(Washington, DC) – Venezuelan intelligence and security forces have detained and tortured military personnel accused of plotting against the government, Human Rights Watch and the Venezuelan nongovernmental group Foro Penal said today. Authorities have also detained and tortured the family members of some suspects in an effort to determine their whereabouts.
Some detainees were subjected to egregious abuses that amount to torture to force them to provide information about alleged conspiracies. In most cases, members of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) or the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) carried out the arrests.
“The Venezuelan government has brutally cracked down on members of the military accused of plotting against it,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Not only are intelligence agents detaining and torturing members of the military, in some cases they are also going after their families or other civilians when they can’t find the suspects.”
The groups analyzed information about cases involving a total of 32 people. Victims include military officers from different ranks accused of plotting against the government and civilians accused of collaborating with Oscar Pérez, a rogue police official who was killed after opposing the government.
In some cases, family members, including the son, the mother, the father, or the partner of suspects were detained to find out the whereabouts of the alleged plotters. Some were subject to serious abuse.
Intelligence agents subjected several detainees to physical and psychological abuse. The abuses include brutal beatings, asphyxiation, cutting soles of their feet with a razor blade, electric shocks, food deprivation, forbidding them to go to the bathroom, and death threats. Several detainees did not have access to their families or lawyers for days. During their detention in prisons or military intelligence headquarters, they did not have access to adequate medical treatment.
The crimes for which they are accused include “treason” and “instigating rebellion.” Lawyers representing the accused, who had access to judicial files and hearings in these cases including some prosecutions of civilians in military courts, said the charges were fabricated and not supported by any real evidence.
Given the difficulty of accessing judicial files in these cases, and that some court documents cannot be legally shared with people who are not parties to the case, it is not possible to comment on the evidence presented by prosecutors in every case. Human Rights Watch asked the Venezuelan government to describe the actions on which the charges were based, and what evidence it had against suspects in these cases, but received no response.
Research by Human Rights Watch and Foro Penal shows that the cases reviewed follow the same pattern of torture and abuse against detainees by Venezuelan police officers, intelligence agents, and members of the Bolivarian National Guard that the groups have documented since 2014.
These are not isolated cases. In reports published in 2014 and 2017, Human Rights Watch found widespread abuses by members of security forces. In each report, Human Rights Watch concluded that the evidence supported the conclusion that the abuses were part of a systematic practice by the Venezuelan security forces. Between the 2014 and 2017 crackdowns, Human Rights Watch documented other cases of politically motivated prosecutions in which detainees were also abused in detention, including torture.
Since 2014, Human Rights Watch has documented more than 380 cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against government opponents or perceived opponents, including at least 31 cases of torture in Venezuela. Foro Penal said that at least 15 percent of those detained for political motives told them they had suffered torture or mistreatment. These cases do not reflect the full scope of the problem, due to underreporting by victims who fear retaliation.
More than 12,800 people have been arrested since 2014 in connection with anti-government protests, according to Foro Penal. These include demonstrators, bystanders, and people taken from their homes without warrants. More than 7,500 have been conditionally released but remain subject to criminal prosecution. Since 2017, military courts have prosecuted more than 800 civilians, in violation of international human rights law.
No official information has been made available about prosecutions of officials implicated in human rights violations, if there have been any, since the pro-government Constituent Assembly fired Luisa Ortega Díaz, then the attorney general, in August 2017. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported in June 2018 that impunity for human rights abuses in Venezuela is “pervasive.”
In February, the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced a preliminary examination to analyze whether crimes occurring within the court’s jurisdiction have taken place and if a full ICC investigation is warranted. Her office’s annual report on preliminary examinations, published in December, stated that while the examination is focused on alleged abuses since 2017, the office may also include in the preliminary examination related alleged crimes since February 2014.
In an unprecedented move, in September, six countries from the Americas – all ICC members – requested an ICC investigation of alleged crimes in Venezuela since February 2014. Other governments from the region and Europe have supported this referral. The ICC prosecutor will need to determine whether the court’s requirements for a full investigation are met.
“Impunity for human rights crimes in Venezuela is deliberate,” said Gonzalo Himiob Santomé, Foro Penal director. “In a context in which those responsible for human rights abuses are more likely to be rewarded than brought to justice, it is critical to explore avenues to hold them accountable abroad.”
Selected cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch and Foro Penal are described below.
José Alberto Marulanda Bedoya, 53, surgeon
On May 19, 2018, armed officers without official identification arrived at the home of Emmy Mirella Da Costa Venegas, an Army sergeant whom they accused of participating in an anti-government conspiracy. She was not there, but they detained her partner, José Alberto Marulanda Bedoya. The officers, whom the family believed belonged to military intelligence, said only that Marulanda was “required” by authorities and took him away.
Marulanda’s family and lawyers did not know his whereabouts until he was taken before a military court five days later, though the law requires a first hearing within 48 hours, said Foro Penal, who defended him. Marulanda was accused of treason and instigating rebellion for discussing “conspiracy plans against the Venezuelan government” during an alleged meeting in Colombia with Colonel Oswaldo García Palomo, a Venezuelan accused of being in Colombia with the support of the United States and Colombian governments. Marulanda denies that such a meeting took place and says he does not know Colonel García Palomo, and there is no evidence that he does, his lawyers said.
Marulanda was accused of bringing to Venezuela telecommunications materials that García Palomo gave him to be distributed by Da Costa and used for the conspiracy. The judge only accepted the instigating rebellion charge, for which Marulanda is currently under investigation and remains under arrest, his lawyers said.
Marulanda told his lawyers that he had been held at DGCIM headquarters, where he was severely abused to force him to reveal Da Costa’s whereabouts. He said that officers brutally beat him on the stomach and back, attempted to asphyxiate him with a plastic bag, used a metal bar to hit the bottom of his feet, and forced him to wear tight cuffs, making him lose feeling in his hands. They beat him so severely on the head, he said, that he lost hearing in his right ear.
His arrest warrant is dated May 24, five days after his arrest, his lawyer said.
Since the hearing, Marulanda has been held at the Ramo Verde military prison. His lawyer says that he has difficulty sleeping, suicidal thoughts, hypertension, and physical consequences from the beatings. Since no medical treatment for his needs is available in the prison, his lawyer asked the military court to ensure Marulanda had access to the medical care he needs, but the court never responded.
The judge postponed the preliminary hearing, during which the prosecutor is supposed to present evidence against him, six times because guards had not taken Marulanda to court. The first hearing finally took place in December, and the case is ongoing.
Juan Antonio Gómez (pseudonym), 46
On January 14, 2018, more than 30 masked DGCIM agents burst into the home of Juan Antonio Gómez, Gómez said in a letter he gave to his lawyers that Human Rights Watch reviewed. He said the agents threatened to kill people in his household, including a 7-year-old girl.
Gómez provided taxi services and was accused of helping Oscar Pérez, a rogue police officer who threw an alleged grenade from a helicopter to the Supreme Court building in Caracas after calling on the Venezuelan people to rebel against the government. On January 15, Pérez and six others were killed after security forces and members of an armed pro-government group surrounded a house where they were hiding in the town of El Junquito, near Caracas. Strong evidence exists that suggests Pérez may have been extrajudicially executed, including videos in which he said he would surrender and a copy of his death certificate, saying the cause of his death was a single shot in his head that fractured his skull.
The officers pointed a gun at Gómez’s chest and told him he was being detained, he wrote. When he asked if they had a warrant, the officers said to shut up. They beat him in the stomach, handcuffed him, and stole cell phones, cash, a laptop, and passports from the home, he said.
The officers placed Gómez in an unofficial vehicle, he said, where they beat him and threatened to kill him. The beatings allegedly continued inside military intelligence headquarters, where officers blindfolded him, beat and kicked him in the ribs and back, and forced him to lie down on the floor, then cut the soles of his feet with a razor blade. Later, while one officer beat him, another placed a bag on his face, attempting to asphyxiate him. Gómez said they repeated this form of torture at least eight times. They also shoved a piece of cloth in his mouth and gave him electric shocks.
According to Gómez, then an officer said, “Here we have your wife, who is a bitch!” They brought his wife into the room, forced her to lie down next to him, beat her, and applied “the same torture methods,” except for the razor blades, he said.
They tortured him for two days, Gómez said. “It reached a point where I couldn’t feel anything,” he wrote.
They also threatened to find his children, whom they knew were in Peru, and demanded Oscar Pérez’s whereabouts.
On January 19, Gómez was taken before a military judge and charged with treason, military rebellion, and stealing weapons from the Armed Forces, said Foro Penal lawyers who defended him. They said the prosecutors did not explain what actions of Gómez’s constituted such crimes.
After the hearing, the military intelligence agents returned Gómez to their headquarters, even though a judge had ordered him detained in another prison, Gómez wrote. The agents told him that his wife remained in detention and was being tortured. One night, he said, they took him out to drive around the city with his face covered. The car suddenly stopped, and they ordered him out. Gómez refused, saying they should kill him inside the vehicle, and they held a gun to his chest, threatening to kill him. Instead, they returned him to DGCIM headquarters, where officers beat him and demanded his bank password.
They moved him to the Ramo Verde military prison on January 24, where he spent 10 days without seeing his lawyers and 25 days without access to his family, his letter said.
Prosecutors formally accused him on February 28. The judge postponed his preliminary hearing eight times because Gómez was not taken to the courthouse. His preliminary hearing took place in December. He was conditionally released on December 19, but his case is ongoing.
Ariana Granadillo Roca, 21, medical student
On February 2, 2018, DGCIM officials detained Ariana Granadillo Roca. They took her with two family members from the home where she was living, which belonged to Colonel García Palomo, a distant family member and military officer investigated by the Venezuelan government for alleged conspiracy. Granadillo, who lived in Río Chiquito, a rural community in Monagas state, was staying there to be close to Victorino Santaella Hospital, where she was doing an internship.
In detention, officers taped folders to her head to block her vision, beat her, and touched various parts of her body, demanding to be told García Palomo’s whereabouts. She was released two days later without explanation.
On May 24, military intelligence agents detained Granadillo again, without a judicial order, this time with her parents, at the parents’ home in Miranda state. The authorities held them incommunicado, not confirming their whereabouts to Foro Penal lawyers for a week.
Agents abused Granadillo to compel her to disclose García Palomo’s whereabouts. They placed a bag over Granadillo’s head, tied her hands behind her back, and held her legs. When Granadillo told them she did not have any information to provide, they held a bag over head until she nearly lost consciousness.
Granadillo and her parents were released on May 31 without charges.
On June 23, investigative police officers took Granadillo off a bus. They said they had an arrest warrant for her, but it was dated May 27, when Granadillo was being held by DGCIM agents, Granadillo’s lawyer said. Granadillo was first held in a prison, then transferred to military intelligence headquarters in Caracas.
On July 3, Granadillo was taken before a military court and charged with instigating rebellion, Foro Penal said. Granadillo was accused of having phone conversations with García Palomo’s wife and receiving money from her. Granadillo told her lawyer that she had regular contact via phone with García Palomo’s wife while she lived in her home and the only money she got from her was for expenses to care for the owners’ dogs. She was conditionally released, but cannot leave the country, and is required to check in with the court every eight days.
Carlos Alberto Mora Álvarez, 50
On May 22, 2018, six SEBIN agents detained Carlos Alberto Mora Álvarez without showing a warrant, saying that he would be taken for an “investigation,” said his lawyer, who spoke to Mora in detention and to his wife, who was there. Mora Álvarez is a taxi driver who lives in Táchira state, near the border with Colombia, and provides transportation to Venezuelans who want to travel to Colombia.
His family was not able to see him after he arrived at SEBIN headquarters in San Cristóbal, Táchira State. His wife saw agents take him out of the agency’s headquarters that evening, and he later told his lawyer that they took him to a tennis club, where a doctor, who was playing tennis, was supposed to evaluate his physical condition. Mora Álvarez told his lawyer that the interview lasted 10 minutes and consisted of a few questions about whether he had been beaten.
That evening, SEBIN agents handed him over to armed and hooded DGCIM agents, who transferred him to their offices in San Cristóbal, said his Foro Penal lawyer, who spoke with him. When he arrived, they placed a black hood over his head and beat and attempted to asphyxiate him for six hours as they interrogated him.
The next day, DGCIM agents flew him to Caracas and took him to their headquarters, where agents beat him with a wooden board. He said that several times officers beat him with a wooden stick on his naked buttocks as he showered. They did not feed him for four days.
On May 27, they took him to a military court, where he was charged, together with Marulanda, with treason and instigating rebellion. Intelligence agents accused him of providing taxi services to Colonel García Palomo. The following day, the agents transferred him to Ramo Verde military prison, where he spent 12 days in a tiny punishment cell.
On July 12, the court authorized his conditional release. He cannot leave the country, participate in demonstrations, or speak about his case to national or international outlets and is required to check in with the courts every 30 days, his lawyer said.
Luis Hernando Lugo Calderón, 33 and Carlos José Esquerda Martínez, 32
On October 11, 2018, First Lieutenant Luis Hernando Lugo Calderón and First Lieutenant Carlos José Esquerda Martínez were released from prison after nearly four years, accused of participating in an alleged 2015 attempted coup.
While Lugo Calderón was picking up his personal belongings from prison, hooded and armed SEBIN agents burst into his home saying they needed him to answer some questions, said his sister, who lives abroad. They returned a few hours later and detained his mother. She and her partner, who had gone to look for her, were held at DGCIM headquarters in Maracay for several hours. The agents stole telephones, money, and perfume, the family said. That same day, other military intelligence agents searched Lugo Calderón’s girlfriend’s home.
On October 14, DGCIM agents burst into the house where Lugo Calderón was staying and detained him, his father, his girlfriend, and the house’s owner, a friend, without presenting a judicial order, the sister said. Agents told him that they wished they had found firearms in his home so they could justify executing him, he said. The others were forced to sign a document saying they would not speak about the case for 10 years on pain of being accused of “espionage” and “treason” for “sharing information with the enemy,” then released that day.
Lugo Calderón was held in a cold cell in agency headquarters in Caracas, where agents denied him water and food for days, forcing him to drink water from the toilet. He was only allowed to go to the bathroom twice a day. On November 15, he was transferred to Ramo Verde military prison. Agents there have told his family that he is not a “prisoner” and does not need a lawyer because he is under investigation. Lugo Calderón told his girlfriend he has had suicidal thoughts.
Between October 11 and 14, DGCIM and SEBIN agents raided Esquerda Martínez’s home, harassed his wife, and detained his father and a cousin for several hours in separate incidents, asking about Esquerda Martínez’s whereabouts. Agents stole money, toys, a TV, and liquor from the home, said his brother, who lives abroad. Esquerda Martínez fled the country, his brother said.
Lorenzo Pérez (pseudonym), 31 and his wife Lidia González (pseudonym), 38
Former Army Sergeant Lorenzo Pérez and his wife, former Army Sergeant Lidia González, said they had each been discharged from the military for criticizing the government.
In February 2018, when Pérez was shopping for food, a friend and fellow soldier told him not to go home. Agents from SEBIN and the DGCIM were waiting for him, the friend warned. Pérez heeded the advice.
But when the authorities could not find Pérez, members of the Bolivarian National Guard took away the couple’s 18-year-old son. Authorities held him for three months in a high-security prison, his parents said, beating him and demanding to know where his father was.
During this time, Pérez and González said, they lived in hiding and sold their belongings to raise funds to try to get their son out of jail and to feed their other three children. The family’s diet was mostly yucca and cheap rice intended for animals, they said. Pérez and González ate only one meal a day. They said their son eventually was charged with participating in a “boycott” and conditionally released pending trial on April 12. The judge ordered him to appear periodically before the court.
Pérez and González fled to Colombia. Upon arrival, Pérez, who is 5-foot-3 inches (1.61 meters) tall, weighed 42 kilograms (92 pounds).
Luis Alejandro Mogollón Velázquez, 32
In March 2017, DGCIM officials detained Lieutenant Luis Alejandro Mogollón Velázquez while he was working at the Fuerte Tiuna base in Caracas. The officers were looking for someone with the last name “Mogollón Medina” and did not present an arrest warrant, he told the Foro Penal lawyers who defended him.
Mogollón Velázquez said that even though he told the DGCIM officials his name did not match, they held him cuffed to a chair for nine days, brutally beat him on the head and body, and hanged him from the ceiling by his hands and feet, demanding information about others in his group, according to his lawyer.
He was taken before a military court on April 14, 2017, and charged with treason, military rebellion, and instigating rebellion. His lawyer said that the prosecutor has only made a general statement that Mogollón Velázquez was involved in conspiracy but has not set forth specific factual allegations to support the claim. The preliminary hearing, during which the prosecutor is supposed to present evidence against him, has been postponed 26 times.
Mogollón Velázquez had already been suffering from hypertension, the after-effects of a fractured skull from falling from a moving vehicle, and childhood cancer. His lawyer asked the military judge to ensure he had access to appropriate medical care, since it was unavailable where he was being held, but the judge did not respond, his lawyer said.
Henry José Medina Gutiérrez, 44; Igbert José Marín Chaparro, 40; Tamara González (pseudonym), 36
On March 2, 2018, a superior officer called Henry José Medina Gutiérrez at home, his wife told Human Rights Watch, ordering him to meet with a high-level member of the army. Military intelligence agents detained Medina Gutiérrez when he arrived at the Defense Ministry in Caracas. Igbert José Marín Chaparro was also arrested that day, his wife told Human Rights Watch, at Fuerte Tiuna, a military base where he was stationed.
The same day, an Army sergeant, Tamara González, was told to return from medical leave. SEBIN agents arrested her when she arrived at the military base in Táchira state, her duty station, her lawyer said. González was Medina Gutiérrez’s assistant. About 20 other members of the military were also detained that day.
Authorities released some of them, but transferred nine – including Medina Gutiérrez, Marín Chaparro, and González – to the DGCIM offices in Caracas.
There, an official blocked Medina Guererro’s sight with a military hat, causing her to stumble and roll down a staircase, she told her lawyer. She said two hooded female agents called her “bitch” and “traitor,” beat her, and placed a hood with teargas on her face, causing a burning sensation, until she fainted. She was not allowed to use the bathroom or to take her epilepsy medication.
The lawyer said she asked the military judge to authorize medical treatment González needs for several conditions, including back problems, but the judge did not. Her lawyer later had access to her arrest warrant, dated March 7 – five days after arrest.
Agents beat and kicked other detainees, Marín Chaparro told his wife. They kept him handcuffed and hooded in a chair for 72 hours. They teargassed him inside the hood, his wife said, and demanded the name of his “leader.” They spoke of his wife and sons’ names, which he took as an implicit threat.
Medina Gutiérrez, too, was seated in a chair with his hands cuffed behind his back, his wife said. Agents beat him severely, leaving bruises visible to her days later. They broke another detainee’s ribs, he told her.
During that first week in detention, Medina Gutiérrez and Marín Chaparro were allowed no contact with lawyers or family members, their family members said. They were not allowed to bathe or change clothes.
On March 9, the nine were taken before a military court and charged with treason, instigating a rebellion, and violating military decorum. The 7 p.m. hearing lasted eight hours. Alonso Medina Roa provided legal counsel to Marín Chaparro and Medina Gutiérrez. Mariana Ortega, who is a member of Foro Penal, provided legal counsel to González.
The judge ordered them transferred to military prisons, though Marín Chaparro was still in the DGCIM offices in Caracas as of December.
For 65 days, Marín Chaparro’s family and lawyers were unable to see or talk to him. When they finally saw him, he had lost 15 kilos (about 35 pounds). He told them that he had seen sunlight only on the two days he was taken to court, that guards regularly failed to give him his medicines for high blood pressure, and that he ate and defecated into a bag in his three-by-two-meter cell. Family visits were suspended or cancelled on several occasions, his wife said.
Medina Gutiérrez spent three months in the overcrowded Santa Ana Prison, sleeping on a bunk bed in a hallway. DGCIM agents raided the prison, he told his wife, stealing detainees’ food and belongings. He said they separated Medina Gutiérrez and a lieutenant from the rest of the prison population and forced them to kneel at gunpoint for hours, threatening to kill them.
On June 16, agents transferred him to Ramo Verde military prison, in Caracas, where he spent four days with 10 other detainees in a three-by-two-meter “punishment” cell, he told his wife. He said that the 11 prisoners ate, urinated, and defecated there.
At the preliminary hearing in August, the presiding judge dropped the treason charge but kept the others. In some cases, he only kept the instigating rebellion charge.
The detainees are accused of belonging to a group that was allegedly plotting against the government. They also were accused of filming a video calling on armed forces members to participate in a “military conspiracy movement,” which would be shared through social media, González’s lawyer said. The Foro Penal lawyer said that there is no evidence corroborating these accusations nor that the video exists.
No date has been set for the trial.