Reporter’s Diary: The death of a poet, and Venezuela’s middle class
By Magnus Boding Hansen
Luigi Ángel Guerrero Ovalles had never been in a protest before, and he wasn’t planning to attend one that Wednesday. But when a festive parade of neighbours passed his window on the morning of 23 January, the 24-year-old student changed his mind.
“I’ll just pop downtown and have a look around,” he told his girlfriend on the phone. His mom stuck a mandarin in his hand as he left.
A few hours later he was dead, killed by a bullet that pierced his left shoulder, both lungs, and his heart.
It is a cruel coincidence Luigi should have died the very same day opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced himself as president, perhaps falsely renewing the hope of many that better times were not far off.
But who killed Luigi, and under what circumstances?
I didn’t know Luigi personally, but was tipped off by friends. I was touched deeply by his death, in part because it should have been so easy to solve — he was killed in broad daylight, in the centre of the city.
But crimes like this aren’t solved here any more. The government — directly or indirectly complicit in many deaths — makes mute those who might speak up, as they fear ramifications for them and their families.
There is little time anyway in Venezuela these days for unlikely justice. People here are struggling to survive while sanctions bite and political negotiations remain deadlocked.
Incredibly beautiful and with an incredibly rich culture, Venezuela holds the dubious distinction of the “most-worsened” country in the Fragile States Index over the last five years and the fifth “most-worsened” over the last decade — after Libya, Syria, Mali, and Yemen. Chalk that up to lost jobs, hobbled hospitals, and promises of government aid that — under President Nicolás Maduro — go unkept, leaving many hungry.
‘I still don’t get it, he had no enemies’
Luigi reminded me of my own friends here; people I’ve met over the past four years as I’ve travelled around the country for months at a time covering Venezuela’s sad, inexorable decline.
At least three million people have left since 2014, and 80 percent of the households that remain have trouble finding enough food. Young, well-educated Venezuelans continue to flock abroad, many to Spain, leaving behind a brain drain that is likely to hold growth back for generations.
My own love of Latin America stems from the writer Roberto Bolaño, whose novels often feature dead or missing poets and blend the beauty and the horror of this region; reporting Luigi’s story was like being caught up in a real-life Bolaño murder mystery.
But Luigi’s story is real, as is what it reveals about what Venezuelans will likely face for many years to come: long after the immediate crisis is over, people will struggle to rebuild what they once had.
Such people include Luigi’s girlfriend, Maria Gabriela Rivero Baez, my first port of call as I set about piecing together what happened.
“I still don’t get it; he had no enemies,” she says when we meet in her home in San Cristóbal del Táchira a month after Luigi’s death.
San Cristóbal is a sizable mountain town in western Venezuela, known for smuggling and farming, and for often taking the lead in the protests against Maduro. Since he was elected in 2013, the left-wing populist has banished democracy and presided over an economic collapse that puts millions at risk of hunger, violence, and displacement. Despite the lack of food and medicines and evidence of growing malnutrition and disease, Maduro’s government refuses to admit that Venezuela is gripped by a humanitarian crisis.
The wind edges through a crack in the broad window frames as Maria speaks. She remembers that the neighbours returned home around 1pm. At four that afternoon she still hadn’t heard anything from Luigi.
Eventually, she did a Twitter search for him. That’s where she read that he was dead.
Last year, protesters were still dying en vivo, with the cameras rolling, but no more. Now, cameras are confiscated, and witnesses are threatened or somehow vanish.
The relatives of those who die will cry and lament, and then they surrender to this country of agony, where more than half the people live in darkness, or with only a few hours of electric light per day.
Generations of people who grew up as part of a comfortable middle class now beg on foreign streets or get by at home with bucket showers — the opposition leader, Guaido, says even he is one of them.
‘The screams have no echo here among the mute’
After the shooting, Luigi’s mother, Julieta Ovalles, moved in with her son’s girlfriend’s family.
Despite receiving death threats she believes are from government loyalists, she leads her own investigation from the bright living room. She is a skinny woman with a tormented expression and an unshakable belief in God. She quit her job in a government office overseeing price regulations to spend all her time on her investigation, getting by with help from family and friends.
I spend several weeks with Julieta, accompanying her as she looks for answers about her son’s death. Before we met in person, a few weeks after the shooting, she had already told me over the phone that she will never surrender.
A few months before his death, Luigi sent a poem to a poetry competition for first-time writers. “El Sistema” (“The System”) is the title of his poem — a rave against power, falsehood, and all ideologies. It ends like this:
They wish to make me dependent
If I scream they will brutalise me
The screams have no echo here among the mute
The illiterates of justice
During my time accompanying Julieta, I go to interview Luigi’s best friend, Omar Bravo Cardenas, to find out his take.
A tattoo artist who sports a goatee, Omar reads the poem aloud to me on a bench in the gardens of the university where Luigi had just completed his fourth year of communication studies.
Brown, withered leaves are piling up around the bench.
Omar says Luigi wanted to be either a poet or a war reporter.
He tells me that on that Wednesday in January Luigi set off walking towards the city centre alone, at around midday. He can’t believe Luigi would have been actively involved in the protests. “It’s very unlike him to hang out in places where there are really violent clashes,” Omar says, speaking as if in a trance. “He was a protest poet, but he hated confrontations, and teargas, and the student movement leaders.”
That’s not to say Luigi didn’t have a rebellious side. Omar recalls how Luigi quit high school half-way through because short hair was a requirement. He wasn’t going to let anyone decide his haircut.
For a year he “killed little tigers” — the local term for doing odd jobs like washing dishes, inflating bouncy castles, working as a bricklayer, a waiter, a builder. Back then, many Venezuelans shrugged at such menial labour; today, most people can’t even find it, and even if they do the wage is too small to get by on.
‘We are alone, each on our own island’
In 2015, after completing high school, Luigi entered university. He dived into protest poetry from Peru and listened to socially critical rappers such as the Chilean, Portavoz, and the Venezuelan, Canserbero.
The humanitarian and political crisis was already deepening then, oil prices dropping and the Maduro government mixing central economic planning with organised crime links and repression. Luigi was busy watching art-house movies and reading Jorge Luis Borges’ and Julio Cortazar’s classic of stream of consciousness, Rayuela, which was on his nightstand — opened — when he died.
As a child, Luigi had been a fan of Hugo Chávez and his socialist revolution, but he was disappointed by the corruption long before the charismatic president died of cancer in 2013 and was made into a saint by Maduro and the chavistas who have painted his mug on the concrete walls of government-subsidised housing all over the country.
“He was dissatisfied with many things, but he wasn’t angry or militant, so what was he doing in the centre of town?” Omar asks, shaking his head. “What on Earth was he doing there?”
Jesús Montoya — arguably the most renowned Venezuelan poet of Luigi’s generation — has a theory about that. “Maybe he was unwillingly caught in a confrontation,” the 25-year-old speculates when we meet a month and a half after Luigi’s death.
A year ago, Jesús emigrated to Brazil; the crisis had made life in San Cristóbal impossible, he says. Life in this once peaceful, largely middle-class city had become too violent, too poor, with no public transport, no jobs, “no nothing”. But he is back visiting his family and, just like in 2017, he has been attending all the protests.
We sit in his childhood home and his mom serves us sweetened coffee in frail porcelain. On the glass table between us are Jesús’s award-winning collections of poetry.
My favourite — “Hay un Sitio Detrás de los Incendios” (“There is a Place Behind the Fires”), from 2017 — deals with violence, fear, and shattered dreams in a San Cristóbal that has become difficult to recognise.
“The ‘Hospitable Town’, as it used to be called, has become uninhabitable,” says Jesús. “Fear has exiled us. We are in ‘insilio’, an inner state of exile, afraid of going out, our friends scattered all over the place.”
Even among poets, the crisis has created distance.
“Nobody can really be part of a movement,” Jesús says. “We can’t visit each other with no money, petrol, or buses. We are alone, each on our own island, in dark rooms with no internet. We all write about intimate matters and how our personal lives are altered by starvation, violence, and exile. But even though we are writing on the same topics, we are not in it together. The crisis has created a peculiarly individual social realism.”
Jesús’s poems also capture the unique intensity of Venezuela’s beauty. In some places that beauty — both physical and rooted in the spirit of the people — has survived the crisis, and in other places fresh beauty has emerged these past years. I have fallen in love with all of it.
Read this aloud, and you may, too. It’s the beginning of Jesús’s poem “My dad’s black motorbike” (translated from Spanish), from 2017:
Life is left behind when my dad and I
cross the tropics like a bullet
on his black motorbike,
emergent sunbeams merge in passing
and the breeze passes forcefully
around this horse of black metal
it seems like time stops
and will remain forever three in the afternoon
on a gloomy January first
Jesús says he recognises that same intensity and feeling of isolation in Luigi’s poems.
Perhaps this unsettling discomfort caused Luigi to spontaneously join the front line of the city-war on that gloomy 23 January. Or perhaps, as Jesús suggests, Luigi just got caught up in the crowd.
‘Talking to you is begging for problems’
In March, after several more weeks of digging — asking everyone who could have seen Luigi on the day of his death or who might know someone who had — I finally get the contact details of an eyewitness with an answer.
“It was a mixture,” says 25-year-old Candy Colegial, who was with Luigi for the final 40 minutes of his life. We are talking in the phone cover shop where she has been working since completing her journalism degree in February.
“I saw Luigi get shot,” she says.
We are alone in the shop, yet she speaks in a low voice.
Candy didn’t know Luigi and didn’t speak to him, but she says she noticed him when they randomly ended up in the same group of protesters and bullets started flying shortly after noon.
“He appeared to be alone and he wasn’t throwing stones or hiding his face,” she recalls. “He was calm in his very own way; he was wearing a poison-green T-shirt and looked a bit like an angel or a child. He seemed curious and was observant and helpful to the rest of us even though no one took care of him.”
She shows me her videos from that day. There’s teargas and shouting and confusion.
Most of the videos are recorded in the narrow streets in the centre of town, near Avenida Septima, on the corner across from the green tower of the Banesco bank.
Police officers from FAES — the government’s newly established Special Action Forces — are firing live ammunition. Maduro sends FAES out more and more frequently now, because Guardia Nacional soldiers often refuse to fire on protesters. FAES are behind numerous documented executions, according to a recent UN report.
“At some point I lowered my camera to protect my eyes from the teargas,” Candy continues. “As I looked up, I saw Luigi falling down.
“Either he was shot by FAES or by someone from the colectivos they were collaborating with,” Candy says, referring to pro-government militias that receive weapons from the government. “There were about 15 men in the group that we were facing for almost one hour. One of them shot Luigi.”
Candy admits she didn’t see the shot leave the barrel of the gun, but she has no doubt about what happened.
I go directly to the street corner she has identified as the crime scene. Guava, pineapple, melon, and papaya are being sold from a fruit stand on screechy wooden wheels. There are bullet holes in the wall behind it, and also in the tin kiosk near where she told me he fell.
Many here dare not talk of that day.
“Talking to you is begging for problems,” a man says firmly, rejecting my request to chat in front of the apartment building one block away from where I have been told people were filming the protests when the shooting occurred.
“The surveillance camera only films inside,” claims the manager of a jewelry shop, Bisutería Los Angeles.
“Our camera broke before Christmas,” says the clerk in a men’s clothing shop, Montecristo.
“There’s certainly nothing on my tape,” snaps the woman in the door of a bookshop, Papelería Moderna, one street away from the crime scene.
Eventually, some people say they don’t mind helping because they have children themselves and feel sorry for Luigi’s mother.
In the dark, deserted corridors of the Ciudad Centro mall, half a block from where Luigi was shot, a guard with rough hands pulls me aside. He speaks quietly, telling me that people were filming from the roof of his building, looking right down at the crime scene. He gives me the names of some of the people who were filming. One of them — the owner of the hairdresser and massage salon, El Palacio del Fashion — says he passed the crime scene at 4.30pm. Everything was calm then, he says, but he wondered about the unusual number of police and military personnel, about 40 or so as he remembers.
Eduar Alfonso Duante lives in the building at the corner where Luigi may have been shot.
“FAES were behaving like mad dogs all day long,” he says, speaking in a quiet corner of a nearby bakery. “The military guys were mostly shooting tear gas grenades, whereas FAES were using live ammunition.” Eduar says he left his building between noon and one. Fifteen minutes later, he remembers hearing “a dry shot” that sounded like it was “from the kind of weapons FAES were armed with that day”.
A former police officer, Eduar says he knows all there is to know about weapons. He pulls out his phone and calls his mother, who was in the house when the shots sounded; he puts the call on speaker. “It was about one o clock,” his mom says, and she mimics the sound: “Bab bab bab bab. But I didn’t see who shot. I got frightened and hid under my bed.”
‘The state killed my son’
A few days after visiting the crime scene, I tracked down Carlos Franceschini, the cameraman from local TV station TRT who was at the protest and filming before and after Luigi was killed. He doesn’t believe he saw Luigi, but says there were “colectivos and police or military — and they shot at the protesters”.
His recordings prove as much.
In one shaky section, a large group of people is running, carrying Luigi after he has been shot, trying to save him. They lift him onto a motorbike and take off at full speed towards the hospital. In another shot in front of the hospital, the driver of the motorbike is interviewed. He says it was FAES, local police, and colectivos who shot and, in all likelihood, killed Luigi, and that it happened on the corner by the Banesco bank.
Shortly afterwards, this witness vanished. No one knows his current whereabouts.
I get a tip that even the chief police investigator tasked with solving the crime of Luigi’s death, Yohan Rojas, suspects FAES. He refuses to talk to me, saying in a WhatsApp message, simply: “it’s too dangerous”.
Shortly after this tip — more than two months after Luigi’s death and after several weeks speaking to his family, friends, and eye-witnesses — I obtain a huge breakthrough. I am handed a copy of the police report, from a source who must remain confidential.
The classified, official 157-page police report on the death of Luigi and one other person on 23 January states that Luigi was shot at about one o’clock with an escopeta, a kind of shotgun.
Details in the report suggest the investigation was being sabotaged. Rojas asks the military, FAES, and the local police to send him lists of their people who were at the protest that day and which weapons they were carrying. All of them replied that not a single person from their organisations was working that day.
The army colonel, Christian Abelardo Morales Zambrano, sent him “a friendly, revolutionary, Bolivarian, socialist, anti-imperialist, and deeply chavista greeting”, but claimed that he had “no” soldiers in the area — even though they are visible in numerous recordings.
Why, the chief investigator asked him, did the army then file a report about nine named soldiers who were injured in the area that day? He gets no answer.
Zambrano is under US sanctions and is suspected of leading a group of corrupt soldiers who systematically use roadblocks in the area to rob and blackmail people. While tracing Luigi’s killers, I am myself their victim, twice.
When I relate all this back to Luigi’s mother, two months after the murder, she lets out a great sigh. “To me it has been proved now: the state killed my son,” she says. “And if people weren’t so afraid to help, I might be able to get the evidence. The police are covering up the murder.”
The official investigation — still ongoing — may not have gone far, but social media works on a different rhythm. In the days immediately after the murder, several police officers were defamed, charged as guilty on Twitter and Instagram, their names and photos posted. One of them is a FAES officer, Andres Bernardo Carvallo Perez. He was photographed in front of the Chinese grocery store, Super Lucky, half a block away from where Luigi was shot, looking alert with his weapon raised.
I show Candy the photo, and she recognises him. She says he was part of the group of about 15 police officers and colectivos who were shooting at the protesters.
By complete coincidence I have a friend in town whose other friend is dating this police officer. I ask her to see if he is willing to talk with me.
“Only trouble can come from that,” he replies, via the girlfriend. But he does say he didn’t kill Luigi.
‘They kill us with bullets and with fear’
Three weeks after the murder, I attend a poetry reading in the capital, Caracas, one day’s drive from San Cristobal over bumpy highways with rusty billboards, past half-emptied towns and closed-down farms.
The reading is held in Librería Alejandria, a bookstore and gathering place for poets, bohemians, and students of literature. Men with black stones in their ears and women in high-waisted jeans are sitting on patio chairs arranged next to the bookshelves.
“In Venezuela, everything is always worse tomorrow.”
One guy recites a poem by Miguel James, “Mi novia Ítala come flores” (“My girlfriend Ítala eats flowers”), from 1988. In Venezuela, a “comeflor” refers to someone who dreams of a world without violence and division.
I hadn’t heard of Miguel James, who I learned was born in Trinidad but moved to Venezuela as a child. The guy reading the poem refers to him as “the disappeared poet” because no one knows where he is now or what happened to him.
One reporter wrote that he went back home to Trinidad and that he might be living in a small fishing village. But no one knows for sure.
His poem is wonderfully wild and naïve and furious and beautiful. It begins like this:
My sweetheart appeared trembling in a bookstore
She showed me lonely street papers and stabbed whores
She gave me stone pendants and seashells
An old engraving of unleashed horses
My sweetheart was sent by the sun and looked like a gypsy
She told me strange stories of similar souls
My sweetheart wore a blue dress
She fell in love with me and my sandals
After the reading, I talk with the young poets in the half-light outside, where some are smoking thin cigarettes. Most of them do odd online work to earn money and write in their spare time. Many of them leave quickly, going straight home before the buses stop running, before the ghost streets become too dangerous.
Few of them have heard of Luigi, but they are touched by his death when I tell them the story, and by reading his poem, “The System”, which I show them.
Luigi’s favourite spot was the mountain La Z, towering over San Cristóbal. He would often hike there to meditate and exercise. It is named after the Z-shaped path through the ferns that goes all the way to the top. He used to go there with Michelle Caracas, a 22-year-old medical student, when they were dating in 2017.
“The murder killed my final hope for the future; hope that Maduro seems to have crushed now,” she tells me in February as we climb La Z together. “In Venezuela, everything is always worse tomorrow.”
At the top of La Z, she starts crying. She sits down on a rock with a view of the city. The sky is filled with white smoke; since the garbage trucks have stopped working, people burn their trash in ditches.
She and Luigi used to sit on this very stone, chatting and eating lunch, she says. He once told her everything happens for a reason. She used to believe that, too. “But his death seems so purposeless,” she says.
It is getting windy. As we start walking back down, she speaks again. “He has already become a number in the statistics: yet another young man killed by his own government. They kill us with bullets and with fear. In the end, we’ll be completely empty inside.”
Originally published at https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org on September 3, 2019.