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VENEZUELA
In search of the truth
Andrés Cañizález
5/13/2002
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Venezuelans demand punishment for those responsible for deaths during the political crisis.

While Venezuelans may be divided over the country’s political future after the failed coup to overthrow President Hugo Chávez, all sectors want to know how more than 50 people were killed in the mid-April turmoil.

On April 11, a massive anti-Chávez march choked the streets of Caracas as demonstrations tried to make their way to the doors of the Miraflores presidential palace, where Chávez supporters had gathered. At least 14 people were killed in the area around the palace.

Although Chávez backers were caught on film firing at the opposition, the majority of deaths were caused by shots to the head or heart, reflecting the work of professional sharpshooters stationed on the roofs of surrounding buildings (LP, April 22, 2002).

Another 40 people were killed during the 48-hour power vacuum that existed between Chávez’s abandoning the presidential palace and his return to office. Some police officers went after Chávez supporters, while others opened fire on looters and vandals who took advantage of the political chaos in Caracas and other major cities.

Human rights groups, however, fear that the truth may never be known about the events of April 11-14, especially the murders that happened on the first day.

The Forum for Life, a coalition of human rights groups, has called for an independent commission to investigate the deaths. They did not want the commission formed by legislators, but human rights activists and specialists trained in these kinds of cases.

César Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), who was in Caracas April 15-17, recommended the formation of a Truth Commission formed by independent figures, "who would have credibility with the different sides involved, because otherwise the results of the investigation would not be recognized."

Congress has meshed both suggestions, creating a nine-member Truth Commission that includes six representatives from human rights groups, one member of the Catholic hierarchy and two members of the university community.

There is concern among human rights groups that investigations into these deaths, similar to others committed under murky circumstances or by the police in recent years, will be dragged out indefinitely.

According to the Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Education and Action (PROVEA), 241 people were killed by soldiers or police offices, particularly security forces of individual states, between October 2000 and September 2001. PROVEA says that in some cases the different state forces acted like "death squads."

These latest statistics are the highest recorded by PROVEA since 1989, when the group began collecting data on extra-judicial assassinations. PROVEA began collecting data after the 1989 protest against the economic policies being implemented by President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-94). The protest, known as the "Caracazo," left hundreds dead, but the exact number of people killed was never fully established.

PROVEA says its most recent statistics "represent a 41-percent increase with respect to the previous period (October 1999-September 2000), when 170 victims were registered."

Antonio González, information coordinator at PROVEA, said that after two years of positive expectations from Chávez, who first took office in 1999, the human rights situation is deteriorating with a high number of deaths attributed to police forces in different states (LP, March 15, 1999).

Of the total number of deaths documented by PROVEA, 78 percent were committed by police forces in the different states. In the western state of Portuguesa, a squadron locally baptized as an "extermination group" has been officially accused of 68 deaths, although there are indications that it could be responsible for upward to 227 deaths in 18 months of activity. The situation in the states of Aragua, Bolívar, Anzoátegui, Falcón and Zulia also trouble human rights activists.

The "extermination group" in Portuguesa initially received the tacit support of the population, because of high levels of impunity and rampant crime. "There came a time when women couldn’t leave their homes, the assaults were so frequent," said Maritza Bucarelo, president of a neighborhood council in Acarigua, the capital of Portuguesa.

According to criminologist Elio Gómez Grillo, "the sense of defenselessness and terror in the country caused by crime created a climate favorable to the justice-seekers," as the group was originally known.

The situation quickly got out of hand and the "uniformed delinquents," as Prosecutor General Isaías Rodríguez calls them, began targeting people other than suspected criminals. In addition, they began carrying out kidnappings and extortion, sparing the lives of people able to pay large ransoms.

In January, the government Ombudsman’s Office reported indications of another "extermination group" in Portuguesa made up of police officers. The office’s claims were based on the arrest of several officers last September during an operation by the National Guard and the Prosecutor General’s office.

Because of the increase in these kinds of groups around the country, PROVEA included the category of "the right to citizen security" in its most recent annual report. Within this category, the group stated that Venezuela’s homicide rate had quadrupled in the past 14 years. More than 8,000 people were murdered in the country last year.

In its report, PROVEA also registered 340 accusations of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment affecting 667 people. This number represented a 26-percent increase over the previous year’s statistics.

"Of the cases investigated by the police in 2000, only 36 percent were closed and, of these, only 2.7 percent were heard by the courts. This represents a minimal level of efficiency and a high level of impunity for crimes," said Carlos Correa, general coordinator of PROVEA.

Among the new phenomena in the country is "an alarming increase of cases of violation of right to life and personal integrity, the existence of cases of forced disappearance, and inability for justice to be served," said Correa.

The October 2000-September 2001 report by PROVEA lists five cases of forced disappearance by members of the government’s security forces.

The country’s deteriorating climate of human and civil rights, as outlined by PROVEA, brings into question the future success of the Truth Commission.


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