Gilber Sosa Arellano will not see his daughter grow up. He will not take her for a ride on the bike he used to get to work, nor will he sing on any of his birthdays. The 20-year-old man was killed by police officers that were not in uniform on June 6, 2017, in the Propatria municipality of Libertador de Caracas. His baby was just four months old.
Sosa Arellano left for work on his motorbike when the police intercepted him. He was allegedly wanted for killing a driver, a charge for which there was no evidence against him. His daughter, who is not even one year old, was left alone with her 18-year-old unemployed mother.
Maikel Jordan Padilla Puerta’s two children continue to cry for their father, who was killed on July 1, 2017, by members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Boliviariana – GNB) in Roca Tarpeya, Caracas. The 6-year-old girl had always been very close to her father. Maikel abandoned his university studies to work as a motor-taxi driver and take care of his children. He never stopped working until the day he died. Surprising him in his pajamas on a Saturday, police officers entered his home without a warrant and shot him twice in the chest.
These are just two of the 520 cases of children and adolescents orphaned by violence in Caracas between May and September 2017. Every day, four children lose one of their parents due to acts of violence registered in Venezuela’s Capital District.
The statistics correspond to the Victim’s Monitor project registry, which consists of collecting information on homicides that occur in the capital of Venezuela. The registry aims to characterize the crimes and identify patterns of violence and their consequences. It seeks to obtain reliable data that encourages the creation of public policies for the reduction of homicides within the framework of the “Instinto de Vida” (“Instinct for Life”) homicide reduction campaign.
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Of the 755 people who died violently in Caracas during the five-month period, 280 parents (37 percent of the total) left behind children under 18 years of age.
The cases of murdered parents correspond to the most violent municipalities in Caracas. Sixty-eight percent of the homicides that left children as orphans occurred in the Libertador municipality. This was followed by Sucre (25 percent); Baruta (5 percent); Chacao (1 percent) and El Hatillo (0.7 percent).
Investigations into violence usually register who died but not those who depended on them and were left unattended. Children are indirect victims. Oscar Misle, the director of the civil society group Cecodap, says these losses affect the financial support these children receive, their emotional stability, schooling and ultimately their entire lives.
With precise data and names, the Victim’s Monitor registry tries to visualize those invisible victims of the homicides that take place in Caracas. Most of these victims are children and adolescents who do not receive any assistance from the government, and aren’t the focus of protective public policies.
If we take into account the average age of these men, the increase in the number of homicides in Venezuela is directly linked to the increase in the number of orphans from violence, Misle says. In 2016, according to the Public Ministry, there were 21,000 homicides, of which 55.48 percent of the victims were between 15 and 30 years old, or within the age range of being parents.
The highest proportion of parents killed between May and September 2017 were between 19 and 30 years old (57.8 percent of deaths). In addition, 8 victims younger than that age range out of the 280 victims also had children under 18 years old.
The increase in the number of children and adolescents who lose their parents due to violence should be treated as a public health problem, says Misle. “It not only has an individual impact, but also a communal and national impact that can be registered within a spiral of violence.”
“We tend to think of orphans because of violence as individual cases when in reality they represent a collective impact. The process of mourning for murder can be complex and takes time to elaborate,” according to psychologist and researcher Manuel Llorens. “It is necessary to think about the affected people and their surroundings. It is necessary to help not only the individual with therapy, but to offer support to entire communities and society,” he says.
The death of a father who is the principal or only breadwinner disrupts the life of a family even more. This was the case of Darwin José Valera, who was murdered early on September 1, 2017, when he was serving as a security guard for a building in eastern Caracas. The pain for his wife Joselyn and their four young children is so great that neither wants to continue living in their small house in the Union neighborhood of Petare.
Valera was very attached to his four children of 19, 12, 7 and 4 years old. He searched “no matter what” to get them food, which has become a main problem during the last year. Going to sleep without having eaten had become a frequent occurrence. He even sold some of his tools to buy food. As a Christian, he tried to set the best example for his children.
Valera’s 7- and 12-year-old girls cry when they talk about their father. They are distracted in school. The youngest child, who is awaiting a hernia operation, also misses him. The oldest child, who suffers from muscle mass loss, went to live with his family in Trujillo in northwest Venezuela to lighten the family’s burdens.
Now, Joselyn and her four children have to deal with the pain of providing for themselves as well as the loss of Valera. Up until now, they only received part of their mother’s insufficient pension as help.
But they must also deal with the impunity surrounding Valera’s murder. The death certificate ruled out the first version of his death, which alleged he was killed in a motorbike crash. According to the death certificate, he died of “hypovolemic shock (hemorrhagic) caused by a knife wound to the thorax.” It’s presumed that it was a “settling of scores” against the co-worker he was riding with at the time, who had spent time in jail and has a criminal record.
Both Llorens and Misle agree that mourning violent deaths is a difficult process. They observe that natural death or illness, even death caused by a traffic accident, which is also sudden, is not the same as murder, which produces a mixture of pain, anger, impotence and resentment.
Llorens believes that the process of mourning for orphans will depend on their age. Mourning for a 5- or 10-year-old child is not the same as a baby, who can be protected by caregivers.
“In any case, it is a traumatic loss that generates difficult consequences. We must take into account the level of involvement of the family circle — mother, grandmothers, aunts — who are left in charge of these children. There may not be adults available to help process their pain. Many families who are themselves victims cannot help.”
The death of the household’s provider implies a huge socioeconomic impact that affects everything from nutrition to schooling, says Llorens. “The child is left helpless by the sudden violent death, which also robs them of their main sustenance. This becomes even more complicated in the context of serious economic conditions like those of Venezuela,” adds Misle.
When the father or mother dies, the custody is assumed by a family member or entity that is not necessarily prepared to take care of children, according to Misle. “Many are forced to leave school to get resources and adopt survival strategies, from petty drug trafficking to prostitution.”
The majority of parents killed between May and September 2017 in Caracas were the household’s main providers: merchants (33 of 280), followed by laborers (32); motor-taxi drivers (20); bricklayers (12) and informal tradesman (11).
Many of the orphaned children also have to move to the home of a family member who takes care of them, losing their house, their friends, their school and family environment. “In the best case, they move in with relatives. At worst, to the street,” Misle said. “The increase in the deaths of household providers could also be related to the increase of homeless children.”
Many families also migrate to other areas or cities to flee from criminals and look for “a safer place,” which implies a dramatic string of losses for the child, according to Llorens.
No social class is exempt from the danger of death in Venezuela. “More and more cases of orphans are being observed for private school students whose parents have been victims of robberies or kidnappings. However, it is tougher in working-class sectors,” Misle said.
In the case of children who lose their parents, mourning can be manifest as depression, which is more common in girls, or in hostility, aggression and violence. These emotions are related to anguish, fear and anxiety, which are often misunderstood in schools and communities that do not have the resources to attend to these children, Misle warned.
Prolonged grief can have psychosocial consequences as well, such as difficulties with bonding, a loss of empathy and trust towards life and others, and also more violence. “The social fabric is broken, and spaces for coexistence and consensual solutions for common problems are reduced,” Llorens explained.
It can also generate a feeling of revenge that results in the transgenerational transmission of trauma. “That hurt can carry over to future generations by establishing cycles of violence that are maintained over time,” Llorens said.
The way their parents were killed also impacts children, according to Llorens and Miles. The four main motives for the 280 registered homicides of parents between May and September 2017 in the metropolitan area of Caracas were robbery (77 cases); murder (56); unknown causes (44) and revenge killing (19).
Who murdered their parents also impacts children. Civilians or independent individuals were the main offenders (106 out of 280 cases), followed by criminal gangs (63); the GNB (44) and members of the CICPC, Venezuela’s investigative police force (42), according to data from the Victim’s Monitor.
These numbers suggest that public roads are the most common place where the murders of parents occurred (199 of 280 cases). The victim’s home was the second most common (65 cases), while the rest occurred at commercial establishments, educational facilities and work.
In Venezuela, there are no public policies to protect the vulnerable population and the collateral victims of homicide, such as children. According to Misle, the government is responsible for ensuring the life and protection of children and adolescents.
“The National Protection System must guarantee programs for protecting orphans that involve the municipal law, university and school councils. This work cannot only be left up to families and communities who do not have the necessary resources. Comprehensive, systematic support is required to address victims of violence.”