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The following chapter includes the complete results of my investigation about the presence of snipers around Miraflores on April 11, 2002, including information not included in the original text.

Were there snipers in El Silencio on April 11th?  It is a crucial question because the presence of snipers suggests a higher level of premeditation; it suggests that there was indeed a conspiracy at work and that whoever was controlling the snipers planned on violence.  The accepted wisdom is that there were snipers.  Although none were caught in photographs or video, there were many eyewitness accounts of snipers.  But were these snipers working with the opposition to incite mayhem as the government claims?  Or were they used by the government to first repress the march and, then later, to actually kill pro-Chávez supporters to give the violence the semblance of a balanced confrontation?

The Chávez government’s cover-up and destruction of evidence makes finding solid answers to these questions very difficult.  In addition, there is little reliable ballistic evidence and, most importantly, no suspects.

There were three centers of violence near the palace on April 11th and the presence of snipers in each location was alleged. 

First, on Baralt Avenue near the National Building—this is where Malvina Pesáte, Jorge Tortoza, and Jesús Orlando Arellano were all shot.  Here I do not believe there were snipers, rather that the confusion of the situation, low visibility and echoes in the streets gave people that impression.  Imagine for a moment standing in a thick crowd and suddenly seeing people collapse from bullet wounds, this would likely make you think there were snipers.  However, the forensics and photographic evidence suggest that those who were shot in this zone were hit by other people on the street with low caliber handguns.  For example, Malvina Pesáte, Jorge Tortoza, and Jesús Arellano were all shot at street level.  The Chávez supporters injured or killed around the Llaguno overpass appear to have all been shot by police or friendly fire and/or ricochets.

The second zone is on 8th Street where Carlos Ciordia, Nade Makagonov, and Gabriel Osorio all testified to seeing snipers.  It is likely that in this zone there were National Guardsmen and members of the Honor Guard working as snipers in order to turn back the march.  It is important to remember that for them, Plan Avila was in effect—these soldiers had been given orders to use deadly force to hold back the march and maintain the security perimeter around the palace. It is also important to remember that the head of these National Guard troops, General Gutiérrez, was standing on the patio of Miraflores all afternoon and had an excellent bird’s eye view of everything that was happening on 8th Street and in front of Miraflores.

The third zone, in front of Miraflores, presents the biggest riddle. The government insists that three people were killed here—Luis Alberto Caro, Luis Alfonso Ruíz, and Nelson Eliécer Zambrano—while several others, including Antonio Návas, were wounded.  What is strange is that there was no confrontation in this location, it was hundreds of yards from the other centers of violence on 8th Street and Baralt Avenue and full of Chávez supporters exclusively.  How would snipers out to kill chavistas get in the heart of the pro-Chávez rally?

While the government insists that there were opposition snipers here, there is a great deal of conflicting information. Most of the government testimony and documentation, which I believe is incorrect, insists that there were snipers operating here as early as 2:30 in the afternoon. However this is contradicted by several important pieces of evidence, principally Luis Fernández’s video.  Recall that he was on the rooftop on the northeast corner of the intersection filming for much of the afternoon and, because one can hear the president speaking in the background, his video becomes a clock for what happened. 

Luis Fernández saw only one wounded person taken to the tents before 4:45 and this person was likely one of the opposition protestors wounded in the skirmish near the Fermin Toro High School.  Other witnesses, namely Jesus Marcano, the manager of the Hotel Ausonia, insist that no one was shot right in front of Miraflores as the government claims. Also, even after 4:45 in the afternoon, Fernández did not record anyone hit directly in front of the palace, although he did record many victims being carried in, including Nelson Zambrano and Antonio Návas.

Further, it makes little sense that there would be opposition snipers in these buildings because they were all occupied by the Casa Militar (the President’s security force) shortly after noon to ensure the security of the palace.  That is to say that as soon as it was clear the march was coming, military gunmen were on the roofs and in the windows of these buildings to ensure the safety of the president. How then would an opposition sniper position himself to fire on the Chávez supporters?  Also recall that this section of Caracas is filled with government and military buildings, and security is always very high. No one gets into these buildings, even on a normal day, without going through a security check point, usually with a metal detector.  Jesus Marcano and General Rosendo both attest to the fact that the Casa Militar had control of these buildings, “the people who hold the keys to these rooftops are the Casa Militar, Rosendo said.”  In our interview, Rosendo went even further: “The snipers were from the government because the Casa Militar’s security plan for Miraflores is to control all of the buildings in the area….[The snipers] couldn’t be from the opposition; the opposition never got there.  The opposition never arrived at Miraflores.”

There is also testimony of muzzle flashes coming from the Ministry of Interior and Justice across the street from where Luis Fernández and his crew were filming and where he had seen soldiers on the roof. This same shooter, if he or she really exists, may have been responsible for hitting Antonio Návas in the jaw and perhaps Luis Caro.  The possibility that civilians were being shot by government security forces is, of course, very disturbing.

The government’s response to allegations that shots came from their own buildings is that they were rogue National Guard troops conspiring with the opposition.  Given the sharp divisions within the military at the time, this is possible, but is not supported by the evidence.  Plus it begs a host of other questions: If the snipers in and around Miraflores were with the opposition, why didn’t they inflict more damage?  Important government officials like Guillermo García Ponce and Freddy Bernal were in and around the stage and would have made easy targets for snipers.  Why target random Chávez supporters?  After all, one well-trained and concealed sniper could have taken out 20 – 30 people (and better targets of opportunity) in the time they had and with the number of targets they had.

However, we have to remember that there may not have been a sniper in this zone at all, and that the government insists there was only to bolster their claim of a coup conspiracy and to justify their own use of violence.  Indeed, what little ballistics evidence we have suggests that both Zambrano and Návas were shot by someone on the ground (not in a building).  The trajectory of both bullets is more or less horizontal and we know that both men were standing when they were hit.  What’s more, it also appears both men were hit by handgun rounds and not rifle rounds (a 9mm round was recovered from Zambrano’s body and Návas’s wounds would have been much more severe if he had been hit by a rifle round).  Hence, a gunman who was mingling in the pro-Chávez crowd is more likely than a sniper on a rooftop. 

It is also possible that Nelson Zambrano’s death was a friendly fire incident.  He was shot inside the gate of the White Palace across the street from Miraflores where he worked in the archives.  Given that the Honor Guard had orders to shoot anyone who broke into the perimeter, it is possible that a soldier mistook him for an intruder.

While there may not have been snipers in the zone directly in front of Miraflores, it is interesting to consider that in the other areas of El Silencio both anti-Chávez and pro-Chávez witnesses (Carlos Ciordia, Gustavo Tovar, and Dr. Alicia Valdez) attest that they saw snipers and pointed them out to National Guard troops but that the soldiers did nothing to apprehend them.  This gives more credence to the hypothesis that the snipers were working with the government and as incredible as it sounds, may have targeted Chávez supporters—killing them to create the semblance of a balanced conflict.  There was even a DISIP helicopter flying over the entire area and either saw no snipers or did nothing to neutralize them when they did.

But would the government kill their own supporters? In a political battle such as this, the winners are often the victims.  That is to say, the side that is victimized gains not only sympathy, but a certain moral right to respond.  The Chávez administration was very aware of the need to depict this as a clash between equally aggressive forces—which it was not.  It needed to portray this as an assault on a democratically elected government by “coupsters.”  The government was also aware, as demonstrated by the widespread rhetoric of “spilling blood for the revolution” of the political capital that could be gained by having martyrs for the cause.  Just as the killing of the marchers by the pro-Chávez gunmen and National Guard generated support for the opposition and helped consolidate the military “disavowing,” and public demand that Chávez be arrested, the killing of Chávez supporters generated sympathy for the government and allowed them to claim the confrontation was a clash between equally balanced (and violent) camps.

In conclusion, there were snipers operating on 8th Street supporting the National Guard, but I do not believe there were snipers on Baralt Avenue.  As for the presence of snipers directly in front of Miraflores, I don’t think we will ever know for certain, but given my investigation, I believe the following: 

1) There was likely one gunman mingling in the pro-Chávez crowd who shot Antonio Návas and Nelson Zambrano and, perhaps Luis Caro.  Who he or she was aligned with is unclear.

2) The other gunshot victims were likely carried to Miraflores from other centers of conflict in the area.

3) If there were snipers in the buildings around the palace, it is more likely that they were acting on orders from the government than that they were “coupsters” working with the opposition.

Whatever the truth is, it is clear that the government has shown little interest in tracking down those responsible.  No National Guard troops were brought before a court martial in relation to the violence, even the ones caught on videotape firing at the march on 8th Street.  And if, as the government claims, the snipers were conspiring with the opposition, why hasn’t the government, with the Attorney General’s office, all its prosecutors, and most of the federal judges at its disposal, attempted to find and prosecute them?  Chávez will still mention the snipers when he talks about the coup and blames the Carmona administration for not arresting them, but there is a huge gap in his rhetoric and his interest in bringing them to justice. Several times Chávez has referred to opposition snipers firing from room 411 of the Ausonia Hotel, but I have visited this room which faces northwest, and there is no angle with which to shoot onto Urdaneta Avenue where the victims were allegedly hit.

The three people who were arrested by the Casa Militar in the Hotel Ausonia as suspected snipers were quickly released because there was no evidence that they were snipers. While they were found to have guns and some drugs, they failed the forensic test that shows if someone has recently fired a gun. The returning head of Casa Militar, General José Vietri Vietri, who is a loyal chavista, described them as a drunk, a transient, and a hotdog salesman. 


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