Luisa Elena Castillo had always said she would never get a tattoo because she didn’t want to endure the pain. But when her brother Miguel was shot dead in May during protests in Venezuela against President Nicolás Maduro’s government, she had his name tattooed on her ribs.
Luisa Elena, 33, even picked the most painful spot – her ribs. That was where a lethal projectile entered her brother's body and tore into his heart. Miguel Castillo’s name is now etched into her skin along with two angels and a baseball, because that was his favorite sport.
Dozens of other young Venezuelans have lost their lives on the streets since early April, the beginning of the revolt against Maduro, who they say is destroying democracy in the oil-rich country. With the death toll nearing 100 in the economic and political crisis, “martyr” shrines have begun to appear all around Caracas, often with a portrait of the victim painted on a wall and vows to keep up the fight against the Maduro government.
For Neomar Lander, who was just 17 when he was assassinated June 7, the shrine is on an underpass on Libertador Avenue where he died. His friends, family members and opposition supporters now call the spot "Neomar Lander Tunnel." A member of the National Guard (GNB) shot Neomar from about 30 feet away, blowing his chest wide open, the terrible moment captured on video by witnesses.
“He was always at the front line, engaging the National Guard," his father, Neomar Lander, Sr., said last week as he showed a reporter videos of his son attacking security force members and even their armored vehicles. In one of the videos, Neomar, Jr., is setting a GNB vehicle on fire with a Molotov cocktail.
His mother, Zugeimar Armas, defended her son’s actions. “On the street, you see so many ugly things, and when they go after you, your instinct tells you to fight back,” she said.
The couple said Neomar's 12-year-old sister, Paola, was one of the key reasons he risked his life on the streets of Caracas. “He wanted a better future for his little sister,” Armas said, describing her son as a happy, extroverted and sensitive boy.
But now it is the father who has turned into a rebel. Like his son, he fights the security forces, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at them, carrying on his son's fight.
As he describes his actions, his wife shoots him a worried look and whispers, "He does whatever he wants."
Though grief-stricken, Armas, 35, said she remains convinced that the resistance must continue.
Others who have lost loved ones recently also have found ways to continue their battle against the Maduro regime. Rosa Orozco put together a civic organization called Justicia, Encuentro y Perdon that demands justice for the victims. Rosa also lost a child — her 23-year-old daughter, Geraldine. GNB members shot her in February of 2014 during the first wave of anti-government protests against Maduro's rule.
Rosa Orozco also has a combative side. “They [GNB] made a mistake by killing my daughter but they were also wrong about the mother. I will never be silent,” she said.
She pulled out photos of her daughter. The first depicted a beautiful girl with a radiant smile, filled with vitality. The other photo, after her death, showed the young woman’s bloody and disfigured face, her left eye concealed by bruises, blood and swelling.
Orozco’s daughter was shot three times, killed by GNB members in cold blood, according to her mother. She said they shot the 23-year-old in the back as she was running away from approaching GNB troops, then in the face, destroying her left eye and most of her brain. The third bullet, Orozco said, came as Geraldine lay dying and a GNB soldier got off his motorcycle and shot her in the chest. Two of the assassins were recently sent to prison for 30 and 16 years, respectively, for causing the death.
Looking back, Orozco talks about a “bad gut feeling” the day her daughter was killed. It's a feeling shared by Neomar’s parents. On the day their child was killed, President Maduro warned that that the protest would be the last one. “It turns out it was the last protest for our son,” Armas said.
Neomar Jr.'s parents have little hope for bringing justice to the murderers. “The best justice would be the fall of this government,” Armas said.
The government has framed the conflict as a war against the revolution launched by "the right wing" opposition but Orozco dismisses that assertion, saying there is no evidence of that. She fears that more families will lose their sons and daughters as the conflict continues. Her organization, she said, is ready to offer such families legal help and hope that they can find comfort in each other's company.
"Rosa helped me so much to heal," said Neomar Lander, Sr., though he struggles with the loss of his son.
The heartbreak for Castillos, Landers and other families remains fresh. Luisa Elena Castillo remembered imploring her brother, Miguel, to skip the protests, fearing the worst. “He told me that Virgin of the Valley will bring him home safe,” she recalled, referring to the saint venerated in Venezuela.
“Mama, Venezuela cannot wait for you,” was the last thing Orozco heard from her daughter, Geraldine, alluding to the fight for a free country shared by many of the youth.
And while their families continue to resist the government as a way to deal with their loss and honor their children, it can be hard to move on.
Luisa Elena Castillo keeps the baseball jersey Miguel once wore for his games. When he was alive, she would reproach him for its sweaty odor. Now she presses the jersey against her face as a way to remember.