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VENEZUELA - A Nation On Edge, June 2003

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Reporter’s Notebook: Dateline Caracas
Inquiry 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.

"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.
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.

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 the investigation."

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.

"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
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.

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 building.

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."

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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 please visit

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