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In Caracas, Death Doesn’t Discriminate According to Politics

Welcome to Caracas, South America’s most homicidal town and the most dangerous capital city in the world. In the space of three days, two very different men were killed under very different circumstances. The first was Robert Serra, a member of parliament for the ruling United Socialist Party, who was bound, gagged, and stabbed more ...

FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images
FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to Caracas, South America’s most homicidal town and the most dangerous capital city in the world. In the space of three days, two very different men were killed under very different circumstances. The first was Robert Serra, a member of parliament for the ruling United Socialist Party, who was bound, gagged, and stabbed more than 30 times in his heavily guarded home along with his female aide. The second was Father Reinaldo Herrera, a heroic priest who died the same way many in Caracas do — in a kidnapping gone awry.

Serra’s killing has caused a considerable stir in Venezuela, precipitating six preliminary arrests on Tuesday, a deadly shootout with a pro-government "colectivo" (a militant pro-government citizen association) that seems to have been involved, and an abundance of conspiracy theories and conjectures from both sides of the political spectrum. President Nicolás Maduro himself promised swift and brutal retribution — not only on the eventual murderers but, ominously, on those intellectually responsible as well. (The photo above shows Maduro standing before the coffins of Serra and his aide, María Herrera, at their funeral on Oct. 3.) Meanwhile, Reinaldo Herrera’s death has received far less attention, with no investigation updates, and there seems scant hope that his killers will ever be found. As with so much else in Venezuela, a nation of scarcities, justice, too, can be in short supply.

In 2010, at the age of just 23, Robert Serra became the youngest politician ever elected to Venezuela’s national legislature. Passionately contrarian by nature, he was a rarity in Caracas: a lawyer trained at one of the country’s most elite institutions who also passionately believed in Hugo Chávez’s revolution. According to one of his classmates, who asked that he remain unnamed, such views made Serra uniquely unpopular at La Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, then as now a hotbed of student opposition.

"Even by chavista standards, Robert was always very militant," the classmate told me. "A consummate provocateur, he seemed to revel in the rejection of his peers, people he saw as hopeless oligarchs, holdovers from the pre-Chavez years." On one occasion, after Serra made a few characteristically incendiary statements at school, fellow students even began pelting him with objects. After this, he was transported to and from campus by armed members of the Caracas Metropolitan Police.

Serra’s rapid rise from student outcast to national assemblyman likewise received special support from the national government, which saw in Serra a dynamic (and highly marketable) exception to a national climate that often pitted the regime against the country’s youth. This same revolutionary passion led him down paths that even government supporters sometimes hesitate to tread — cozying up to the shadowy world of Venezuela’s  "colectivos" and becoming one of their strongest advocates within the national legislature.

Theories about Serra’s brutal killing abound, though there is considerable agreement the crime was anything but random. Preliminary evidence seems to hint that the killers had prior knowledge of his home, and the 2012 murder of one of his bodyguards reinforces perceptions that the legislator had powerful enemies.

The government’s working theory — at least the one they air in public — places blame squarely upon the opposition by way of a tangled (and somewhat baffling) conspiratorial web allegedly involving a cabal of rightwing millionaires in Miami, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, some rightwing paramilitary groups, and other assorted "fascists." Official statements from government officials hint at the possibility of a renewed government crackdown on such ideological enemies in response.

Serra’s influential position and tight security have led others to believe the assassination must have been an inside job. The government has become more factionalized since the death of Hugo Chávez last year. Various ideological strains and interests have clashed beneath the party’s surface, and speculation abounds that Serra was killed as part of some internecine vendetta. This latter view seemed reinforced somewhat on Tuesday by the arrest of six suspects, including four Serra employees and two local police officers. Meanwhile ex-President Uribe, remains at large.

Standing in sharp contrast to this cryptic and conspiratorial world of regime politics was Father Reinaldo Herrera, whose sad fate could just have easily befallen any other Venezuelan. Herrera was visiting family members in Caracas, and was accosted by armed men while returning to his vehicle. They abducted him in what is colloquially known as a "secuestro express," a violent hybrid of carjacking and a truncated kind of kidnapping for which ransoms must be raised in mere hours. Having once gone through a similar experience myself, I can personally attest to the myriad ways in which luck plays a decisive role in determining the outcome of such situations, both in terms of who is targeted and in terms of who survives.

It is this fact that makes Herrera’s death uniquely poignant. Herrera was a survivor, almost miraculously so. In 1999, shortly before Christmas, the state of Vargas — a region adjacent Caracas, nestled between the Sierra de Avila mountain ridge and the Caribbean Sea — was all but swept off the map by an unprecedented natural calamity. Days of torrential rainfall brought on a series of catastrophic mudslides and flash floods that killed tens of thousands in what the BBC called "Latin America’s worst natural disaster of the 20th century." By week’s end, the community of Los Corales, Herrera’s parish, had been buried in under 10 feet of debris.

In the days leading up to the mudslides, many had fled the area — but Herrera stayed put, tending to the more vulnerable members of his flock. Weeks of storms had already begun collapsing shanties in the slums surrounding Los Corales, leaving many families homeless and destitute. His church became a refuge, while its priest braved the storm, knocking on doors in the area’s more structurally sound high-rises, seeking supplies and convincing parish members to take desperate strangers into their homes. On Dec. 16, when Herrera went home to change his clothing, an enormous wave ripped apart the parish house in which he lived with his mother and sister, neither of whom survived. Herrera himself regained consciousness half a kilometer away, naked and suffering from multiple bone fractures. But he was alive, however, and soon rededicated himself to administering to his broken community.

"He was a source of support for so many people after the tragedy, despite his own personal trauma, and despite his own personal loss," says Michelle Gudino, a fellow survivor who underwent her first communion under Father Herrera’s guidance and remained close with him for the next 22 years. "It was not only his words, but his very presence…. Seeing our priest recovering from his wounds helped us know that we could overcome our own."

Herrera’s miraculous story became national news in the period following the disaster, a story that ended abruptly last week when his lifeless body was found where it had been unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road. "We have to trust in god," Gudino tells me, "I’m sure Father Reinaldo is with the angels now, that he is an angel. But to know that there were people who thought his life was worth less than his car…. I just can’t believe that."

Individually, these tragedies are just two data points among the 500 or so homicides that take place in Caracas on any given week: the revolutionary red and curial black on a roulette wheel that spins perpetually, sparing no one, and which can land on any person, any time. Yet taken together, they show how, even in death, regime politics make winners and losers of all Venezuelans.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches Latin American Business at the Kellogg School of Management.

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