Into a Deadly Venezuelan Rally Is Stalled
by New York Times and FRONTLINE/World
correspondent Juan Forero
CARACAS, Venezuela, April 20, 2003 -- Within hours of his death
on April 11, 2002, Jorge Tortoza became a martyr for the opponents
of President Hugo Chavez. So did many of the other 18 people
killed after gunfire erupted here during a sprawling antigovernment
march, a confused explosion of violence that led to the brief
unseating of the president.
A year later, however, Mr. Tortoza's relatives say they still
do not know who is responsible for his shooting. Families of
most of the other victims express similar frustration, despite
aggressive efforts by both the government and the opposition
to cast blame on the other.
"If it is the government, or the other side -- I can't say,"
William Tortoza, 35, a veteran police officer and Jorge's younger
brother, said as he pointed out the street corner where his
brother fell. "Sincerely, nothing has been done to investigate."
By most accounts, the investigation into the events, the worst
political violence in Venezuela in a decade, is indeed in a
shambles. Homicide charges against six suspects have been dropped.
Other suspects have fled the country. No one has been jailed.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the opposition immediately
claimed that the government had fired on the hundreds of thousands
of protesters who marched on the Miraflores Palace, the offices
of Mr. Chavez. His allies claimed that the deaths were a central
part of a carefully orchestrated coup by his enemies.
Though the investigation languishes, it is increasingly clear
that the gunfire came from both sides. Investigators and human
rights groups say the National Guard troops loyal to the government
fired, as did Metropolitan Police officers opposed to Mr. Chavez.
Various other gunmen -- some have been identified in videos,
others are still unknown -- also fired shots, say witnesses,
investigators and political analysts.
|"If it is the government, or the other side -- I can't say. Sincerely, nothing has been done to investigate." -- William Tortoza, brother of April 11 victim Jorge Tortoza, killed during demonstrations against President Chavez.
The victims, it is now certain, also came from both sides,
with the opposition and the government each losing seven supporters,
though both camps continue to claim more victims. Five others
were not members of either camp, including Mr. Tortoza, a 47-year-old
newspaper photographer whose specialty was crime scenes.
Human rights groups and political analysts place much of the
blame for a lack of progress in bringing those responsible to
justice with the office of the attorney general, Isaias Rodriguez,
who was once the vice president. His ties to the president have
compromised his independence, they say.
Ana Maria Sanjuan, director of the Center for Peace and Human
Rights at the Central University of Venezuela, said both sides
had manipulated the investigation. Ms. Sanjuan, who is working
with 48 human rights groups to press for an impartial investigation,
said she had come to the conclusion that neither side wanted
to see a resolution.
"Both political sectors have used April 11 in a completely
unacceptable way for political ends," she said. "Both sides
have tried to say, 'I have more of my dead here and I'm most
affected.' This has helped shelter those responsible and hindered
Mr. Rodriguez, the attorney general, acknowledged that the
investigation had been hampered, with crime scene evidence lost
and witnesses avoiding investigators. But he blamed the problems
on those with "political positions" and independent investigators
hired by some families.
His office says that 18 gunmen have been identified, among
them 8 police officers, 5 National Guard troops, and 6 progovernment
militants firing from the Llaguno Bridge just two blocks from
the presidential palace.
In seven cases, investigators can match the victim to a shooting
suspect, he said in an interview. He said there were also seven
gunmen who may have fired from a downtown building, though they
are now believed to have fled the country.
|"Both political sectors have used April 11 in a completely unacceptable way for political ends." -- Ana Maria Sanjuan, Center for Peace and Human Rights at the Central University of Venezuela
Yet no suspect faces serious charges. Homicide charges against
four suspected progovernment gunmen who fired from the bridge,
including a city councilman, have been dropped at the court's
behest for lack of evidence.
"Those are promising statements by the attorney general, but
they're just statements," said Eric Olson, who oversees Amnesty
International operations in the Americas. "It's high time that
the information be turned into prosecution. Probably they are
investigating some, but I think until there's actual justice
for the victims and their relatives it's insufficient."
To people like Mohamad Merhi, 51, the deaths and the investigation
are a travesty.
His son, Jesus Capote, 18, was marching with opposition protesters
when a bullet struck his head and killed him. Now, Mr. Merhi
is the most visible advocate for opposition families who lost
relatives in the shootings.
Deeply distrustful of the attorney general, Mr. Merhi has
instead counted on a group of retired police officers who are
allied with the opposition movement to investigate the deaths.
"I know the truth," Mr. Merhi said, insisting that his son
was killed by a progovernment gunman. "I am looking for justice.
I know there was an ambush, and I know Chavez gunmen were shooting
at our people."
The opposition has played to such anger. In the carefully
choreographed rallies, like one on the anniversary of the deaths,
images of dying protesters are shown on big-screen televisions
to the accompaniment of somber music played over huge loudspeakers.
The government, too, has used the deaths, as a symbol of opposition
treachery. It has helped organize a group for the families of
victims, Association of Victims, which has an office in a downtown
Inside, posters of Che Guevara, the revolutionary icon, hang
side by side with the Venezuelan flag and advertisements celebrating
Mr. Chavez's revolution. Government supporters wounded in the
shootings, as well as the relatives of people killed, meet here
daily to discuss the cases.
"We are working to make sure that everything is cleared up,"
said Silenia Morena, 38, whose husband, Cesar Matias Ochoa,
was killed. "The dead were not just in the opposition. Yes,
they had some. But the majority were from the government side."
But the bitterness extends to those on both sides, including
Jorge Tortoza's relatives. Using his connections in law enforcement,
William Tortoza said he had badgered investigators and judicial
officials, but had come up with few answers.
"I am tired of going and asking questions and looking for
answers," he said.
Meanwhile, the family has tried to keep Jorge Tortoza's memory
alive. His mother, Rosa Tortoza, 71, visits his grave each week,
laying flowers, gently crying and controlling the rage she said
has consumed her since his death.
"I would like to clear this up because I want peace of mind,"
she said softly as she visited the grave on a recent day. "My
son was beautiful, and he left behind a beautiful 3-year-old
daughter. He was a father and brother and son to all of us."
Chavez Still on Top in Venezuela
After Tough Year
As Venezuela Slides, the Poor Stand
By Their Man
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This article was originally published
in The New York Times on April 21, 2003. Copyright ©
2003 The New York Times. For more New York Times articles
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