Earlier in #CaracazoWeek, we published a complete translation of PROVEA’s 1989 report into the events of the day. That’s a valuable document, but long, so we thought you might appreciate the greatest hits, an annotated walk through of their conclusions, highlighting the bits we forgot to remember.
PROVEA’s recounting of the main causes of death during the Caracazo has lost none of its power to shock. In admirably straightforward language, they leave little doubt where responsibility for the bulk of the killing lies:
Most deaths during this period were caused by high caliber bullet wounds located from the waist up, occurring at night during the curfew. According to reports by victims’ relatives, the military tactic prevalent in popular areas of Caracas such as 23 de Enero, El Valle, Petare and Catia, was indiscriminate fire against apartments and houses, many of which were completely destroyed, in response to a few snipers.
The official figure of 276 fatalities was reported by the then Prosecutor General, although that institution hadn’t made an exhaustive investigation on the matter. Official secrecy, limitations imposed on the press and severe repression, prevented casualties from being appropriately counted and recorded.
On the other hand, we’re left to wonder if the final count has any relevance, considering the unacceptable death pattern, regardless of whether the pattern caused a thousand, ten or even only one victim. The Venezuelan Constitution doesn’t allow the suspension of guarantees that protect the right to Life and yet, there’s a persistent sensation that the suspension of some guarantees was taken by the various security forces as a licence to kill. A captain was recorded by a news outlet saying: “Soldiers have been killed here and when that happens, we intensify our work… [killing] isn’t hard, because we’re already indoctrinated, accustomed and psychologically prepared.”
It’s true that the police and the army were kept at bay by snipers in some places, but the vast majority of deaths weren’t caused by armed clashes.
But maybe these deaths were just incidental? Again, PROVEA is there to short circuit any illusions.
In a considerable number of documented cases, deaths were caused by deliberate acts, as is the case of poet Crisanto MEDEROS, who was shot in his bed by a military commission, after they’d forcefully entered his home on March 3rd. As they left the room, they cautioned his relatives: “he was killed by rioters two days ago.” His body was transported to the Technical Judicial Police’s (PTJ) morgue, where it was eventually located by his family with a tag that said “Unidentified. Not retrievable.” The death certificate said that the poet “had been shot for disobeying the curfew.”
Likewise, Yulimar REYES, literature student at the UCV, was shot in the throat, neck and chest with rubber bullets, on February 27th, when a PM officer attacked her in the commercial area of a building in Caracas; the student was merely ten meters away from the police officer, terrified by the weapon. Another student who tried to help her, was also wounded. The student couldn’t be taken to a hospital immediately because police didn’t allow it.
Many fatalities were caused by the security bodies’ refusal to allow the wounded to be immediately taken to a healthcare facility, leaving them to bleed out on the street. Others were caused by shots that wounded people inside their homes, killing them instantly or seriously injuring them. People wounded in this manner couldn’t be taken to a hospital despite the neighbors waving white handkerchiefs from their windows, begging the Armed Forces for help, which the authorities ignored.
Other victims were ordered to run, to be later shot down, as was the case of Juan Alexander FRANCO (22), murdered by the PM, after being forced to run with a bullet in his leg. It’s also the case of Eleazar MAVARES (18), arrested on March 3rd at 2:30pm. He was first shot by an PM officer who then ordered him to run, to which he refused due to the pain. Witnesses report to have heard a PM officer order one of his men: “I’m not going to carry the wounded. Kill him.”
Some members of security bodies took the suspension of guarantees as a chance to settle personal scores. That was, among others, the case of Boris BOLÍVAR, who had been threatened with death by a PM agent, weeks before the protests. Once guarantees were suspended, a PM patrol car took Bolívar, and his body was found days later in the banks of the Guaire river, with a shot in the head. Several other bodies were found in the river, ten and even fifteen days after guarantees had been suspended. All of them had been reported as missing and had bullet wounds in their chest and head; other bodies showed signs of mistreatment and torture.
Some stories failed to become enshrined in popular memory, but probably ought to have done:
In Maracay (Aragua state,) a group of students was dispersed by police officers firing from an ambulance, which resulted in the death of Juan Carlos CELIS PÉREZ. A Red Cross worker was arrested when trying to fulfill his humanitarian obligation in that same city.
At least one wounded was forcefully taken by soldiers from the hospital in which he was being treated. These kinds of actions, coupled with the army’s refusal to allow the wounded to receive attention, show a highly worrying trend, in which not even the minimum rules governing a state of internal or external warfare, were observed by the authorities who took the suspension of guarantees as a green light to act with impunity.
Then PROVEA turns to an even more urgent subject:
Disappearances. The Missing Persons Committee, created by the parliamentarian caucus of Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), received complaints about missing persons, starting with 70 cases which gradually dropped to 43 and finally, to three. It’s concerning that many of those missing were found dead after being detained by security forces, although it’s important to note that these disappearances aren’t characterized by State repression practices denounced by other countries in the Continent.
On Friday, March 3rd, 80 burials took place in the Southern General Cemetery, in Caracas; the normal tally oscillates between 20 and 25 burials. However, mass graves aren’t part of this count and cemetery authorities weren’t accountable for what happened between 4:00 pm and 6:00 am of the following day, since Civil Defense took charge of the place for that period.
On Monday, March 6th, 35 corpses were exhumed from a mass grave in “La Peste Nueva” sector in the general cemetery, with the intention of relieving the morgue of unclaimed bodies. The Missing Persons Committee submitted to the Prosecutor’s Office a list of people declared missing, requesting the exhumation of bodies from the mass graves. The ministers questioned by the Congress’s Interior Policy Committee denied the existence of mass graves. When asked by the press about the resources available to families of missing and isolated persons, Pastor Heydra, head of the Central Office of Information, replied “remember that guarantees are suspended.”
Arrests and illegal searches. Also due to the suspension of guarantees, the State’s security forces, including the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DIM), which has no authority to collect intelligence on possible dissidents, carried out hundreds of illegal searches, arresting students and independent grassroots groups in poor areas, even Jesuit priests, while attempting to find information about their activities, intimidating them and blaming them for the riots before public opinion.
Some of the detainees were tortured, a fact proven by the Committee created by President Carlos Andrés Pérez himself.
Several students and community leaders were tried in military tribunals for the crime of “military rebellion,” a practice that had been criticized before by national and international Human Rights organizations.
In Caracas, the detention centers were the DIM, the headquarters of the National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP) and Fuerte Tiuna. Around 200 students were detained in the DISIP’s cells during the first days, and then were transported to Fuerte Tiuna.
Another sordid detail that’s now forgotten is the way the government initially tried to deflect blame by pointing the finger at “foreigners” — which at the time was barely disguised code for “Colombians”:
It’s worth noting that while government spokespersons indicated during the first riots that many of those responsible for lootings were foreigners, only 56 cases of foreigners were handed over to the Directorate of Identification and Immigration (DIEX) to study their situation.
Then we come to the truly dark shit:
Starting in March, the President appointed a “Presidential Committee to investigate the situation of arrested students during events of February 27th and 28th, 1989,” led by criminologist Elio Gomez Grillo. The Committee interviewed students held in the Directorate of Military Intelligence and Fuerte Tiuna. They also interviewed high ranking officers of civilian and military security forces. The report was delivered to the President, but its results were never disclosed to the public.
Off the record, it was revealed that the Committee reported detailed information on tortures and abuses committed against students held in the DIM, and the Committee’s members certified that, in fact, they observed dark stains on the skin, presumably caused by electric shocks. The Committee also recommended performing forensic examinations on the victims. However, PROVEA later reported that some students who tried to request tomographies and other medical examinations, were not able to due to the lack of cooperation from Prosecutor’s Office authorities and medical examiners, in a behaviour that clearly violates their ethical obligations.
Did you catch that? The findings of the official committee that documented torture perpetrated on people detained during the Caracazo was suppressed, until it leaked to Human Rights organizations. Those responsible were, naturally, never tried. It’s outrageous.
It’s actually in the last part of the report that I learned the most. Fisking the official congressional investigation carried 1989, PROVEA essentially alleges a coverup, a coverup that later investigations and IACHR Rulings would fully flesh out:
Congress’s Interior Policy Committee (CPI), started an investigation on March about February’s events, their causes and consequences regarding Human Rights. The CPI’s report was unanimously approved and made public in July. The report was the result of meetings with the Governors of the Federal District and Miranda state, as well as with the ministers of Defense, Justice and Interior.
The report includes a narrative summarizing the meetings with the three ministers. Of particular interest:
– The three ministers agreed on quoting the balance of 276 fatalities as the official figure. Although the CPI didn’t openly support this figure, neither did they refute it in their report, because lawmakers from different parties couldn’t agree on accepting certain statistics provided by some deputies. So far, it’s been impossible for PROVEA to obtain a copy of the official list of deaths because, according to information we were offered off the record, that list is top secret and won’t be made public.
That’s a detail I’ve always found amazing. The government agreed on a number of deaths, but steadfastly refused to publish their names! This makes sense only in the context of a coverup: if they’d published a list of names, it would’ve been trivial to demonstrate the undercount, just by pointing to people known to have died not included in the official list.
– The Justice minister said he had no information about the existence of mass graves, even though it was widely reported by the press.
Car’e’tablismo Level: Chávez.
He said that, in case there were any, they were the responsibility of Civil Defense, a body attached to the Interior ministry. However, the Interior minister also denied the graves’ existence, although he admitted that 87 people had been buried without identification or informing their families. Despite official denial of the graves’ existence, PROVEA has received a series of witness accounts and complaints from relatives of the deceased, who couldn’t retrieve the body and were informed that it was buried in a mass grave.
– The questioned ministers denied the allegations of tortured detainees, remarking that the medical team who examined some of them in the presence of authorities from the Prosecutor’s Office didn’t find “any medically verifiable sign that such tortures occurred.” This contradicts the report issued by the Presidential Committee created to investigate the situation of the detainees. In a witness account received by PROVEA, the person interviewed was shocked to hear a Prosecutor’s Office authority say to the detainees “You should thank God that you’re in prison, because there are many dead on the street.” The CPI report also includes cases of detainees that were unconstitutionally isolated and strongly criticizes “the Prosecutor’s Office’s reiterative and almost traditional disregard for one of its main purposes as an institution, which is to defend citizen rights.” It’s important to note, however, that even though the CPI itself was aware of the Prosecutor’s Office’s severe negligence, some of their conclusions, as well as the statements of the questioned ministers, are based on information issued by members of that institution.
– Regarding alleged disappearances, the Interior minister said that many of those reported missing might have been buried without identification and others were people whose disappearances were reported by their relatives prior to February 27th. As for the CPI, they spoke about a list of missing persons submitted by the Missing Persons Committee, saying that the list offered no way for the CPI to determine the identity of these individuals and called for relatives to offer precise information about them. Months later, the head of the CPI publicly promised to continue investigating for the whereabouts of the individuals whose disappearance was ratified before the Committee. So far, there’s no information about the CPI’s progress in this regard.
– The Defense minister dismissed allegations that his office had been ordering illegal searches, which is contradicted by complaints of people affected by this practice. Illegal searches were widely reported by media outlets, but it wasn’t a surprise, since inviolability of the home was one of the guarantees suspended.
– The Defense and Interior ministers admitted that security forces committed excesses, but indicated that those were individual decisions, not orders. Without establishing responsibility, the CPI report says that “security forces committed severe excesses (…) meaning that they caused innocent victims.” Despite statements about individual excesses, a sizable part of the procedures had been started or known by Military Justice. PROVEA believes that the files of the complaints for alleged Human Rights violations should be made available for the ordinary criminal jurisdiction. This issue is stressed later on.
– The Defense minister denied that the riots could’ve been motivated or stimulated by subversive elements or by the interference of foreign governments. PROVEA agrees with this and, in that regard, it’s strange that students and community leaders were illegally arrested and blamed for the riots.
Another amazing detail now lost to memory: the Defense Minister, Italo del Valle Alliegro, rejected claims that the uprising was provoked. But government propaganda was centering on this charge from February 28th itself!
Another key piece of the cover-up: civilian officials who tried to investigate were removed as the military took over an investigation into…abuses by the military.
Judicial investigations. The PTJ’s Homicide Division had started to collect information regarding reports of casualties occurred from February 27th onwards. However, on March 3rd, the DIM notified the PTJ that all files had to be handed over to the military jurisdiction.
– Article 123(3) of the Military Justice Code isn’t applicable, since the events in question didn’t take place within military facilities. Additionally, if the statements of the then Defense minister before the CPI are considered valid, the abuses and excesses committed weren’t officially ordered, but produced by individual initiatives. Only Article 6 of the same Code, which establishes that “no one can be militarily tried for any crimes but those set forth in this Code, nor punished for military misdemeanor but in compliance with the Regulation of Disciplinary Punishment, except for cases established in Article 123, 3rd paragraph,” is applicable. As we can see, this paragraph is excluded in the cases that we’re studying.
And then this final bit of startling news: the one official PROVEA managed to get some traction with was…
PROVEA wants to certify the receptiveness found among high-ranking Prosecutor’s Office authorities, once Dr. Ramón Escovar Salóm was appointed to lead the institution.
The real question I’m left with is why Escovar Salóm decided, four years later, to hound Carlos Andrés out of power on some bullshit trumped-up charges relating to Violeta Chamorro’s inauguration rather than on the very clear, well documented cover-up of massive human rights violations his own office had been looking into for years.
Vainas que nunca sabremos…