk while at the corner of Muñoz, another government supporter, Amílcar Carvajal fired his 9 mm in the direction of the opposition protest.
Alexis Bordones, 53, also died in this zone. A family man, he had voted for Chavez but was soon disappointed. He had traveled from Valencia to meet his granddaughter. He put on his tennis shoes and left. His family did not see him again until he was shown on TV with a gunshot to the head. "The temple of truth cannot be built on lies," he had written earlier that day in his book of poems. For his family, based on his premonitory faith, he represents everyone who died on that day.
Other victims in this zone were José Antonio Gamallo, Jesús Mohamad Espinoza, Orlando Rojas and Ángel Luis Figueroa, who were part of the opposition protest.
Jose Antonio Gamallo, 45, was thought to be dead by the staff at Vargas Hospital until they realized that he still had vital signs and was taken to the operating room. He would die in Galicia, Spain, 4 months later.
Jesús Mohamad Espinoza, 18, son of Mohamad Merhi, who as a result of his son's death took it upon himself to bring these deaths before the IACHR through the VIVE Foundation, died from gunfire coming from the Llaguno Bridge when he was behind an armored anti-riot vehicle. The testimony was provided by a friend, Andrés Trujillo, who was with him at the time and was shot in the hip trying to help Mohamad Espinoza, who died at approximately 3:45.
Two government supporters down
The cases involving Rudy Urbano Duque and Erasmo Sánchez are highly emblematic.
Urbano Duque, who had been recently released from prison, was a few meters away from Llaguno Bridge on Baralt Avenue. He was shot by a rifle allegedly fired from the Eden Hotel, based on the direction and height of the bullet's trajectory.
Erasmo Sánchez received a gunshot entering his right eye in downward direction. He was found lying on the bridge. Like Urbano Duque, the shot came from the Eden Hotel according to the bullet's trajectory.
These two deaths were used to lock up nine Metropolitan Police officers and three police chiefs even though the police was one level below the victims at the time. Forensics shows that the weapons of the police officers do not implicate them in any of the deaths. Two other government supporters died nearby: César Matías and Pedro Linares.
Three deaths took place there: Luis Alberto Caro, Luis Alfonso Monsalve and Eliécer Zambrano. Authorities tried to blame alleged snipers that were supposedly at the Ausonia Hotel, diagonal to Miraflores. Because this is a high security zone protected by the armed forces, it seems impossible for an opposition sniper to be positioned there. Reports from the armed forces challenge this version and confirm that the hotel was under military control since two p.m. Nevertheless, in that area, where the official sector had set up a stage, three people died and 30 suffered gunshot wounds.
Translated by Félix Rojas Alva
José Vicente Rangel clearly said: "We are not conducting negotiations threatened with a gun in the head." He warned behind closed doors in the midst of the social upheaval occurred during the oil strike in 2002 and 2003. Dissenting Timoteo Zambrano answered back that no other option was available: "The thing is that otherwise, you do not negotiate."