Things Will Never Be the Same Again

In January 2018, La Vida de Nos published the storyTodo pasó tan rápido”, [It All Happened So Fast], where Olga Meza recounted the circumstances surrounding the murder of her 16-year-old son Ángel Joel at the hands of police officers in the state of Nueva Esparta. She, her husband and their three children were a close-knit family. In this installment of our #HaySegundasPartes [#SecondParts] series, we take a look into what has become of them three years later.

Images: Gustavo Novoa / Javier Volcán 

  Joel Torrealba was a home-lover. As part of his daily routine, he watched TV with his family and played with his kids. They went all to bed at the same time. In 2004, he moved in with Olga Meza. They had three children: Ingrid Johanli, Ángel Joel, and Joel Antonio. Ángel Joel, the middle child, was very attached to him. He remembers Ángel Joel’s first years in primary school vividly: he would wake him up, give him a bath, and take him to the General-in-Chief Santiago Mariño Educational Unit in Porlamar, Margarita Island. They lived near the school, on the seaside Paseo Guaraguao boulevard, so they went there by foot. Sometimes Joel would let Ángel Joel walk by himself; others he would carry him in his arms. Until the child completed the third grade, his father would wait outside the school’s entrance because Ángel Joel was a bit of an anxious child and would start crying when left alone. “Dad! I want my Dad!” “I am here, Son. Don’t you worry.” The memories of those school days would carry a whole different meaning years later, when Ángel Joel was already a young boy. In the wee hours of August 17, 2015, Joel’s wife woke him up, agitated. She told him that there were some men dressed in black and many cars outside. At first, Joel was not concerned. He trusted his instincts. After all, he was a home-loving, devoted father and husband. “Go back to bed, Negra. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear,» he reassured her. However, just a couple of seconds later, he would realize that his wife was right and that something must have been going on. Suddenly, the window’s panes were flying all over the place. The men in black took the door down and broke into their house in Villa Zoita, a housing development of the Great Mission Housing Venezuela, southwest of the island, where they had been living for two years. They put his wife up against the wall. He was beaten out of the room into the living room, and then out to the street, where he would join other neighbors who had also been forced out of their houses, barely dressed in boxer shorts, terrified. He heard some gunshots and then saw Ángel Joel’s body being taken out of the house and thrown into the street. The kid was gasping in agony, but he was still alive. Joel wanted to run to him, but he could not move for they had him restrained. He shouted at him, just like he used to when he dropped him off at school in Porlamar. “I am here, Son!” “Let me take care of him, please!» he begged the men in uniform. He shouted, he begged, to no avail. That was the last time Joel saw his son, and that night, the last that the family would be together, looking forward to the future.   His wife Olga was inside the house and bore witness to it all: the moment the officers kicked Ángel Joel in the head; the moment her 6-month-old granddaughter was thrown to the floor; the moment Joel Antonio, their 6-year-old youngest, was placed next to his brother; the moment four shots were fired straight to the heart of Ángel Joel, the most outstanding weightlifter in the state of Nueva Esparta. He was only 16. More than five years have passed and Joel still plays the shots and the yelling of the women in his head. He closes his eyes and sees the strobe light bars of the police cars. He remembers when one of the men —wearing a black jacket with the initials of the Scientific, Criminal, and Forensic Investigations Corps (CICPC) on his sleeve— came out of his house and asked one of his peers to kill them all, that they did not want witnesses… because they had killed the wrong boy. It was the first ‘Operation to Liberate and Protect the People’ (OLP) raid in the island region. That August 17, 2015, action in two Venezuelan states, namely Carabobo and Nueva Esparta, was being monitored by the then minister of the Interior, Justice, and Peace, Gustavo González López, who reported on the developments via his social media accounts. He announced that, as of 3:00 a.m., a mixed team of officers from the Bolivarian National Guard, the Scientific, Criminal, and Forensic Investigations Corps, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, and the Bolivarian National Police would be deployed. He reported that 456 troops had been ordered to storm the Villa Zoíta housing development and that, at the end of the raid, five people had been arrested and a number of motorcycles, weapons, motor vehicles, and marine engines had been recovered. It wasn’t until the following day that the death of Ángel Joel Torrealba Meza was made public by Carlos Mata Figueroa, at that time the governor of Nueva Esparta. The event was part of the complaint that the NGO Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights (Provea) and Human Rights Watch filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights two years later for massive arbitrary detentions, mistreatment of detainees, forced evictions, and destruction of homes, which left a toll of 245 people killed in 2015. Joel was outraged by how the press had treated the news. They claimed that a minor had confronted the officers and that he had died during the altercation. They said that it was a young man who went by the nickname of ‘El Piraña’ and that he was wanted by the police.   After that day, things would never be the same again. Family time turned into time for proceedings in search of justice. Olga and Joel went to the Ninth Prosecutor’s Office, to the courts, and to the Ombudsman’s Office. They put in writing that the officers smashed their house’s window, broke down their house’s door, took Olga and the whole family out of the house, and shot their son dead. They stated that the officers returned days later for an alleged inspection and took the computer their children used to do their homework, the only television set they owned, and a telephone with them. Three months after the event, and only because they never stopped insisting, a survey of the crime scene was ordered and performed, but the report never reached them. They knocked on every door they could. The mayor of Porlamar, Alfredo Díaz, interceded and helped them contact opposition congresswoman Delsa Solórzano. Olga went to the National Assembly, along with other women victims of violence by the State, to file a complaint. In her 2016 parliamentary report, the congresswoman drew attention to the human rights violations perpetrated during that OLP action in the state of Nueva Esparta. But that was the extent of it.  No further advances were made on the case. No investigation. No trial. Some in the Prosecutor’s Office warned that it was not likely that the case would be solved as long as the government remained in power. Joel last visited the National Assembly alone. Olga refused to join him. She was growing tired of that fruitless search. And frustration was compounded by fear. They were being watched, they felt the pressure and feared something bad might happen to them. More than once, Joel went out to work but would not return home at the usual time because he was held for hours by CICPC officers, who would take his phone and ask for documents. His siblings were always vigilant and would call at about the time he was supposed to be in to check if he had made it home safely.  For at least three years, motorcycles, men in uniform, and suspicious cars made the round of house No. 86 of Villa Zoíta. The house still had the ‘Familia Torrealba M.’ cursive-script, silver sign mounted on the wall that faced the street.  As time went by, the couple, almost inadvertently, stopped sharing with each other. Olga turned increasingly serious and Joel became distant. He did not want to live in that house anymore, nor did he want to sleep in the very room where his son was killed. Olga, on the other hand, did not want to clean the blood, or wash the sheets, or cover the bullet holes on the walls. She did not want the evidence to be wiped off. It was an unbearable situation for Joel. He moved to his mother’s house in the Cotoperiz sector —the same one where he lived with Olga before she was assigned the house in Villa Zoíta— with his mother, his sister, and Joel Antonio, his youngest son. Being a father, a son, and a brother makes him feel he still has a family: in 2019 Olga and her new partner migrated to Ecuador, where she is trying to rebuild her life despite some health issues that have prevented her from nailing a good job. Their eldest daughter, Ingrid, had not left the house in Villa Zoíta. She lives there with her two children. Not that it is easy for her. Every corner of the house reminds her of her brother, especially because she sleeps in the room where he was killed. And, like Olga, she has refused to change things around. The bullet holes are still visible on the walls, and the door still shows the scars of that day. She is making arrangements to put the house in her name so that she can continue making payments, hoping that she will hold title thereto one day. She does not forget about her brother, or about how close they were, or about their quarrels, or about his constant ‘begging’ for food, because he always asked his mother for food as soon as he got home. Sometimes at night, when Ingrid goes out on the sidewalk to cool down from the heat, she and her neighbors think back on that early morning in 2015. She is convinced that had it not been for all that happened, the family would still be together. “Did you light a candle for your brother at his altar? Don’t forget to do it. I always put flowers for him. I always think of him,» her mother tells her when they talk on the phone. Olga is more at ease now, but she doesn’t forget. She asks about her youngest son, Joel Antonio, with whom she communicates regularly via Facebook. She hopes to take her children with her to Ecuador soon. Ingrid would like to migrate and is optimistic that this year she will be able to, but her desire to leave collides with her desire to stay. It is true that she could earn more money abroad to provide herself and her children with a better life, but she does not want to leave her country, her island or her home. Joel Antonio, her brother, is now 11. That terrible night, he spent several hours soaking in his brother’s blood because the guards had placed him next to Ángel Joel before they shot him. Everything else, he lived in silence, clasping his hands: the shoving out of the house, the waiting inside the guard’s truck, the running with his mother through the bushes, asking for help. He was treated by a psychologist for a while, but he had to stop because his father could no longer afford to pay the therapy fees. He freezes whenever he sees a man in uniform. Joel has to hold him tight, hug him. Everyone in his new family circle is devoted to him.   Joel still lives in fear. He knows that those who did what they did in Villa Zoíta are active police officers who would recognize him on the streets. But he has not given up in his search for justice. He carries a briefcase where he keeps the documents supporting the complaints and the evidence of what happened on August 17, 2015.  On that night, the OLP team was looking for a man who had committed murder in 2004, back when Ángel Joel was only four. That explains why the guards looked stunned when they turned on the room lights after they had shot the boy. That explains why they threatened the men they pushed out of their houses, and why they fired shots to simulate a confrontation. In that briefcase, he even carries the invoices for the computer and the television set they took from his house after the raid. There is a portrait of Ángel Joel in the living room of his mother’s house, surrounded by some flowers and a Virgin of the Valley figurine. They placed it next to the Nativity scene in December, hoping it might strengthen the family’s faith during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. On February 14, 2021, Ángel Joel would have turned 22.     Esta historia forma parte de Hay segundas partes, un proyecto editorial desarrollado por nuestra red de narradores, en el 3er año del programa formativo La Vida de Nos Itinerante.
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Encuentro en la empatía uno de los valores más humanos que amo seguir, y suscribiéndome a Ryszard Kapuscinski, pienso: “Las malas personas no pueden ser buenos periodistas”. Me ratifico periodista por dentro y por fuera. En las historias ahora encuentro una razón más para darle letra a la vida.

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