What it’s like to work in journalism in a country engulfed in chaos.
They beat up our friend. Punched him and kicked him, stole his camera, dragged him across the pavement until the skin came off his leg and then hauled him into the counter-terrorism detention center. Eduardo Leal’s story is just one of a thousand coming out of this month’s violent unrest in Venezuela, and not nearly the worst. But with the world transfixed by the evolving crisis in Ukraine, it’s worth telling whatever we can about what is happening in Venezuela. They’ve shut the Internet off in an entire city. The body count is rising. Eduardo, a young Portuguese photojournalist who has done beautiful stories for us on everything from bull-wrestlers to Chavista street style, talked to us from Caracas, where he is recovering from his injuries.
Roads & Kingdoms: You’ve covered the elections and Chavez’s death, but what brought you to Venezuela this time?
Eduardo Leal: I’m eventually going to Brazil for the World Cup, and I had finished my masters [in London], so I thought I would spend some time here first. It will be one year after Chavez’s death in March. So I was thinking of doing a story on the violence here, to go through all the aspects of it, the police, the thugs, the victims… a big story to understand the violence.
R&K: But then this happened…
EL: All this started in Tachira, on the border with Colombia. Students were protesting about the insecurity on campus after an attempted rape there. Somehow, five students were arrested, and sent to prisons in a very far state. And from [that] students start mobilizing all over the country.
So, the day after my arrival in Caracas—it was the 12th of February—a friend told me, oh there’s this peaceful demonstration, about these students who got arrested. I went, just out of curiosity. But all of a sudden out of peaceful demonstration, it was Molotov cocktails, burning cars, everything.
R&K: Who escalated the violence?
EL: It’s hard to say who started it, because basically, we went to the front of the prosecutor’s office, and everything was peaceful, then I saw at the end of the street, I saw loads of students running. It was already police blocking roads, fires burning, throwing rocks. Maybe it’s students, maybe it’s outsiders who want to get inside the protest and just look for violence. Then you started hearing the rubber bullets.
Suddenly start coming shots, real live ammunition. I actually photographed the evidence, live bullets. Then I heard people shouting he’s down, he’s down, and they had shot a student about 30 or 40 meters from me. And you don’t know who is shooting. Police were definitely using rubber bullets, but maybe also live ammo. I didn’t see this, but there were reports [and video] of guys on motobikes, they come in and shoot and get back on their bikes and ride off. So those are the colectivos, these groups that are basically armed by the government, and are doing like their dirty work.
Suddenly I was punched in the face. No one even asked me who I was.
R&K: What did you do when the shooting started?
EL: Every time I heard a shot, I just laid down and took cover. When they stopped I tried to get up and take a photo, but obviously, it’s… I had to leave, because I had no helmet, no vest. I was totally not thinking I would be in this kind of situation. The police was closing down streets and I thought, I need a place to escape. I went back to the prosecutor’s office, which is in front of a square called Park Carabobo. I knew there was a tube station nearby, I thought that was how I might get away.
Suddenly I was punched in the face. No one even asked me who I was, or what I was doing there. I was just punched in my left eye. I started to run, because I thought I‘m going to be mugged, something that happens here.
I also started identifying myself when they started beating me up, saying I was a photographer, I was Portuguese, but I don’t think they even cared.
They had hold of the camera, and the strap was on my neck, but they were beating me. They were yelling release the camera, release the camera. And there were three of them, so I let it go. And that was the last thing I remember.
R&K: You blacked out?
EL: I don’t know, but from the moment I lost the camera, I can’t remember anything. The next thing I knew, I was already in a corridor in the station—it wasn’t a normal police station, it was the anti-terrorism brigade—with my hands cuffed behind my back.
R&K: Were there a lot of prisoners? Did you talk to them?
EL: We were all in corridors, around 50 to 60 of us. A lot of students, it seemed. At first we couldn’t really talk because we were all handcuffed and facing the wall.
Slowly we start to look at each other, making contact, talking, as the police were processing us. Then they allowed us to put our backs against the wall, then we starting asking other: are you okay? I didn’t realize it, but I was pretty beat up at the time. There were two of them with cuts in their faces, they were heavily punched as well.
I heard through Twitter that there was another photographer that broke his foot. There’s an organization here, the Institute of Press and Society that is documenting everything here, trying to understand what happened to all the journalists. I think there were 11 that were arrested, though not on the same day.
R&K: How long were you held there?
EL: I was released at 3 in the morning. I was with the last batch, and I was with the minors.
I got a paper that basically said I had to present myself at 10am the next morning. I was worried, because the paper they gave me said that if I don’t show up, and that I might face jail of a few months or something. So I got home and called the Portuguese consul, and they [arranged] a lawyer for me, and I went back with a lawyer, for the questioning.
R&K: What was that question session like?
EL: It was more they wanted to know if I had seen any of the protestors.
R&K: They didn’t ask who had attacked you?
EL: They did ask about that also. I told them the only thing I could remember is that [the attackers] had some kind of black uniform and some kind of bulletproof jacket. The prosecutor also asked me if there was anyone from security. Well, if they take my camera and then I wake up in the anti-terrorism station, I will pretty much assume they were from security forces.
R&K: Did you ever get your gear back?
EL: No. My camera, the two lenses I had with me—a 35mm and a 50mm—it’s gone. The agents, at the antiterrorism station said I never arrived with a camera. The images were all gone, too.
It’s incredible that suddenly we are targets.
R&K: What about your injuries?
EL: It’s been quite difficult. The first two days I couldn’t even move. I was trying to just send messages abroad and tell what happened, because I feel this cannot happen. It’s incredible that suddenly we are targets. I’m not expecting to be attacked by the people who are supposed to defend me.
R&K: But then you went out to shoot again?
EL: Yes, I have another camera, and I was tired of being at home. I was moving more slowly, but it was quite peaceful on that day. There were loads of people in that march–it was February 18, the day they arrested Leopoldo Lopez, one of the opposition leaders. The police didn’t create problems, they just blocked access, with no violence or anything. So at that time, I thought maybe this is going to quiet down, the police is being more respectful.
Then it was raining. I think Venezuelans are so used to good weather that they decided, today is not a good day to be marching [laughs].
R&K: Did you feel safe on the streets?
EL: Well, the following day I was walking near the Palace of Justice and talking on the phone in Portuguese, with a Portuguese radio station. And suddenly people come up to us and say you are a spy, you are observing, and they started to get aggressive with me. So I left that area and met up with another journalist by the Palace of Justice, and then three guys there—quite big guys—approached and basically in nice words, they were threatening us, that we should leave or something bad might happen. After what happened to me, I take these threats quite seriously.
R&K: Where did you go from there?
EL: I just went home, because my legs started hurting a lot, and my mobility was quite bad. When I got home, I took my bandage off, and saw it was really infected. The doctor had said I had been dragged on the ground, and lost a lot of skin. One was a deeper wound, and that’s the one that was infected.
It was another violent night. The students I had seen on the way home, they stayed all night. The police started to use out-of-date tear gas, which is much more toxic, and illegal. As much as I wanted to be there, I was following livestreaming. I could hear the shots, the bombs blasting. Even journalists and everything say it’s gotten much worse since that night. People are a little afraid of what’s going on, they understand that it’s a little heavy in the streets. And there’s a lot of rumor. Twitter is a great tool, but there’s so much information that we’re not really sure about.
R&K: You said you plan on staying in Caracas. Why?
EL: That’s a good question in a way. In the past few years I’ve been coming to Venezuela, and I feel like it’s my story. Now that there’s adversity, I shouldn’t just leave. And I don’t see much news about Venezuela in the international news. I don’t know why. Maybe because the Ukraine is a bigger story? I just feel weird that there’s not much being said about Venezuela. And it really upsets me that if I and the other journalists leave, it’s like leaving the Venezuelan people to their fate.
Leaving did cross my mind at one point, but one day I went to the pharmacy, and people saw I was beat up and asked what happened. I starting telling them story, and then people just started thanking me—Thank you for telling what’s happening here. I haven’t felt something like that ever… so yeah, right now my place is here. I need to do the best I can.
Besides, I told the interrogator that it’s my birthday soon and I want to spend it on some nice Venezuelan beach somewhere. [laughs] That sounds nice, even though I don’t think it’s going to happen.
[Top Image: Street protests in Caracas, February 18, 2014. Photo by Eduardo Leal / Polaris Images]