Tombs Opened in Venezuela to Identify Riot Victims

By: Christopher Toothaker - AP Writer
By: Christopher Toothaker - AP Writer

Authorities began opening tombs Monday to identify the remains of dozens of people killed during riots more than two decades ago and look for evidence against police and soldiers responsible for slayings during the unrest.

Most relatives of those who died in the 1989 riots, known as
the "Caracazo," applaud the probe and hope investigators will be able to identify the victims and give their families a long-awaited opportunity for a proper burial.

Venezuelans across the political spectrum condemned the bloodshed at the time. But for President Hugo Chavez and many of his supporters, the massacre remains a symbol of injustice of past governments. The decision to open the tombs is one of multiple efforts by prosecutors in recent years to investigate cases of wrongdoing under Chavez's predecessors.

Some victims' families, while supporting the plan to examine the remains, fear what could be their final chance for emotional closure may be lost because the remains will be kept inside Venezuela's largest military base while forensic experts and anthropologists pick through bones and teeth.

Like other relatives, Aura Liscano doesn't like the idea of soldiers at Fort Tiuna safeguarding the remains of people who may have been killed by the armed forces or police.

"If there's still evidence, it could be erased," Liscano said.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega, overseeing the probe, said the warehouse inside the fort will be guarded by authorities from the prosecutor's office. "The remains of the victims will not be in the custody of the armed forces," Ortega said at a news conference.

Dozens of relatives and journalists gathered at Caracas' main cemetery as officials opened the first of dozens of aboveground tombs containing the remains of riot victims. Onlookers peered at a black plastic bag containing a skeleton while others, fearful of what they might see, backed away.

The riots began on Feb. 27, 1989, and were triggered by a hike in gasoline prices and public transportation fares.

Venezuela's army was deployed to quell the riots as looting spread from the outskirts of Caracas through the capital. At least 300 people died, according to the government of then-President Carlos Andres Perez. But rights activists say hundreds more were killed - many of them shot indiscriminately by security forces struggling to re-establish order.

None of the government officials, military officers or police responsible for putting down the riots have gone to trial for killings that occurred during the chaos.

Authorities say they are removing the remains of between 65 and 71 victims from the tombs. None of the remains were ever identified.

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