“You have to be strong,” mayor Ramón Muchacho told Elvira Llovera de Pernalete when she came into the Salud Chacao ambulatory clinic. “Your son is dead.”
Juan Pablo Pernalete’s mother screamed in pain, rage and terror. To everyone and no one. Shaking. They left her alone in the office. She punched the walls, threw papers, knocked over a chair, shook the desk, and tears were falling. She ran out of air. Her life shattered. She called her husband, José Gregorio: “They killed Juan Pablo,” she said, and hung up.
She opened all the curtains separating the stretchers, looking for her son, but finding others’ wounded sons. Hers, she’d find just like he first came into this world 20 years ago, only this time he was a 1.86 m. tall corpse.
“Papi, stand up!” Elvira yelled like she never had before. “Get up from there, son! Stand up, Juan Pablo! Stand up!”
Looking closely, she noticed a round impression over his left nipple. She stroked him, hugged him, shook him, and let him go. Over and over again, and then once more. Looking at him, and looking again. She remembered that outside, the Avenida Libertador ran under the health center and she thought about leaping down to meet her son, later deciding against it. She kept screaming her pain without taking her eyes off him. Her voice went down, to not wake him up.
They took her to another room where agents from the investigative CICPC police force were waiting: “Ma’am, you have to come with us.” The man who spoke stretched a hand to her that she didn’t take: “You are my son’s murderers!”
And the man answered with what neither she, nor Venezuela, would ever forget: “Ma’am, the National Guard did it.”
It was the afternoon of Wednesday, April 26th, 2017.
It’s been three years and five months since Juan Pablo Pernalete Llovera, an accounting student on a scholarship at UNIMET, a basketball player for the under-20 Panteras de Miranda, and an animal protector, became one of the 163 victims in the longest resistance period of struggle that the Venezuelan opposition has had during the chavista era.
Juan Pablo didn’t drop dead, he was struck dead. Just one strike, causing cardiac arrest by blunt force trauma to the chest: the impact of a tear gas bomb canister shot at close range. Yes, a tear gas bomb, a weapon that only the state’s security forces have and used breaking the national and international rules about tear gas.
Juan Pablo headed to the peaceful protest that day, sick and tired of the shortages and high cost of medicines for his father’s blood pressure and his sister Gabriela’s cancer. The food shortages, the criminals that stole parts of her mother’s car once and that, because of inflation and debt from Gabriela’s chemo, they couldn’t replace at the time without the family’s budget going out of balance.
He wasn’t one of the belligerent “resistance” boys or the youth chapter of a political party. Juan Pablo left his home like any other citizen to demand humanitarian aid, to allow medicine and food into the country.
He left believing in God, in coming home and into a nation that he never knew. He had the misfortune to be on a street that was mistaken for a battlefield and that today, with a memorial plaque bearing his name, still remembers what the fight is all about.
“That bastard not only killed a person, he killed an entire family,” José Gregorio says.
The government’s depiction of what happened was so warped that it seemed like an entirely different case: Pernalete was killed by the impact of a captive bolt pistol bullet, shot by one of his friends.
The 79 investigative tasks carried out by the Prosecutor’s Office, whose first results were announced at the end of May 2017 by Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz, confirmed the canister shot version. With this, they also confirmed what the chavista narrative was: a convenient adaptation.
The now dissident Ortega Díaz also stated that they identified the group of guards that were shooting and that in the next few days, they would identify the person directly responsible.
The case had been solved, justice was coming… and then nothing happened. The last thing the Pernaletes knew was that they had located a sergeant that had been present at the events, and he pointed to the lieutenant-colonel who gave the orders. Prosecutors have been unable to find him.
Daily life for the Pernaletes doesn’t start as it did on the morning hours of April 26th, 2017, nor does it continue as it was before that. For starters, a Saturday like today would have Juan Pablo bathing the six dogs, listening to music, and planning what to do later. He would be alive.
Now this household receives more journalists than friends, so on the dinner table they have nine folders, two notebooks, and a justice manual edited by NGO Provea. On top of everything, lies Napoleon, a yorkie whose job is to safeguard the papers by sleeping on them.
Some are identified with the prosecutor’s case number and the year, and each document has a post-it with an explanation and a summary. There are also notes, logs, and the son’s biography, written by the mother. Another folder only contains the hearing’s transcripts. Another one, with a colored cover saying “Happy Birthday Mom I love you” has dated records of affection, and they serve as a pillow for Dulcita, the poodle. Another file has written thoughts by Juan Pablo, and the plastic one is what they take to courts.
There are more folders in another room that has been converted into an office, guarded by Richarparker the cat, and five other felines who take turns keeping an eye and resting on top of the printer. There are many other documents in lawyers’ offices, commissions and NGOs, and many more in the Prosecutor’s Office.
It can’t be any different. Pernalete’s parents aren’t just taking one case, they have three: first, the Juan Pablo’s; second, the complaint about high government officials using media to broadcast a fake narrative of the murder; third, a personal address to the UN Human Rights Committee, to talk against the state for violating Juan Pablo, Elvira, and José Gregorio’s human rights.
Order is possible because of Elvira. Just like there are files, a box contains the result of her pregnancy test, her control sheet, Juan Pablo’s umbilical cord, the onesie and the socks he was wearing when they left the hospital, the first lock of hair he had cut off, and all of his baby teeth. Everything is in such order and her memory is so good that she can recall the visits to the Prosecutor’s Office with the same detail as whenever the tooth fairy first came to visit.
“This boy refused to be buried,” José Gregorio believes, not just because of the five death certificates and the process that stopped them from burying him the next day, but because of Juanpi’s tenacious presence in their lives and those of other Venezuelans.
Because he died, they keep him alive.
Everything is a family heirloom, from the table lamp that two deputies from the Prosecutor’s Office saw as an explosive device, to the expired protein powder which was suspected of being explosive too, the Narnia Chronicles book that may have served as inspiration for destabilization plans and the three-colored backpack, all evidence that in this house lived a victim, even though they were looking for a perpetrator.
Above all, the maternal cult has 30 photographs of Juan Pablo all over the house. It’s what’s left for his parents to fill the six hundred square meters of home and life they have to live now, without young people hanging out on weekends, without the grandkids they dreamt of, without everything they have had to sell and the jobs they used to have. Because accountant Elvira and agronomist José Gregorio are now the parents of that young boy they killed in the protests, and with that title no one will hire them even if they run out of savings.
If the government had already shredded Juan Pablo’s heart and his parents’, they then stepped on the pieces.
“Terrorist”, “criminal”, “delinquent”, “guarimbero”. That’s what the government called Juan Pablo and thus, “Team Pernalete,” like the boy used to say, started its crusade putting themselves in the hands of God, the Virgen del Carmen, the Virgen de Chiquinquirá, the instructions by cousin Waldemar Núñez, and the verses of Para tu amor by Juanes, already turned into a creed.
“A parent’s job is to protect their child, even if the child is dead,” José Gregorio claims.
But they have to protect themselves, too, and not from having the “terrorist” at home, as unmarked cars drive around and stop to take pictures of them every once in a while.
For Elvira and José Gregorio, outings and visits are no longer spontaneous. Statements, interviews, talks, and activities have to be agreed between the couple and their lawyer, Andrea Santacruz, chairwoman of the CDH-Unimet.
Now, everything is questioned. Everything is checked. Everything has more than two possible scenarios, and they must stay ahead to respond. Everything is planned, organized, reviewed. Everything is detailed. They draw out ideas and reorganize the folders. If they’re going to make a video, they rehearse it. Everything they think of is written down in minute detail, they tell Santacruz and the corresponding institution, be it national or international.
“We’re better prepared,” José Gregorio explains. “We’re our own critics. We don’t want to be repetitive and stay in the same place when they killed Juan Pablo three years ago. We have moved forward and we will continue to do so.”
They learned all of this with Waldemar, who was the lawyer for the Pernalete case until December the 1st, 2018, when he was run over by a car in the congested Andrés Bello Av. in Caracas. With his death still unsolved, others also lost his guidance: the mothers of Luis Guillermo Espinosa, Rubén Darío González, Yorman Bervecia, and Nelson Arévalo, also victims of the 2017 repression.
In this household, emotions and exhaustion keep losing the battle, while speeches gain space.
In November 2017, the 15 minutes assigned to tell the life and death of Juan Pablo before the panel of independent experts of the OAS, stretched to 47.
“I knew I had to do it,” Elvira remembers, pointing out that her husband had never spoken to her so firmly, “because in Venezuela we have no justice. But before we went in, I just wanted to run away. I began looking for an exit and my husband grabbed me, ‘It’s an opportunity to defend your son! Tell me if you’re going to do it!’”
The defense isn’t only in real life. It’s also in the digital world.
“Juan Pablo had installed Twitter and Instagram on my phone, but the first few days after he… when I was a mess, the one who answered was my sister. She read what people said and she did everything. Afterwards, she began teaching me. My cousin helped us a lot with Twitter and we would call Juan Pablo’s friends,” Elvira says, between laughter and embarrassment.
“We didn’t know how to retweet, or repost, or post, or any of that,” José Gregorio adds.
“The Twitter thread is still a struggle. We’re learning. But we understood that it’s a way to defend our son… you see two parents right here that have spent nights trying to understand and learn to move forward.”
On June 29th, 2019, the Pernaletes told UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet their whole story, and they were surprised by the Bachelet report in July 2019, but for very different reasons than those that surprised even chavismo.
“Everyone celebrated when they said they were human rights violators,” José Gregorio remembers, “that the Prosecutor’s Office had laid down bridges because the government had the intention of collaborating with the victims, when all this time justice has been denied for us. We did expect more and we complained to the High Commissioner.”
Because each time the Pernalete case had the chance of moving forward, the prosecutors would be changed. After 14 prosecutors and 14 victimizations, the process qualifies as cruel and degrading—and before the confinement measures because of COVID-19 in Venezuela, the Pernaletes would appear every week in court to remind the state, verbally and on writing, about their demands.
“We want the ordinary and extraordinary legal actions executed to seize the evidence,” Elvira insists, “the record books, who was carrying weapons that day, who were posted in Altamira at that time… not only find the actual killers, but the chain of command. I want an integral reparation.”
Lawyer Santacruz explains: “It’s a serious and very painful process. Prosecutors already know their story and they should be taking action, but it’s like justice is completely out of their reach. Nevertheless, the Pernaletes continue the process, because they have the chance to have an impact on a national and international level, even motivate other victims to push forward.”
After the report by the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela was published on September 16th, the legal reality has changed, and so has the family’s perception.
Santacruz explains: “The fact that Juan Pablo’s case was one of the 48 analyzed in detail, shows that the fight Mr. and Mrs. Pernalete have put up has been clearly documented and this allows for it to be an emblematic case which puts into evidence a state policy, a plan, and a course of action.”
“In our case, it’s a huge step forward in our search for justice,” Elvira reflects. “It did go beyond our expectations and we were comforted. We cried, yes, but it’s no time to celebrate… this pain will never go away… they still killed our boy.”
And in a way, they also killed Gabriela.
“Last year, she began having symptoms of the disease again,” Elvira says. “You know what it’s like here when you have a child with cancer. They don’t have the right to a health system, to public assistance, to anything, and we don’t have the money… in December, they told us that there was nothing left to do.”
Gabriela died on January 19th this year because she couldn’t get her treatment, because of a sadness that psychologists could never lift. She was only 16.
The parents remain. One way or another.
With the individual petition by the Pernaletes to the Human Rights Commission, it’s possible that they might use the report by the Mission as a base to admit and analyze the case, and therefore point, once and for all, what everyone knows: the Venezuelan government’s responsibility on the death of young Juan Pablo.
“We don’t know if we’ll ever see justice, we’re old, but whatever we must do, we will do and others will see justice served,” Elvira says. “I’m aware of who I’m up against: a dirty system with a lot of power which mocks us, and is counting on us getting tired.”
It’s always been a slow, long, and complex process that, more than work, requires time that the government makes them waste, as if losing everything else isn’t enough.
Sometimes people ask Elvira what life would have been like.
Perhaps like this:
On April 26th 2017, Juan Pablo comes back home and asks his mother for a rice omelette with butter and cheese, while opening a box of Flips cereal. Without showering, he runs up the stairs and jumps on top of Gabriela to bother her for a while and share some Flips. He plays some reggaeton that his father orders to stop before the first verse ends, and he switches to a song by Pablo Alborán. He showers. He eats. He makes another video for his YouTube channel No es asunto tuyo (“It’s none of your business”), which already has six followers and too many complaints against the government. He eats again before bed.
The next day, he gets up at 6:00 a.m. He practices his free throws in the backyard thinking about the trials he has for the professional basketball league that upcoming September. He has the same breakfast he had the day before: two arepas with butter, ham and cheese. He checks on each of the dogs and pets every cat.
Elvira and José Gregorio go over the errands for the day: dropping Juan Pablo at the gym, looking for the medicines they need, pick Juan Pablo up and go back before the roads are closed again, so that Gabriela isn’t on her own for too long.
But Juan Pablo doesn’t go into the gym. He stays home to demonstrate again. Before leaving, he hugs Gabriela and says the same thing he did on the 26th, and every day before: “Mom, don’t worry because protesting isn’t a crime, I’ll be fine.” He asks for her bendición. They give it with fear. And he leaves.
Elvira and José Gregorio beg God and the Virgin to bring him back alive one more time.
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