Barbara Barca, a survivor of the stampede at a crowded nightclub, is helped by relatives as they leave police headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, June 16, 2018.
Barbara Barca, a survivor of the stampede at a crowded nightclub, is helped by relatives as they leave police headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, June 16, 2018.

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Seventeen people were killed at a crowded nightclub in Venezuela's capital Saturday after a tear gas device exploded during a brawl and triggered a desperate stampede among hundreds gathered for a graduation celebration, government officials said.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said the incident at the Los Cotorros club in the middle-class neighborhood of El Paraiso left eight minors dead and five injured. Eight people were detained, including two teens believed responsible for setting off the tear gas canister.

"The establishment has been ordered closed, and we are investigating in coordination with the public ministry, which is directing the criminal investigation," he said.

'My son is dead'

Family members wept and embraced one another after identifying the remains of their loved ones at a nearby hospital. Outside the club, several mismatched shoes, including a sandal with a puckered red lip decoration, lay on the sidewalk.

"All I know is my son is dead," Nilson Guerra, 43, told local journalists.

More than 500 people were believed to have been inside the club when the fight broke out. Julio Cesar Perdomo said his injured son told him the tear gas was launched from inside a bathroom and that partygoers tried to flee but found the club's door closed. Pictures posted by Reverol on Twitter showed a narrow, tiled staircase leading to a metal door.

"The kids couldn't leave," Perdomo said.

Officials did not provide any information to confirm or deny Perdomo's account.

A car is parked in front of "Los Cotorros" club in
A car is parked in front of Los Cotorros, a club in the neighborhood of El Paraiso, in Caracas, Venezuela, June 16, 2018.

The club is officially called El Paraiso, or Paradise, but is more widely known as Los Cotorros, or The Chatterboxes. Photos shared online from previous celebrations at the club show a dark interior with wooden tables and a stage upfront where DJs shuffled songs. Green painted metal bars and gates covered the doors and windows.

Outside, a faded sign on the red brick building read "We've opened!"

Jesus Armas, an opposition councilman who lives in the neighborhood, said the Interior Ministry should explain how a civilian was able to obtain tear gas canisters that should be used only by state security forces. He also urged authorities to investigate whether the club had permission to hold several hundred people inside.

"That's not a big space and that should not be authorized," he said.

He added that other violent incidents had taken place inside the club, which is frequently used by the Ecuadorean community for parties and political events. Several campaign signs for Ecuadorean politicians were hung outside the building.

Police detained the owner of the club for "not guaranteeing adequate supervision" and for failing to prevent "the entry of any type of weapon." No information on the owner's name, exact charges or current whereabouts was immediately provided.

Violent city

Caracas is one of the most violent capitals in the world, and the country is engulfed in a deepening economic crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands to flee. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence estimates about 26,600 people were killed in the country in 2017.

Haide Berrio, the aunt of a 17-year-old boy killed in the melee, told local media she went running out to find her nephew in the middle of the night after hearing about the commotion and knowing that he was attending the party.

Relatives of the boy found him among the dead and said he had died of asphyxia.

Her eyes sunken in grief, she said all the family wanted now was for the club to be permanently closed and the owner held responsible.

"I am asking for justice," she said.