Caracas (AFP) – Seventeen people, including eight minors, were killed at a crowded Caracas club early Saturday when a tear gas canister was detonated during a fight at a party, setting off a stampede, Venezuelan officials said.
The deaths occurred after a brawl broke out during a middle school graduation party and someone detonated the tear gas, sending more than 500 people rushing for the exits, said Interior and Justice Minister Nestor Reverol.
Official reports said the victims died of suffocation or multiple trauma. At least five people were seriously injured — including one in critical condition — in the incident and taken to hospital for treatment.
In comments aired on VTV state television, Reverol confirmed witness accounts that a minor, one of seven people detained in the incident, is suspected of setting off the tear gas. Another minor was also among those in custody.
The club’s manager was also arrested for failure to comply with “measures that must be adopted… to prevent firearms and ammunition from entering” public places, Reverol said.
Kleiver Barrios, 17, was among those killed at the club known as Los Cotorros, located in the El Paraiso neighborhood, in the western part of the Venezuelan capital.
“He took my ID card (to enter the premises despite being a minor)… It’s terrible… How can a boy at a party have a tear gas grenade?” asked the boy’s father Luis at the Bello Monte morgue south of Caracas.
Kleiver had just a year left before graduating from high school and worked with his father in the family butcher business. He had been invited to the club by friends.
“He was a good guy,” said the father, who got a phone call at 3:00 am about his son’s death.
Authorities closed the club, which during the day is home to a restaurant that has served as a gathering place for the Ecuadoran immigrant community.
Old posters from Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno’s election campaign adorn the facade.
– Other tear gas attacks –
The tragedy occurred as a group of young people from different schools celebrated their middle school graduation, Reverol said.
There have been several incidents with tear gas over the past year in Venezuela, but with no victims.
In February, three tear gas grenades exploded in Caracas metro stations, in what authorities described as an act of “sabotage” to trigger “capitulation” of the authorities.
The country is grappling with a severe economic crisis and pressure for President Nicolas Maduro to step down, amid a collapse in the price of oil, leading to chronic food and medicine shortages.
Media outlets, such as the country’s leading opposition newspaper El Nacional, have also been the targets of attacks with tear gas canisters, which are usually reserved for police and military use.
Many of these devices are said to end up in civilian hands after robberies or thanks to police and military corruption, and are often used in crimes.