Venezuelan media reported Jan. 2 that the body of Fr. Josiah K’Okal, IMC, had been found in a wooded area in Guara, Monagas state, near the state border with Delta Amacuro, where K’Okal lived.
K’Okal was born in Kenya, but had lived in Venezuela as a missionary since 1997.
The priest had been one of the loudest voices in defense of the human rights of indigenous communities in the region.
While his death was ruled a suicide, local activists, media, and Catholics aren’t satisfied. They’ve called an investigation into his death, charging that foul play was involved, and noting that K’Okal was high-profile defender of the Warao people, a local indigenous group that has been suffering attacks by the human trafficking wing of Venezuela’s organized crime network.
Fr. K’Okal was known by local indigenous people in northeastern Venezuela as “Bare Mekoro” — the “Black Father.”
And the death of Bare Mekoro, local activists told The Pillar, is covered by a cloud of suspicion.
The priest was a member of the Missionaries of the Consolata. On Jan. 1, he left the order’s provincial residence in Tucupita, a city of 100,000 in the swampy Orinoco River Delta. Members of the order say K’Okal didn’t inform them where he was going, which was not unusual.
When he left the house, the priest left his wallet and cell phone at home.
People from nearby towns say they say Fr. K’Okal on his bike around 10:00 that morning, greeting people from the Janokosebe community, and making small talk with some soldiers at a checkpoint in the area.
But it’s not clear what happened next, or where K’Okal went.
When he didn’t return home that night, members of his order noticed, and called the police. A search began immediately.
The next morning - Jan. 2 - K’Okal’s body was found by ranchers who were walking their cattle in a wooded area in Guara, about an hour from his home in Tucupita.
The priest’s body was hanging from a mango tree, in an apparent suicide.
At first, it looked like an open-and-shut case.
Douglas Rico, the director of a government investigation agency, said that a piece of rope from K’Okal’s house matched the rope found with his body. And the agency said that it had spoken with people who knew K’Okal — taking numbers from his phone — who had said the priest suffered from depression.
But soon alarm bells started ringing.
First, activists claimed that while Rico had announced that an autopsy would be performed on K'Okal's body, his agency never confirmed whether the autopsy was performed, or whether its results would be made public. Some of the priest’s supporters requested an independent autopsy, but none was performed.
And while few have spoken out, sources close to the priest have told The Pillar that aspects of the body’s discovery are inconsistent with suicide, and suggest that his body may have been planted in the woods to be discovered later.
“His shoes were clean when they got the body, which makes no sense if it was found in the middle of the woods, they should be full of mud,” said a person close to K’Okal, who requested anonymity for the sake of safety.
“Also, his clothes were not covered in dirt either, which indicates that he did not climb the mango tree to hang himself,” he added.
“If you've ever seen a mango tree, you know that you can't climb it without getting dirty because it's so tall. Nor was there any means by which he could climb, like a ladder or something like that,” the source added.
Sources also commented on the priest’s wallet and cell phone. While government spokesmen suggested that K’Okal’s decision to leave them at home could indicate that he planned to die by suicide. But a source close to K’Okal said there was nothing unusual about his decision to leave them at home.
“Whenever he went out on his bicycle to visit families and greet people in the area, he left without a phone and without his ID, there is nothing strange about that,” he said.
“He went out alone with his Bible and his bicycle.”
Furthermore, activists and people who knew him deny that K'Okal had shown signs of depression.
“He had recently committed to Fe y Alegría to produce a radio program with our station in Puerto Ayacucho for 2024. He was giving workshops and scheduling talks that he was going to give. A suicidal person does not make plans for the future,” said another person who knew K’Okal.
The priest was born Sept. 7, 1969, in Kenya. He was a marathon runner before discovering his vocation to the Missionaries of the Consolata, a congregation he joined in 1993. He was ordained a priest in 1997 after studying theology in London.
K’Okal was sent as a missionary to Venezuela soon after his ordination. He lived first in Barlovento, an area with with a population of heavily African descent, about one hour from Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. He lived next in Barquisimeto, and in 2005 arrived in Tucupita, where he would remain until his death.
Tucupita is the capital of the Delta Amacuro state and seat of the Apostolic Vicariate of Tucupita, one of the three apostolic vicariates of Venezuela, all located in the eastern part of the country, near the Amazon jungle. and populated mostly by dozens of different indigenous communities, with different languages, cultures and traditions.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Tucupita has just 11 priests and 4 parishes for an area of 15,000 square miles.
According to those who knew him, K'Okal became very comfortable among the Waraos of the Delta Amacuro.
“They considered him one of them. There are certain meetings to which they do not allow anyone who was not a Warao to enter, but they allowed him,” an activist who worked with K’Okal told The Pillar.
In addition his Spanish fluency, the priest learned the Warao language, which was particularly difficult because it is an isolated language, not related to any other indigenous language in the area.
“K’Okal spoke Warao better than many Waraos, even. He was one of them,” the activist told The Pillar.
As they accepted him into their community, the Warao people began to call him Bare Mekoro, an affectionate nickname he relished.
Eventually, K’Okal became a Venezuelan national and received certification from the Ministry of Education to be a teacher, teaching English to local children.
“Now many of those first children who were his students are English teachers in local schools,” the activist told The Pillar.
K'Okal also completed degrees in human rights and in 2022 earned a masters degree in anthropology; his thesis focused on the Waraos displaced to Brazil amid an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
But as that crisis worsened, K'Okal became a spokesperson for the abuses and hardships suffered by the Waraos---and gained powerful enemies.
K’Okal publicly denounced the trafficking and mass sterilization of indigenous women, along with the overcrowding in refugee camps on the Brazilian side of the border.
And because of his outspokenness, some activists think the place where K’Okal’s body was found is significant.
“The area where they found his body is very close to the streams through which [traffickers] take boats with children and women, victims of sex trafficking, to Trinidad and Tobago,” said an activist who worked with the priest.
“Father K’Okal had been denouncing this for a long time, and even rescuing children before they were taken out of Venezuela to be trafficked,” he added.
“This is what makes us fear that his death was not a suicide,” he said.
Another activist remembered that K’Okal had been warned before his death.
“He never told me that he had received death threats, but he did say that once a person from these mafia groups told him to be careful, that he could get into trouble,” the activist said.
“K’Okal’s situation is the same as that experienced by many defenders of indigenous rights in Venezuela, who are persecuted for defending their rights. K’Okal made forceful denunciations about drug trafficking and human trafficking in the region,” he explained.
“The mafia criminals in the area trick people from the Warao communities into going to Trinidad. They promise supposedly good jobs, but when they arrived in Trinidad they are subjected to sexual slavery or forced to traffic drugs,” said the activist.
Supporters of the Fr. K’Okal have requested that the Venezuelan government approve an impartial investigation into the priest’s death, including an independent autopsy, because of “reasonable doubts” about the prospect of his suicide, according to a statement published by several human rights organizations in Venezuela.
Some observers have raised concern that government investigators covered up the priest’s death, because of the penetration of criminal groups into the structure of the Venezuelan government — whether through bribery or fear.
In 2020, a prosecutor was arrested in Delta Amacuro for drug trafficking, and in 2022 another prosecutor was arrested for gasoline smuggling.
Several criminal groups, among them the Barrancas Union and the River Pirates, are dedicated to fuel smuggling, illegal gold trafficking, drug trafficking, human trafficking and extortion, often bribing authorities in the area to allow them to continue their activities. In other regions, criminal gangs have waged military force against government authorities, such that authorities have lost control of entire regions.
The Delta Amacuro region is laden of river channels surrounded by jungle, known mostly only to the Waraos. That terrain has made the area a hotspot of crime, and made the Waraos a frequent target of gangs who commit crimes in the region.
Despite the deep humanitarian crisis affecting Venezuela, a country governed by a socialist dictatorship, the Church has never been the focus of government repression.
“If Father K’Okal was murdered, it would probably be the first public case of a priest murdered in Venezuela for exercising his ministry since the return of democracy to the country in 1958,” explained a Venezuelan Catholic journalist, who has worked in the country for nearly 50 years.
But the priest’s death could be a sign of the times to come for the hundreds of priests in Venezuela dedicated to social activism and the defense of human rights, especially in vulnerable communities.
“Those of us who knew K’Okal believe that he was a flesh and blood saint; he was a wonderful man,” said an activist who worked closely with the priest.
“He was a beloved man, a happy man, a holy man, who came to Venezuela and fell in love with this country,” he added.
“Fr. K’Okal taught us to love our people, our culture. He was the salt and light of our people, he transmitted to us the light of the Word of God and the salt of the joy that he spread wherever he went,” said one of member of the Warao community, in a reflection given at his funeral.