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Venezuela Riots Still Unpunished

July 26, 1998

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Wolfgang Quintana was holding his infant daughter in one arm and drinking a glass of lemonade with the other when a bullet whizzed through an open window and pierced his chest.

He stumbled to a stroller, put his daughter in it, then made his way down to the home’s second floor, where he fell to his knees and collapsed.

``I tried to cover the wound ... but there was too much blood,″ his widow, Iris Medina, recalls. ``It was like when you open a water faucet.″

Nearly a decade after Quintana and hundreds of other people died when Venezuelan authorities crushed widespread rioting over soaring prices, most of the killings remain unsolved and hardly anyone has been punished.

The 1989 riots ended when police and soldiers sprayed mountainside slums with bullets to restore order. Human rights groups charge security forces fired indiscriminately and say many shooting victims were hauled off and buried unannounced in mass graves.

In a Caracas cemetery, 65 suspected victims found in a mass grave nearly two years after the unrest still lie anonymously in a concrete mausoleum. Relatives of missing people contend authorities have blocked identification of the bodies.

The government denies bodies were hidden. And it says security forces fired in self-defense at snipers, guerrillas and other groups taking advantage of the rioting. Other victims were killed by merchants protecting their shops or by people settling vendettas, it says.

The activists say the bloodshed was a flagrant example of how security officers who commit human rights abuses in Venezuela often get away with it.

A few police officers have served brief jail terms for actions during the rioting. No soldiers or high-level officials have been convicted.

``It was really a massacre,″ said Liliana Ortega, a human rights lawyer whose group, the Committee of Victims of 1989, is taking its charges against the government to the Inter-American Human Rights Court in Washington.

She said most of those killed when police moved in were unarmed and many were inside their homes. Officially, the death toll was 277; human rights workers estimate 400 or more were killed. Fewer than a half-dozen police officers and soldiers died, Ortega said.

Venezuelan officials acknowledge some abuses may have taken place, but they say most victims were killed during armed confrontations with security officers trying to restore order.

``There is not a single piece of proof that shows there was a state policy to kill and `disappear’ people like happens in other countries,″ said a government lawyer, Raul Arrieta.

The riots broke out Feb. 27, 1989, after an economic ``shock″ program implemented by newly elected President Carlos Andres Perez sent bus fares and other prices soaring in this oil-exporting South American nation.

Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to loot stores, lugging away milk, flour, TVs, refrigerators, even sides of beef. Police did little the first day; many officers even participated, rights activists say.

Perez sent in the army, filling the streets with tanks, personnel carriers and heavily armed soldiers. Two days later, he told Venezuelans they could head back to work.

Yet soldiers and police repeatedly fired into slums during the next several days, Ortega said. Quintana, for instance, a 20-year-old bookstore worker, was killed a day after the president said order had been restored.

In November 1990, a judge investigating the unrest granted permission to a team of forensic anthropologists from Argentina to search an area of the Southern General Cemetery where activists believed officials had dumped victims in a mass grave.

They soon started finding bodies, many of them mutilated and stuffed in black plastic garbage bags. Three were identified as riot victims and turned over to their families, Ortega said. The rest were stored in the mausoleum without being identified.

Arrieta contends the bodies were of indigents or other people buried there because no one claimed them.

By early 1991, the exhumations came to a halt, and the judge was replaced.

The judge in charge since 1992, Raiza Diaz Fortoul, says the investigation has stalled because the military, police and relatives of victims alike haven’t provided enough information.

Relatives say they want officials to reopen the mausoleum and to keep looking for what they believe is at least one other mass grave.

``We’ve been in this struggle for nine years and justice still has not been done,″ said Medina. ``But I know that at some point it will be.″

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