Caracas , Venezuela , September 1, 2006—A Venezuelan judge sentenced 19 soldiers and 5 police officers to between 10 and 30 years in prison. The soldiers and policemen had been found guilty for their involvement in the deaths of three university students in what had come to be known as the “Kennedy Massacre.”
The murders took placed in June 2005 when three students, all between 19 and 25 years old, had just dropped off a friend at a barrio (shanty town) called John F. Kennedy in Caracas. They were ordered to stop at a roadblock manned by armed men. Three female friends of the students were also shot but survived their injuries.
The security forces manning the road block maintained that the car had failed to stop when asked, so they opened fire on it, the consequences of which were the three fatalities. In mitigation, they said that the victims were criminals of the area.
However, witnesses at the scene said that while, indeed, the car didn’t stop at the roadblock, the soldiers and police, who were masked, continued firing even after the car had stopped and the students were fleeing, unarmed. The survivors said there was nothing in view that would have identified the forces as legitimate state officials.
The difficulty for residents in parts of the city where violent crime is high is that gangs often disguise themselves as policeman or soldiers. Knowing which is which, especially when there are machine guns being waved about is very difficult. The survivors of the incident said they feared that the masked men were a criminal gang.
At the time, the government of President Chávez came under pressure to clamp down on the wildly distrusted police and security forces. Chavez slammed the forces involved in what he called a “Massacre.” Shortly afterwards, he closed down an entire division of the Military Intelligence Directorate (DIM).
A Venezuelan NGO, Network of Support for Justice and Peace, that deals with human rights abuses carried out by the security forces, said that the student’s case, “demonstrates that summary execution is a practice widely diffused among the security forces of the Venezuelan State, which is often used as a social ‘cleansing’ mechanism on the part of the political authorities and the state itself.”
Currently, the different bodies of the police are not under national control. There are rivalries amongst them and apart from corruption at all levels there are countless allegations of police involvement in robberies, kidnappings, and murders.
A new national police law is set to be debated and passed later this year in the National Assembly. This law will bring all the state and municipal forces of law and order under national control.
The new law is a politically important piece of legislation for the government of Hugo Chávez because opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales has highlighted “insecurity” as a weak point of the government.