By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – No less than 451 people are reckoned to have been murdered last month alone in Venezuela’s ultra-violent capital, lending weight to a newly established ranking as the second most villainous place on the planet.
Unusually, the latest Caracas kill rate carried some resemblance of the stamp of officialdom. Normally, this sort of information has to come from non-government organizations or a rough count of dead bodies turning up at the city morgue (or elsewhere, such as the river bank) as a result of clearly unlawful means – which tends to mean guns in the wrong hands.
However, even then, it wasn’t the Interior and Justice Ministry – which supposedly oversees law and order or the lack thereof – which released the statistic. The silence about clean statistics that has become customary there continued.
Minister Tareck El Assaimi instead spoke yet again of the new national police force due to go into operation at the end of the year. Its officers would have an “optimum academic preparation,” he declared, and they would be “more humane and in solidarity with the social conscious of communities.”
Instead, the latest murder figure came from the scientific and investigative police, CICPC. Whether or not this was with the government’s permission wasn’t clear.
Officially, the cops are off bounds to nosy reporters. But, of course, that doesn’t stop them chatting or answering questions posed by nosey reptiles.
Only days before the latest body count made the light of day, a civilian organization in Mexico had issued a report placing Caracas in second place in the world murder league, with a per capita rate of 96 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.
Interesting, the Citizen Council for Public Security (CCSP) put Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico at the top of the pile, with 130 per every 100,000.
In third place was New Orleans, only just behind Caracas on 95 per 100,000. Cape Town, which was once ranked with Caracas as among the top most deadly capitals on the planet, apparently slipped down the list.
Interestingly, while the FBI fessed up to the bad news in New Orleans, no comparable candor was to be found at the forces of law and order in the two Latin American capitals.
In both cases, candor or squeamishness in high places meant that the CCSP’s violent death tolls had to be based on reports in the media. If nothing else, this tends to prove you can’t silence a strong story, however hard you try.
The month ended with the murder of three men in separate incidents but in the same place – Unión, a notoriously bloodthirsty barrio up the hill in Petare in east Caracas.
Charlie Jesús Vergas Guerra, 25, who worked as a stallholder and taxi driver – both jobs that involve carrying around quite a lot of cash after work – was shot eight times at around two o’clock on Monday afternoon.
Two younger males joined him at the morgue after dying on the operating table at Domingo Luchiani hospital in the south-east of the capital. They, too, had been plugged in a hail of bullets.
Across town, the body of a 17-year-old who intended to go on an electronics course so that he could work for a friend of his father was found under a truck in an alleyway in Catia, whose reputation is every bit as grim as Petare’s. He had been shot several times.
The lad, named as Edward Suárez, had gone out with a chum, and later tried to seek refuge at his grandmother’s house but never made it. Neighbours heard gunshots at around four o’clock in the morning, and his body was found a couple of hours later by an early riser.
The youngest victim of recent times appears to have been a little boy just four years old who disappeared last Monday in Las Terrazas in Guatire north of the capital. Amid fears of yet another kidnapping, neighbours searched high and low for him until Thursday, when his dead body was found showing signs of foul means.
The proprietor of a hairdressing business in the Tamanaco shopping mall in Chuao was slaughtered in his office upstairs. This apparently took place as a fire practice distracted the attention of people, including the security guards who were supposed to be watching monitors.
The body of Mario Rodolfo Calvino Guarnaschelli, 41, was discovered shortly afterwards. He had been stabbed six times. While the method of murder was a little out of the ordinary amid the almost endless gun slinging, there was a familiarity about the repetitive action aimed at making quite sure.
The motive for this murder has yet to be established. All of Calvino Guarnaschelli’s possessions were found on his body, and his office hadn’t been ransacked, so the police have ruled out robbery. But while they know the where, when and how, they’re still trying to work out the why. And, of course, who.
Two cops from the Metropolitan Police also bought it in a bad way during the fading days of last month. On August 25, Wilson Leonardo Molina Pabón left his house i
n Baruta, south Caracas. The next time his neighbours saw him, he was sprawled out dead in the road, flat on his back, having been shot three times.
There was little mystery about what was behind this. Molina Pablón had been paid the previous day, and a witness is said to have seen him getting shot after refusing to hand over the cash.
The following day, the Baruta municipal police announced that they’d arrested two individuals in connection with the case. One of them had all the hallmarks of habitually ingrained villainy, with warrants out for his arrest on charges including armed robbery, drugs, grievous bodily harm and assault. The other suspect was a legal minor.
Molina Pablón was the 27th police officer in Caracas to get himself killed this year so far. It didn’t take long to move up the total.
Just five days later, William Torres, 44, a fellow officer in the Metropolitan Police, and his wife, Maigualidad Monasterios, 40, were mown down at the side of a highway in El Junquito on the outskirts of the capital. They had been driving back from a plot of land they’d recently purchased nearby when they were ambushed by gunmen and forced to get out of the car.
Torres had been off-duty,
out of uniform but carrying his regulation issue weapon, as most officers do in a country noted for vengeful violence. His body was discovered near the car, and the gun was gone. His equally dead wife was found in a ditch about 500 meters away. Not far away was their six-month-old baby daughter, unharmed but orphaned in a matter of minutes.
In between the deaths of the two Metropolitan officers, a colleague, later identified as José Miguel Arraiz Delgado, 36, killed his wife, Yusma del Valle Manzanilla, 32, and then himself in Catia. She had four children from an earlier relationship, and had demanded a divorce.
The Metropolitan Police, as are so many other forces in Venezuela, are widely viewed with distrust by large swathes of the population. Too many officers are seen as venal and violent, and never there when they’re needed.
Soraya El Achkar, a member of the Police General Council, remarked that the police were a “disaster.” She argued that officers weren’t trained in line with what state governors and municipal mayors wanted, there more of them than were needed and even then they were in the wrong place anyway.
Three officers from the Mérida state police have been ordered to stand trial charged with the murder of Yuban Antonio Ortega Urquiola, a student leader at a technical college. He was shot in the head during a demonstration last April 28 and died two days later.
Charged with murder and conspiracy were José Oscar Ángel Dávila, Pablo Emilio Parra Hernández and Julio César Caruci. Five other officers were freed without charge.
Aside from the mayhem of murder, a plague of kidnappings is stretching across the country. The National Guard chief in Lara state said six people had been snatched in less than 48 hours.
In Aragua state, a senior official announced that two gangs involved in kidnapping and extortion had been “dismantled” in operations coordinated between security services and intelligence agencies.
One of the gangs, Los Yeferson, had kidnapped a kidnapped a 60-year-old man, and just as the family was about to pay a ransom of BsF1 million, Cicpc officers grabbed three suspects, all in the early 20s. Their boss is said to be in prison, but apparently able to orchestrate crimes even though he’s inside.
Two members of another gang, El Bolo, were taken in by the Aragua state police after demanding that a businessman in Cagua hand over BsF40,000 so that they didn’t kidnap members of his family.
The intended victim went to the authorities and then pretended to be ready to pay the ransom in lieu. One of the suspects was named as Ronny Blanco Guerrero, 28, for whom warrants were out for murder and two previous kidnappings. The boss of this lot is behind bars, too.
A municipal cop in Tovar was caught red-handed seeking a bribe for removing a man’s file from police records. There are similarities between this case and the one in Cagua: the man went to the authorities, and the sum in question, curiously, was also BsF40,000.
On the road leading into east Caracas, police said they had blocked a “express kidnapping” – in which rans
om has to be paid in double quick time to avert murder – and captured 13 people and two kilos of marijuana into the bargain.