The Lost Children of Vargas

Twenty years later, there are twenty open cases of children that went missing during the rescue operations of the landslides in Vargas, and they are believed to be alive.

Photo: El Nacional retrieved

Women and Children First

For the first 48 hours of the Vargas landslide in December 1999, “we looked for people who, even if they were wounded, were still alive,” Ángel Rangel recalls, director of Defensa Civil at the time. “We followed procedure, we would take out the elderly, children and disabled, then women, and finally, men. We tended to the vulnerable and yes, children were moved. Parents would hand them over and one, as an officer, would take them in as a rescue operation, for humanity’s sake.”

These words, published in the thesis Tras el eco de un río de voces, los niños que el deslave de Vargas se llevó, by Daniella Valeriano Marrero, speak of the disorganized evacuation process of the Vargas landslides, also holding up the myth about missing children, kids who disappeared during rescue operations and some believe to be alive five, ten and twenty years later.

The division for missing persons remained active for a year, the traces of their stories can be found in registries and in blurry pictures.

On July 8th, 2000, the former Policía Técnica Judicial began to work the cases. The division for missing persons remained active for a year, the traces of their stories can be found in registries, in blurry pictures, in the minds of those who saw them for the last time, and in their family’s hearts.

Broken Hope

It had been raining in an unusual way since October in Vargas, and when December came, the downpour turned non-stop. The mountains softened up and broke off like crumbled cookies, releasing about twenty million cubic feet of rocks and mud over the towns. Carlos Genatios, named the sole authority for Vargas in 2000, said that 70% of the population had been affected, a hundred thousand people had been evacuated, and 10% of the households had been destroyed.

Very little is known about those children separated from their parents during the frenzy of wrecks and improvised shelters. The Asociación de Familiares Extraviados (currently inactive) counted 49 boys and 70 girls. As of 2006, 81 families were still looking for them.

With the uncertainty, rumors prospered (for example, that these children were now victims of human trafficking). In 2000, with the support of Venezuela sin Límites, a campaign to find them was organized. Willmary Comus, a Vargas survivor, tells how even before the tragedy, “there were people looking at children. Then, with all the parents’ desperation to save them, they were handed over, and they may have fallen on the wrong hands.” Many parents went all across the country, following their children’s status of “found” or “affected”, meaning: still alive.

But these search missions were fruitless. Rocío Vargas declared last September, from Colombia, that she still hoped to find her daughter Cindy Yesenia Buitriago, who would be 29 today. The last time she saw her was on December 9th, 1999, at the bus terminal in Cúcuta, when Cindy was sent to Caracas with her grandmother. On January 11th, 2000, Rocío arrived to Caracas and couldn’t find her. In August, she saw the girl and her grandmother in a video in a shelter. For four years she kept looking in Carabobo, Bolívar, Lara and Zulia.

“It’s hard to say, but people still have a vague idea of having seen them,” Manuel Guacarán confesses, chief of civil security in La Guaira at the time of the tragedy. “With time, those stories vanished.” He recalls how on the night of the landslide, he personally asked a man with three kids to leave his home because the river was growing stronger. “I left him with three children there. I went back the next day, to help people, and I found him alone. As time went by, he kept looking for his kids, handing out pictures, he said they were on the lists at shelters, people told him they had seen them. But in this case, there was only one answer: the water ripped them from his hands.”

The same could have happened to Julián Chacón, Carmen López’s husband. He was in Los Corales with Celita (11), Celimar (5) and Jesús (4). The San Julián River was furious. When she arrived fifteen hours later to Los Corales, everything was destroyed. Some told her that her family had managed to escape, others said they didn’t. Then Celita, Celimar, and Jesús showed up on the lists as “rescued”, “found” and “affected”. It was said that Jesús was in La Casona. But nothing came of this. Carmen never found them.

The Mysteries of La Casona

The Fondo Único Social (FUS) was supposed to handle everything concerning the social problems related to the tragedy, including the care of children. But this also spun out of control.

Ignacio Laya, brother of Alfredo Laya, Vargas governor at the time, said that First Lady Marisabel Rodríguez de Chávez, probably acting in good faith and as president of the Fundación del Niño, took many infants to the presidential residence of La Casona, where an ad hoc court for minors was installed. Some came alone and had been evacuated from rescue points at the Maiquetía airport and the La Guaira seaport, where helicopters, motorcycles, 4×4 vehicles, and even Navy ships were used to transport survivors.

The clues led, then, to La Casona. On December 18th, 1999, several children of the Paz Lugo family were separated from their father in Naiguatá. He looked for them in shelters and rescue points. No one reported them dead and he was told that they had been taken to Caracas, and later to Maracaibo by the wife of the then governor, Francisco Arias Cárdenas. That’s where he ended up, only to be told that his kids were in Caracas with Marisabel de Chávez. He wasn’t allowed in La Casona, like many other parents. According to the witness telling his story, as they waited, they saw buses with couples and children leaving.

Thanks to the work of the Asociación de Familiares Extraviados, they found seven adults and a girl named Nehynalit, but they weren’t sure of her identity. The children that were supposed to be in La Casona didn’t match the list from the Asociación.

Thanks to the work of the Asociación de Familiares Extraviados, they found seven adults and a girl named Nehynalit, but they weren’t sure of her identity.

“Everything happened during those days, people lost their minds. Many walked around caked in mud, naked, and couldn’t even say their own names. They would hand over their children hoping to save them,” Willmary Comus says. Everyone saw how Army officers and volunteers took the children to safe places. Fernando Martínez gave his 18-month-old son to his neighbor, who was hopping on a helicopter. After a few hours of “unspeakable anguish” he got them back, “but I know that other parents were left with empty arms”.

With the evacuations, Ignacio Laya says, they handed out dozens of survivors in other regions. The Navy ships took them to Puerto Cabello, where they wandered around, lost, unemployed, falling into crimes and prostitution. Then xenophobia and death squads.”

Today, the real numbers of deaths and missing people are an enigma. “With a tragedy that large, when chaos and lack of preparation take the stage, these things are quite common,” said Rogelio Altez, a researcher. “It also happened during the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and in wars.” His list of those believed to be alive is short, only twenty minors, from cases he picked up between 2002 and 2004. Among those are the Paz Lugo siblings.

Neither Civil Defense, the Interior and Justice Ministry, nor any other state organizations ever confirmed the figures of missing people, with all the muggings, looting, and rapes going down during the curfew.

And behind all these stories, all those numbers, are names and faces that should never disappear.

Mabel Sarmiento

Mabel Sarmiento is an UCAB-trained journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering community news, the environment, health, education and infrastructure.