What was El Caracazo? Part II

El Sacudón started in Guarenas and soon spread to Caracas and other cities. By noon of the 28th, the government finally responded, and with extreme force. So the biggest riots in modern Venezuelan history became the biggest exhibition of military and police brutality.

Inside Note: The Caracazo is history, but it is also one of our founding stories: a narrative that marked a before-and-after moment in the lives of all those who lived through it. Today we have the second instalment in a three part series that reflects the Caracazo’s two faces, weaving the history of the Caracazo as recounted by Rafael Osío Cabrices (marked ROC) with one of the many personal stories of the Caracazo as remembered by Cynthia Rodríguez (CR)

CR:  “The morning of February 28th I stayed home, but my dad headed out to work. He thought things would be back to normal by then. “I’d just started in a new job,” he remembers, “and I was in charge of an important process regarding the operating system at the office. I had to be there.” He drove past piles of burnt trash and looked at the landscape of the day before’s disaster. The image of so many soldiers on the streets gave him the impression that order had been restored. He arrived to his office to find no one there, other than a couple of colleges who told him to go home immediately. He drove back home via the Cota Mil only to run into some drivers going eastward on the west-bound side of the highway.

“¡Pal’ Centro no se puede pasar! ¡Eso está prendido! ¡Les van a quemar los carros!” they screamed.

But he had to go pal’ Centro. That’s where he lived. He went through the barricadas and made it home.

“Me salvé de vaina,” he says today. Just then he understood that the situation was far from normal. Then he checked the pantry and came to a second realization: we didn’t have enough food.

ROC: By noon on Tuesday, February 28th, after more than 24 hours of riots, President Pérez finally got political support from his party and the opposition and declared a state of emergency. While some rich people left the country in private planes and some middle class neighborhoods improvised self-defense groups, the Army took over, launching the infamous Plan Ávila, a massive repressive operation.

Thousands of soldiers from Caracas and bases in the countryside took over the hot spots. The emergency decree suspended eight constitutional rights — from the ban on arbitrary home searches to free speech, the freedom to gather and the freedom of movement — until March 24th (freedom of speech was formally restored on March 10th.)

The government did not suspend the right to life, of course, but the policemen and soldiers understood that they were allowed, and expected, to kill suspects on sight. All kinds of abuses were committed. The curfew forbid everyone — except for emergency personnel, police, military — from being outside between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. It was during the curfew that most of the extra-judicial killing took place.

The horror kept going on March 1st and 2nd, even though the President had suspended the price changes on many critical items. It was no longer about that. Detainees were tortured or summarily executed, according to the cases presented by NGOs like COFAVIC. Fires took down entire buildings.

Officials said that foreigners and conspirators were behind the violence, giving adding fuel to the xenophobic bonfire already evident in the street violence. DISIP (secret police) and DIM (military intelligence) agents practiced aggressive interrogations in the barrios among activists, and Jesuit priests, including father Luis Ugalde, who would later become president of the Catholic University, as well as students or community leaders, looking for organizers of la poblada as well as potential leaders of a communist rebellion that could take the government down. As early as that, the government was trying to shift blame to a leftist conspiracy.

The morgues and hospitals were overwhelmed. There were so many bodies that the authorities reopened a disused part of the biggest cemetery in Caracas, the old Cementerio General del Sur, which had been in operation since the 19th century epidemics and had kept the nickname La Peste. They dug mass graves and buried dozens of unidentified victims, many in the dead of night.

Daniel Toro was a third-year cadet in the Military Academy. On Feb. 28, his higher-ups ordered him and the rest of students to defend Fuerte Tiuna, the main military compound in Venezuela.

“They told us the protests were out of control and that operational units had to go out to restore order”, remember Daniel. “I guessed something huge was happening, but they didn’t give us details. They gave each one of us a FAL (assault rifle) and enough ammo, and told us that we couldn’t let anyone without authorization enter the premises”. They would spend two weeks guarding checking points, without incident: no one tried to sack Fuerte Tiuna. He was 19.

Elizabeth Araujo was one of the El Nacional reporters assigned to cover the riots. She and photojournalist Francisco “Frasso” Solórzano (later a Chavista congressman and mayor) showed their press passes to soldiers at checkpoints, during the curfew.

The two crisscrossed a quiet and terrorized Caracas for three nights.

“Frasso became friends with a young and jumpy lieutenant, who allowed us to breach a perímetro de fuego in El Valle’s Intercomunal avenue. We witnessed how shouting from the neighbors in the residential buildings was met with fire from soldiers: hundred of bullets aimed high at the windows, behind which were people terrified, lying on their apartments’ floors. We saw bodies strewn behind the buildings, on the stairs of the barrios, in empty apartments and inhabited ranchos. I talked to the mother of 13-year-old Miguel, killed point blank by a policeman in La Quebradita. I listened to a girl who told me how the soldiers had taken her brother from home at night and he was found dead days later in the morgue. I couldn’t hold my tears when I heard a man shouting a maldición from his rancho, when he found his 5-month-old baby killed by a FAL bullet, in his crib.

Elizabeth and Frasso tried to visit La Peste, but they weren’t allowed to go in.

We saw an old lady, with her husband and a girl, crying, raising her arms to the heavens, begging to see his son Jesús’s body before he will be buried in the mud amid a pile of unnamed corpses. Frasso and I never were the same.

After March 2nd, the nation slowly crawled back to normality. People had to wait in long lines to buy groceries in the looted cities, with corpses still in plain sight. The relatives of the dead and the imprisoned began to look for their loved ones while human right activists, intellectuals and politicians sparked the organized efforts for justice that would last for years (human rights NGO COFAVIC was actually created by people looking for their disappeared relatives). When the government restored the constitutional guarantees, all the detainees were released.

CR: Mom and Dad went shopping. They said that they didn’t know how much time that was going to take, but that under no circumstances should I open the door to anyone. Then dad gave me the emergency instructions. They went out and saw how the neighborhood had lost most of its stores. Not only the grocery shops and supermarkets, but also the pharmacies, the clothing stores, electronics stores. Almost everything. My mom went to the laundry to get back two of my dad’s pants, only to find a black burnt storefront where every piece of clothing had been stolen. She learned one of the most horrifying stories we heard those days: one of our panadería’s employees was found dead in a fridge.

They found a supermarket in upscale Las Mercedes, many miles from home, that was selling goods through a window. The line was infinite.

People would buy anything, it didn’t matter what. JAM, cookies, icing sugar, whatever they could find. Later, they would trade them with the neighbors. And the economía de supervivencia went on like that for quite a long time.

Today, when we talk about this, he says with regret that leaving the three of us home alone was an irresponsible mistake.

“Si nos hubieran matado a los dos… Imagínate…”

Who were the killers?

ROC: In the first place, the forces in charge of restoring order. As Fernando Coronil and Julie Skursky wrote in 1991, the Army charged against the barrio like it was a military enemy, the police fought it like it was a criminal gang, and DISIP and DIM dealt with it like it was a subversive agent.

We were all afraid of policemen and guards, and after 27F, way more. There weren’t municipal police bodies at the time, only state police and the PM in Caracas, commanded not by civilians, but by National Guard officers: military men.

Today’s SEBIN was called DISIP then. It was as lethal and unaccountable as its successor.

None of them had any kind of meaningful human rights training. They were used to detaining people for no reason, following the then still-in-forced Gómez era Vagos y Maleantes law, which allowed the police to hold people in custody without trial or even a rudimentary form of habeas corpus.

Both the PM and DISIP were in tatters back then: damaged by strikes, underfunded and straining from low morale.

Army soldiers, kids recruited or enlisted to escape poverty, didn’t have any idea of how to deal with the situation, so they closed their eyes and pulled the trigger. They were all armed, unprepared, and afraid too, because some civilians -looters, malandros, and perhaps the old guard in the Colectivos in 23 de Enero, former guerrilleros- were shooting at them.

In many cases, the security forces simply made bullets rain indiscriminately over the bloques — the residential buildings — in the 23 de Enero or Catia, when they thought snipers were firing from there.

This is how many innocent people died.

In other cases soldiers opened fire on a street where people was running or looting, killing people randomly and leaving the wounded to bleed to death, even when their neighbors or relatives asked with white flags to be able to carry them off to a hospital. If some officer had a personal vengeance to accomplish, that was the perfect moment to take the life of a former lover or a hatred malandro. Who was going to check?

And the victims? Innocent men, women, teens, children, shot, burned in a fire, trapped with a heart attack in a war zone. Employees or shop owners in the way of armed looters, targeted by a population that was blaming them, more than the government, on inflation and scarcity; if they were Colombian, Chinese, Portuguese or Lebanese, they were more victimized. Some of the dead were actually gang members, professional robbers, and also policemen or soldiers. Felipe Acosta Carles, an Army major involved in the MBR-200 conspiration -whose leader, Hugo Chávez, was at the moment sick with measles- was killed in Caracas. Some men just disappeared, until their bodies were found 10 days later floating in the Guaire river, with bullet holes on their foreheads.

“When I finally got back to my school in La Pastora, a week later or so, the mood was gloomy. Two of my school friends had lost their fathers. I especially remember one of them. His sad look and how everybody stopped talking abruptly when he walked into the room”.

Taquito CMárquez





This is part II of a three-part series. Part III will be published on Friday.