Today, at 3:27 pm, saw the start of a Cadena de Radio y TV. Nicolás Maduro speaks to pro-government students at a meeting in Avenida Universidad in Caracas. In his nearly 60-minute speech, he rejects, among other things, attacks to Unefa in Táchira. He’s right, they were unforgivable. But while he insisted on protecting the “public universities”, I could not help but wonder: what about the attack against UCAB? And, even more, something that others like me were wondering via Twitter: “@robertodeniz: Maduro dice estar muy indignado por lo sucedido contra la Unefa. Nada dice de la paliza que le dieron a estudiantes e[n] la UCV“. Here, I tell a story that needs to be told. A chronicle of the attacks on UCV Architecture students that took place last Wednesday March 19, 2014.
Since it came via WhatsApp, I can tell you exactly at what time I heard. On Wednesday, March 19th, at 8:01 p.m., a friend writes me, “for those who say the colectivos are peaceful. My brother, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, just got beat up at the Architecture School.”
My friend’s brother didn’t want to talk about it, which I respect. But one of his classmates texted me: “whenever you like I’m available” to talk about it. Another wrote. “I’m ready to tell the story, count on me.”
For security reasons, I will not use their real names. Instead I’ll call them Diego and René.
Diego, 21 years old, went to spend the day at UCV’s Architecture School because “there were some conference, a movie forum, and later in the afternoon they’d called a students’ assembly.” René, who’s about to turn 23, arrived at UCV at 1 p.m. for the assembly, which was called to talk about what comes next, “go to an active strike, a total strike, keep on going to class…what to do?”
After several hours in the assembly, at 3:30 p.m., Diego, René and dozens of UCV Architecture students take a break for lunch. As they come back, they notice that the placards reading “Safety”, “Liberty”, “Justice” and “Respect” they’d placed on the highrise’s wall which faces out to the highway, across from the Universidad Bolivariana, were being taken down and replaced by a group of 8 people they couldn’t identified. “Infiltrators” is what Diego called them.
Now the highrise sported a single word: Chávez.
René says the students decided to block all access points to the classrooms, “the fire escape stairs, the two elevators that were working and the central stairwell to the highrise. We blocked them off with chairs, tables, desks. Everything we found, to make sure they stayed where they were.” Diego says, “we blocked up the infiltrators in the stairwell because we didn’t know what to do. It seemed some of them were armed.”
The students, who had gathered to organize their semester, now just look to protect themselves.
The infiltrators who had switched around the placards claimed to be UCV students, and say they want to negotiate their way out of the highrise. In the meantime, Diego and his classmates discussed whether it was better to just leave them locked up in the stairwell overnight, since “it was getting dark, the campus was empty. Waiting was more dangerous for everyone.”
After hours of negotiations – including a cameo from a pro-government classmates and members of the School’s Student Center – Diego, René and their classmates step aside to let the infiltrators out of the highrise. Right then and there, on March 19th at 6:15 p.m. saw the start of at least 30 long minutes of terror.
René says “not even a minute” had passed since they decided to let the infiltrators out when “into the door [to the building] comes a guy who’s not wearing a shirt, with a white t-shirt covering his face and a gun in his hand saying ‘the colectivos have arrived.’” According to Diego, the encapuchado “threw in a tear gas cannister, and that’s when it all kicked off.”
The man wasn’t alone, behind him “there were a bunch of others.”
Some students set off running towards the cafeteria, others hid under the “security stand” – a piece of furniture in the way into the building.
René, Diego and about 20 others decide to run to the far side of the School. They try to get into the classroom, but they’re locked shut. When they come to the end of the corridor, they find the emergency exit shut with a padlock.
René says they gave up trying to smash the padlock with a chair when a classmate yelled that there are gangs on motorcycles just outside. They realize they’re cornered, trapped. They have a corridor off to the left, another off to the right, but both converge on the same spot: all roads lead to the encapuchados.
In what René describes as “a moment of calm” when they figure the colectivos are busy trying to free the infiltrators from the inside stairwell, Diego and nine classmates get as near as 100 meters from the building’s main exit. Thinking the coast is clear, they run towards it. Just then, out of nowhere, “a tear gas canister is lobbed.” Diego says “it went off just next to me and I choked.” The group of ten has to run back to the “trapped corner” together with their other classmates.
René – who hadn’t moved from the spot at the far end of the building – says that as he heard the tear gas canisters going off he looked to the left, looked to the right, and saw masked figures on both sides, armed with sticks and tubes.
“You can imagine the terror of that moment, feeling cornered…I said to myself ‘this is it’. At some point I thought there was going to be a massacre, because some guys had guns in their hands.”
Out of terror, René and his classmates climbed up “one on top of another” to try to create a kind of human shield, protecting one another somehow. Diego managed to hide under “a pile of old furniture that’s no longer in use.”
The students who tried to break through the colectivo picket to get out of the building were badly beaten. Those on the outer edge of the “pile” – the human shield of students – including René, tried to cover their faces as they were beaten with tubes and sticks.
In this photo you can see the imprints from boots left on some of their faces. Other pictures show broken, bleeding heads. Diego is still hiding at this point “under a desk”, not moving for fear of being detected, but “hearing everything and seeing everything.”
As the students are beat, the infiltrators yelled out “the colectivos have arrived”, “so this is how you’re going to overthrow the government?”, “Chávez lives” and “you’re a bunch of fascists and that’s why we’re beating you”.
One takes a moment to grafitti a wall: “esta mierda es de la izquierda” – this shit belongs to the left.
Diego, still hiding under his desk, is in shock. He can’t believe the screams from the women as they’re beaten. “The cries were horrible.”
René, in his human pile, grabs on to two friends to protect them. His eyes sting from the tear gas. “I was choking, crying.” He doesn’t know how long this is going to last. “What’s going to happen?” he wonders, “who’s going to stand up for us?”
Diego says he managed to see that some of the infiltrators were women and he saw “one without a face covering or anything.” When one of the women yelled out “we’re moving out! we’re moving out!” René thinks it’s all over. But no.
The armed groups only let the women out. Not the men. After telling them to “not play the fool”, they order René and his classmates to strip, leaving them in their underwear. They then open the way and tell them to run, as they try to beat them in the head and legs with tubes and sticks. René grabs his pants and his shoes and starts running. “Luckily I managed to dodge them all,” he says, but not everyone was so lucky. As he’s just about to reach the door, an infiltrator tries to block his path, but René dodges him as well.
René’s indignation boils over when he realizes that “there were two firemen sitting there in the corridor, wearing gas masks, just looking”, and when he gets out into the street and gasps for air, the firefighters don’t even try to help. They just say “get out, get out, quickly, there are motorbike gangs around.”
René and some of his classmates run to the Metro station about half a kilometer from the School and feel relief for the first time. It’s around 6:45, UCV is deserted and the sun is out of sight. Yet even after all that, René doesn’t go home. He stays to help take the wounded to hospital, and later another friend to a clinic.
For Diego, the ordeal was longer. Half an hour after the beating has finished, he finally crawls out from his hiding place and realizes they’ve made his classmates strip, since “right there I see all these clothes, shoes and backpacks tossed about.” As he goes out onto the street “there are firefighters on the door to the faculty. But they said nothing, and didn’t approach me. I left running.”
After hugging a friend he meets outside, Diego goes to look for his car but when he reaches it he realizes they’ve smashed his windshield on the driver’s side. Although he can barely see out the front, Diego drives as best he can to bring his classmates, who had reached the Hospital almost nude, their clothes.
Thinking back, René sums up: “Fear, terror. That feeling that, I imagine, you feel when you’re about to be murdered and you’re cornered. That terror of looking left, looking right, and realizing you’re trapped. I was in a corner, literally.”
For his part, Diego says, “I was amazed…I’d never, ever lived anything like that…it’s something that changes you. A before and after in your life.” He says “his best friend at university can’t stop crying. Her eyes are swollen. And she wasn’t one of those who was beaten up.”
But Diego isn’t going to report any of it to the police.
“In this country they don’t pay any heed to that. I know there’ll be no justice.”Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.