In April 2017, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Venezuela to protest against the government-controlled Supreme Court’s attempt to usurp the powers of the country’s legislative branch. Demonstrations quickly spread throughout the country and continued for months, fueled by widespread discontent with the authoritarian practices of President Nicolás Maduro and the humanitarian crisis that has devastated the country under his watch.
The government responded with widespread violence and brutality against anti-government protesters and detainees, and has denied detainees’ due process rights. While it was not the first crackdown on dissent under Maduro, the scope and severity of the repression in 2017 reached levels unseen in Venezuela in recent memory.
Security forces and armed pro-government groups attacked protesters in the streets, using extreme and at times lethal force, causing dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. Authorities detained thousands of protesters and bystanders, many of whom have been subsequently prosecuted in military courts.
The crackdown has extended beyond the protests, with government intelligence agents pulling people from their homes or detaining them on the streets even when no demonstrations were taking place.
Once detained, government agents have subjected opponents to abuses ranging from severe beatings to torture involving electric shocks, asphyxiation, and other techniques.
This joint report by Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum, based on in-country research, documents 88 cases involving at least 314 people who were victims of serious human rights violations during the crackdown between April and September 2017. These abuses were committed by different security forces and armed pro-government groups known as colectivos in Caracas and 13 states—Anzoátegui, Aragua, Carabobo, Barinas, Bolivar, Lara, Mérida, Miranda, Monagas, Sucre, Táchira, Vargas, and Zulia.
While Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum have, to date, been unable to determine the full scope of human rights violations committed during the crackdown, our research shows that the abuses were not isolated cases or the result of excesses by rogue security force members. On the contrary, the fact that widespread abuses by members of security forces were carried out repeatedly, by multiple security forces, in multiple locations across 13 states and the capital—including in controlled environments such as military installations and other state institutions—over the six-month period covered by this report, supports the conclusion that the abuses have been part of a systematic practice by the Venezuelan security forces.
Our findings are broadly consistent with those of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which in August 2017 reported “the existence of a policy to repress political dissent and instill fear in the population to curb demonstrations” in Venezuela. In its report, the OHCHR stated that it found “a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators,” as well as “patterns of other human rights violations, including violent house raids, torture and ill-treatment of those detained in connection with the protests.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence of human rights violations, we found no evidence that key high-level officials—including those who knew or should have known about the abuses—have taken any steps to prevent and punish violations. On the contrary, they have often downplayed the abuses or issued implausible blanket denials. These high-level officials bear responsibility for pervasive, serious abuses being committed on their watch.
The government has repeatedly blamed the violence on the protesters. There have indeed been credible reports of violence by some protestors, and governments not only have a right but an obligation to bring the perpetrators of such violence to justice. It is, nonetheless, unlikely that any opponent accused of crimes would receive a fair trial today in Venezuela, given the absence of judicial independence in the country.
The violent abuses compiled in this report were not carried out by security force personnel who were under attack or threatened with violence. This report describes acts of torture and other violent brutality carried out against people who were in the custody of security forces, as well as acts of disproportionate violence and deliberate abuse carried out against people at protests, in the streets, and even in their own homes.
During 2017, democratic governments throughout the region and elsewhere have spoken out about the crackdown on peaceful expression and protest in Venezuela. It is urgent that they redouble multilateral pressure on the Venezuelan government to ensure it releases those who were arbitrarily arrested, drops charges in cases in which detainees were subject to politically-motivated prosecutions, and holds accountable those responsible for human rights violations. If the Venezuelan government proves unable or unwilling to do so, they should push for accountability abroad.
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment of Detainees
In 53 cases involving at least 232 people documented in this report, detainees were subjected to physical and psychological abuse, with the apparent purpose of either punishing them or forcing them to incriminate themselves or others. Most of these abuses have been carried out at bases of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB) or headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN). In some of these cases, the abuses suffered by detainees clearly constituted torture.
- Electric shocks;
- Severe beatings;
- Being hung in stress positions;
- Sleep deprivation;
- Asphyxiation; and,
- Sexual abuse, including in some cases rape.
In other cases, security forces have engaged in abuses that included detonating teargas canisters in closed environments where detainees were being held, holding detainees for prolonged periods of time with other detainees in small confinement cells, and denying them access to food or water or forcing them to eat raw pasta mixed with excrement or other food deliberately tainted with cigarette ashes or insects.
Security agents have also denied or failed to provide access to medical treatment to some detainees who had preexisting medical conditions or suffered serious injuries during their arrest and subsequent detention—including being shot with pellets at very close range.
This report describes in detail seven cases of detainees who were tortured. These cases illustrate how far security agents have been willing and able to go to punish or intimidate detainees. It also includes dozens of other cases where victims were subject to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment while in detention, including some that may also rise to the level of torture.
Arbitrary Arrests and Prosecutions
Since early April, more than 5,400 people have been detained in the context of massive anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela, according to data gathered by the Penal Forum.
While those arrested included demonstrators, bystanders, and people filming demonstrations—as had happened during the suppression of protests in 2014—this year saw an increase in the number of detentions carried out by intelligence or security agents in incidents completely unrelated to the protests. Those detained in such cases were political opponents, including lesser known activists, or people whom the government claimed had links to the political opposition. In some of these politically motivated prosecutions, detainees were taken away from homes or arrested hours or days after demonstrations in unrelated incidents.
In most cases of arrests documented by Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum, detaining agents belonged to the GNB, SEBIN, the Bolivarian National Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana, PNB), or state police forces. Often, detainees were not informed of the reasons for their arrests, and sometimes were not told who was detaining them. In some cases, the detentions were carried out by members of armed pro-government groups called colectivos, who then handed over detainees to security forces.
In several cases, those arrested described being driven around and parked in different places for hours—a practice called “spinning around” or “ruletear” in Venezuela—instead of being taken directly to a detention center or before a judge. During this period, security forces often harassed and threatened detainees, at times putting them in armored vehicles and detonating teargas canisters inside the vehicles, rubbing teargas powder on their faces, or subjecting them to heavy beatings. Security agents and members of colectivos sometimes stole such personal belongings as money or cell phones from detainees during arrests.
Many detainees were released without being brought before a judge, but thousands of others were subject to arbitrary prosecutions that lacked the most basic due process guarantees. In addition to those who remain behind bars, according to the Penal Forum, 3,900 people are still subject to arbitrary criminal prosecutions and to precautionary measures that limit their freedom in different ways. At least 757 civilians were prosecuted by military courts, in violation of Venezuelan and international law. Others were brought before civilian courts without adequate access to lawyers or families to face prosecutions based on what they claimed was planted evidence. Dozens remained behind bars for periods of up to several months, despite having a judicial order for their unconditional release or a judicial order for their release on bail.
Excessive Use of Force in the Streets
During the period covered by this report, Venezuelan security forces—including the GNB, the PNB, and state police forces—systematically used excessive force to suppress anti-government protests, often in situations where no use of force appeared to be justifiable. “Colectivos” at times worked alongside Venezuelan security forces to suppress demonstrations.
Security forces have used less-lethal weapons—such as water cannons, teargas, and pellets—in ways that seemed deliberately intended to inflict painful injuries. In other incidents, security force personnel used modified rubber-pellet shotgun shells that instead shot marbles, broken glass, or metal bolts.
The result has been dozens of people dead and hundreds injured, some severely. According to the OHCHR, out of the 124 deaths recorded by the Attorney General’s Office that occurred in the context of anti-government demonstrations until July 31, 2017, security forces were reportedly found to be responsible for at least 46, the colectivos for 27, and 51 cases remained unsolved. The latest figures published by the Attorney General’s Office indicate that, by the end of July, the office was investigating nearly 2,000 cases of people injured during the protests. In more than half of them, the office was investigating alleged violations of fundamental rights.
In many cases, demonstrators or individuals whom authorities believed to be involved in protests were subjected to levels and forms of violence by security forces or colectivos” amounting to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
The Venezuelan government claims that 10 security-force officers died in the context of the demonstrations, and reported several instances of violence against government supporters, including two cases in which the victims were allegedly set on fire and one in which a retired military officer was lynched. Some protesters used rocks, Molotov cocktails, weaponized fireworks, and homemade mortars and explosive devices during clashes with security forces.
All crimes—including those committed against security forces, protesters, and bystanders—require rigorous investigation, and those credibly alleged to have committed crimes should be subject to prosecution by courts that are not under political control by the executive branch and are capable of upholding basic due process guarantees.
Lack of Accountability and the Responsibility of High-level Officials
Since former President Hugo Chávez and his allies in the National Assembly politically took over Venezuela’s Supreme Court in 2004, the judiciary has stopped functioning as an independent branch of government, a check on the abuse of power by the executive branch, and a guarantor of fundamental rights.
In early 2017, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, a former government loyalist, began to visibly distance herself from the government. She openly condemned government abuses, including by security forces, and published official information based on investigations carried out by her office, including data regarding deaths and serious injuries that occurred in the context of demonstrations, until the pro-government Constituent Assembly fired her and replaced her with a government supporter in August.
In early August, the government’s communications ministry said that Ortega Díaz had charged 54 members of security forces with responsibility in 17 deaths. In October, a government representative said that public officials who were responsible for “bad practices” in 16 “isolated cases” had been handed over to the judicial system, without specifying the cases. The representative said that in 16 cases, they presumed responsibility on the part of state security agents, in which 25 officials had been charged, and that 14 civilians had been charged in other cases; she also said that 78 percent of cases were still under investigation.
In October, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum requested updated information from the Venezuelan government on the status of all investigations that are still open, but had received no response at time of publication.
With the exception of Attorney General Ortega Díaz, who seems to have been fired as a result of her open criticism of the government, high-ranking officials do not appear to have taken adequate steps to bring abuses to an end or ensure accountability, nor did they publicly support the efforts by Ortega Díaz to investigate the abuses.
Under international law, the Venezuelan government has an obligation to prevent serious human rights violations, and to investigate and ensure accountability for violations that take place. Government officials who commit or fail to prevent, investigate, and punish torture and other serious violations can and should be held accountable. Venezuela is a State Party to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide, including when committed on territories of state parties.
Some of the key high-level officials in charge of security forces implicated in widespread abuses who have failed to take adequate steps to prevent, investigate, and punish human rights violations committed by their subordinates are:
- President Nicolás Maduro, who is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, which include the Bolivarian National Guard and the General Directorate of Military Counter Intelligence;
- Maj. Gen. José Benavides Torres, the head of the Bolivarian National Guard;
- Chief General Vladimir Padrino López, the defense minister and the strategic operational commander of the Armed Forces;
- Maj. Gen. Néstor Reverol, the interior and justice minister;
- Gen. Carlos Alfredo Pérez Ampueda, director of the Bolivarian National Police;
- Maj. Gen. Gustavo González López, the national intelligence director; and
- Gen. Edgar Rojas Borges, the military attorney general.
This list is not comprehensive and is not meant to exclude other officials who may be directly responsible for human rights violations documented in this report, including those who committed them and others who failed to prevent and punish them.
After years of silence, key international leaders have begun to raise their voices and openly criticize abuses committed by the Venezuelan government. In 2016, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter, produced a series of comprehensive reports on Venezuela’s crisis and convened several public meetings to discuss its compliance with the charter’s provisions. In April 2017, citing the charter, 19 of the 35 OAS member states for the first time expressed “grave concern regarding the unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order” in Venezuela. In several subsequent meetings, foreign affairs ministers of the region addressed and openly criticized the human rights situation in Venezuela.
In August, the “Lima Group”—a coalition of 11 Latin American governments and Canada that is following Venezuela’s crisis closely—condemned the breakdown of democratic order and the systematic violation of human rights in Venezuela. They have carried out periodic meetings to evaluate developments and published several statements since then. Canada and the United States have imposed targeted sanctions on key Venezuelan officials, including on President Nicolás Maduro. The European Union imposed an arms embargo and targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials, including freezing their assets and cancelling visas.
Venezuela was also a priority of the UN Human Rights Council agenda in September. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights presented his office’s report on Venezuela, and many other countries expressed serious concern regarding the human rights and humanitarian crisis in the country. In November, UN Security Council members held a special session to discuss Venezuela’s crisis.
To ensure accountability for and deter the repetition of the human rights abuses documented in this report, it is critically important to redouble international pressure on the Venezuelan government. Specifically:
The Lima Group, the European Union, and other UN Member States should:
- Press the Maduro government to release all people who have been arbitrarily detained, and drop politically-motivated charges against people subject to arbitrary prosecutions; and,
- If they have not done so, impose targeted sanctions against specific Venezuelan officials implicated in grave human rights abuses, including freezing their assets and denying them entry to these countries.
States Parties to the Convention Against Torture should:
- To the extent possible under domestic law, exercise criminal jurisdiction over any Venezuelan authority responsible for torture in accordance with Article 5 of the Convention Against Torture.
The UN Human Rights Council should:
- Ask the OHCHR to continue to closely monitor the situation in Venezuela, and to keep the Council regularly informed;
- Act on the OHCHR call to open an international investigation into human rights violations in Venezuela, which should be conducted with a view toward future prosecutions in competent courts; and,
- Request that the OHCHR or HRC-mandated investigation makes concrete recommendations for restoring judicial independence in the country.
This report is a joint publication of Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum. It is based on interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch researchers with more than 120 people about 88 cases, including 86 alleged victims of human rights abuses or their family members. Other people interviewed were 12 private lawyers affiliated with the Penal Forum who assisted detainees pro-bono (in addition, a thirteenth lawyer provided information in writing), at least 16 medical professionals who attended to people injured during or near demonstrations, four journalists who witnessed the attack on the National Assembly premises, and nine human rights defenders. The Penal Forum reached out to private lawyers who contribute pro-bono to the organization and helped gather the information contained in this report. Its team reviewed and contributed to the report before its publication.
Human Rights Watch conducted a research mission to Venezuela in August 2017, which included visits to Caracas, Aragua state, Carabobo state, Lara state, Mérida state, and Táchira state. Other interviews were conducted via telephone, email, Skype, or text messaging service prior to and following the fact-finding mission. Researchers also interviewed additional victims or lawyers in the states of Anzoátegui, Barinas, Bolivar, Miranda, Monagas, Sucre, Vargas, and Zulia. One interview was carried out in Bogotá.
In Venezuela, researchers conducted interviews with the support of the following local human rights groups: Promedehum in Mérida state, Funpaz in Lara state, and Espacio Público in Caracas.
All those interviewed were informed of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways in which the information would be used. Interviewees were told they could decline to answer questions or end the interview at any time. All provided oral consent to be interviewed. None received compensation for the interviews.
To protect the safety of some victims and family members who testified, we have used pseudonyms to identify them in this report or we have deliberately avoided including details about the date or location in which the abuses occurred. In all such cases, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum have the relevant documentation on file.
In most of the countries where Human Rights Watch works, the practice is to seek meetings with government officials to discuss and seek information and commentary regarding the issues on which it is reporting. This has been our practice in Venezuela as well. Between 2002 and 2007, Human Rights Watch staff held meetings with President Hugo Chávez, senior members of his administration, justices of the Supreme Court, the attorney general, members of the National Assembly, and numerous officials in multiple government agencies.
However, when conducting research for this report, Human Rights Watch deliberately chose not to establish contact with government officials or draw public attention to our presence in the country. This decision was made out of concern for possible repercussions to victims, human rights defenders, and other interviewees; the risk of compromising our ability to conduct the research; and the safety of our staff. We also took into account the Venezuelan government’s decision to detain and expel Human Rights Watch representatives in 2008, and its declaration that our presence would not be “tolerated” in the country.
In October 2017, we sent letters to Venezuelan authorities with an overview of our findings, requesting the government’s perspective and detailed information on the status of investigations into abuses committed by security forces, and investigations into incidents of violence allegedly committed by anti-government protesters or opposition supporters. The letters were addressed to Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, and Interior and Justice Minister Néstor Reverol. A copy of the letter to Arreaza—which is identical to the other two—is included as an annex to this report. At time of writing, we had not received a response.
To present an official perspective, this report uses official data from the Attorney General’s Office compiled until July 31, 2017. We reviewed statistics, reports, and press releases produced by the Attorney General’s Office about alleged violent incidents and human rights violations related to the 2017 protests. We also reviewed statements made by President Maduro and several of his cabinet ministers, the attorney general, and top officials including from the National Bolivarian Police, the Bolivarian National Guard, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services, and members of the National Constituent Assembly. We also conducted an extensive review of news accounts in official media outlets, Twitter feeds of state officials, and other official sources to evaluate the government’s position with respect to specific incidents referred to in this report. Finally, we carefully looked at the government’s own public evaluation of the overall performance of its security forces in the context of protests.
This report is based on information we gathered and reviewed on 88 incidents, referred to hereafter as “cases,” in which individuals described being the victims of human rights violations that include excessive use of force on the streets, arbitrary arrests or prosecutions, or abuses in detention. Many said they were subject to these violations alongside other people, and were direct witnesses to abuses suffered by others. This included abuses committed during arrests and while in detention facilities, as well as due process violations before or during judicial hearings. The 88 cases documented here involve a total of at least 314 victims.
In addition to these cases, we documented six instances of raids or other operations targeting residential buildings in Caracas and four states, in which residents claim dozens more were victims of excessive use of force or arbitrary arrests by security forces and colectivos.
In the vast majority of these cases, the facts described in this report are based on testimonies provided directly to researchers by the victims, or by eyewitnesses or relatives in cases where victims are still in detention or were killed.
In 30 of the cases, we also reviewed additional evidence—such as photographs, video footage, medical reports, judicial rulings, or other testimony—that corroborated the accounts we received. In three of those cases, we observed first-hand and photographed physical injuries that the victims said had been inflicted by security forces. In Venezuela’s military courts, access to judicial files is nearly impossible, and in civilian courts, obtaining copies of such documents is extremely difficult.
This report bases its assessments of the credibility of victims and witnesses on careful review of corroborating evidence when available, as well as on whether the detailed accounts provided by the victim, family members, eyewitnesses, or lawyers were consistent, both internally and with patterns and practices documented in other cases. We did not include in the report those cases where we found inconsistencies or implausible and uncorroborated assertions.
A list and brief description of the 88 cases we documented can be found in the annex at the end of the report. Not all these cases are included in the text of the report, and those included are not described with the same level of detail.
In early 2014, the Venezuelan government responded to massive anti-government protests with brutal force. For several weeks, security forces used excessive force against unarmed protesters and bystanders. Government forces also tolerated and sometimes collaborated directly with armed pro-government gangs that attacked protesters with impunity. Detainees were often held incommunicado on military bases for 48 hours or more before being presented to a judge, and in some cases, suffered abuses including severe beatings, electric shocks or burns, and being forced to squat or kneel without moving for hours.
In the vast majority of cases, no one has been brought to justice for these abuses—nor for other sporadic abuses committed against protesters and opponents in subsequent years.
On March 29, 2017, the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which is under the political control of the government, effectively shut down Congress, the only official institution that remained independent of executive control, by ruling that it would assume all legislative powers itself or choose some other institution to delegate them to. Two days earlier, the court had ruled that a statement of support to the Organization of American States by the legislature may constitute treason and warned that the legislators responsible would not enjoy parliamentary immunity.
These rulings received widespread condemnation both nationally and internationally. In a surprising move, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, who until then had been a loyal supporter of the regime, publicly challenged the Supreme Court’s decisions, which she called a “rupture of constitutional order.”
In response to this backlash, President Maduro instructed the Supreme Court to reconsider its rulings. The court promptly complied, partially reversing these controversial decisions.
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court rulings motivated many more Venezuelans to take to the streets, demanding the reestablishment of the full powers of the opposition-led National Assembly. Protestors also called on the government to hold free and fair elections, release political prisoners, reestablish judicial independence, and address the humanitarian crisis that Venezuelans are facing.
The turnout for the anti-government demonstrations was massive and protests quickly spread throughout the country, almost on a daily basis. The government’s response was a crackdown involving widespread abuses, including those detailed in this report. Despite the overwhelming evidence of human rights violations, there is no indication that key high-level officials—including those who knew or should have known about the abuses—have taken any steps to prevent and punish violations. On the contrary, they have often downplayed the abuses or issued implausible blanket denials. In an isolated instance, in June, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López acknowledged for the first time that National Guard members had committed abuses.
On May 1, President Nicolás Maduro announced that his government would organize elections to establish a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. (The announcement came after months of delaying elections for governors, which the Constitution mandated for 2016). The executive decree establishing the new body granted it broad powers, including to conduct a “reorganization of the state that recaptures the constitutional principle of cooperation of public powers” (instead of protecting the separation of powers) and the possibility to “expand the powers of the justice system to eradicate impunity” for crimes including “crimes against the Fatherland,” “terrorism,” and “foreign interference” to protect Venezuela from “foreign intervention.” The Supreme Court subsequently upheld Maduro’s proposal, validated the proposed rules to elect pro-government members to the Constituent Assembly, and rejected challenges to the process filed by Attorney General Ortega Díaz.
Despite widespread opposition in Venezuela and criticism from abroad, the government moved forward with the election of Constituent Assembly members on July 30. The company hired by the government to oversee the election later concluded that the turnout figures were tampered with and estimated that actual voter turnout was likely one million less than officially reported. The Constituent Assembly’s first moves were to remove Attorney General Ortega Díaz from office, appoint Tarek William Saab, a government loyalist who served as Venezuela’s Human Rights Ombudsman, as the new attorney general, and take over the National Assembly’s powers.
Venezuelan Security Forces
The security forces mentioned in this report include the following:
Bolivarian National Guard (GNB)
The Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB) is part of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, together with the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Militia. While the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force have primary responsibility for conducting military operations to protect national defense, the GNB’s primary responsibility is “conducting required operations to ensure internal order of the country.” (The GNB is also charged with cooperating with other Armed Forces units in protecting national defense.) On June 20, 2017, President Maduro—who is the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces—asked that the number of GNB members be increased by 20,000.
General Direction of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM)
The General Direction of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar, DGCIM) is the military counterintelligence agency. Its mission is to carry out, coordinate, and execute all activities required to discover, report, and deter “enemy activity,” as well as to contribute to the security of the Armed Forces and the president. It also serves as an auxiliary body to carry out investigations for both the ordinary and military justice systems.
Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping National Commando (CONAS)
The Anti-extortion and Kidnapping National Commando (Comando Nacional Antiextorsión y Secuestro, CONAS) was created by the Ministry of Defense in 2013 as an elite military force specialized in police investigation to combat the crimes of extortion and kidnapping. In 2015, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said CONAS acts as a rapid intervention unit that “has expanded beyond those two criminal phenomena [extortion and kidnapping],” to include “anti-subversive activities.”
National Bolivarian Police (PNB)
In 2008, the government of Venezuela created the National Bolivarian Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana, PNB). The PNB began operations in 2009, and as of 2017 there were 26,248 PNB officers. On June 20, 2017, President Maduro asked that the number of PNB officers be increased by 20,000.
State and Municipal Police
While the Venezuelan Constitution provides that public security operations will be conducted by a national police force, states and municipalities have, at times, participated in these operations in several cases documented in this report. For example, the report includes cases where members of the police force of the state of Lara, called “Poli-Lara,” or the police forces of the states of Monagas and Merida have participated.
Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigative Police (CICPC)
The Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigative Police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas, CICPC) is charged with carrying out forensic investigations to support the work of prosecutors investigating crimes. Members of the CICPC report to the Ministry of the Interior, Justice, and Peace, who in turn reports to the president.
Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN)
In 2010, then-President Hugo Chávez created the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN) to replace the National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (Dirección Nacional de los Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención, DISIP). Since 2012, SEBIN reports to the Vice-Presidency of Venezuela. Its main responsibilities include “assist[ing] the executive branch in the elaboration of public policies on security,” “plan[ning] and execut[ing] activities to contribute to the Nation's stability and security,” and “perform[ing] activities as an auxiliary body of investigation.”
In Venezuela, the term colectivos was used for a long time to refer to a wide range of social organizations that supported, and, in some cases, helped implement the government’s policies. Many of these groups do not engage in violent behavior.
However, since the 2014 crackdown on protests, the term colectivos has been more commonly used to describe armed pro-government gangs that have attacked protesters, bystanders, or people they believed to be government opponents, often in plain sight of Venezuelan security forces. In cases we have documented since then, the security forces have collaborated with these groups, who at times have detained people before turning them over to security forces. This report uses both terms—“armed pro-government gangs” and colectivos—to refer to groups that carry out violent attacks or detentions that appear to be motivated by loyalty to the government.
The Venezuelan Criminal Justice System
Under Venezuelan criminal law, an individual may be detained as a consequence of a judicial order, or, exceptionally, if caught while committing a crime. The Venezuelan Constitution provides that any person under arrest has the right to communicate immediately with members of his or her family, an attorney, or any other person he or she trusts. These people have the right to be informed where the detainee is being held, to be notified immediately of the reasons for the arrest, and to have a written record inserted into the case file concerning the detainee’s personal integrity.
The detainee is required to be brought before a judge within 48 hours of the detention in what is called a “presentation hearing” (audiencia de presentación). During this hearing, a prosecutor provisionally brings charges (imputar) against the detainee for crimes he or she may have committed, and the judge is responsible for reviewing the legality of the arrest and accepting or rejecting the charges. If the judge accepts the charges, the Attorney General’s Office must open an investigation to determine if it will formally accuse the detainee, which should be completed within 45 days if the person is detained, or within eight months if the person was released after the initial hearing. A failure to charge the detainee within 45 days should result in his or her release.
If the prosecutor moves forward with the accusation, the person accused of committing a crime must be brought again before a judge in what is called a “preliminary hearing” (audiencia preliminar), where both the prosecutor and the defense are required to present preliminary evidence and arguments. The judge then decides whether to shelve the case until new evidence is available to reopen the investigation, dismiss it, or send it to trial.
If the judge decides to move forward with the trial, the person accused of committing a crime should be released on bail or on conditional liberty, or, exceptionally, sent to pre-trial detention. No monetary payment is required for release on bail in Venezuela. Venezuelan law allows judges to release people facing criminal prosecution if they present a guarantor, who may be required to prove that he or she meets a monthly income threshold and who must assure the judge the detainee will present him or herself before the court during the process. Detainees may also be released subject to other requirements, such as presenting him or herself periodically before the courts. In some cases documented for this report, detainees were released on condition that they not speak publicly, to the media or otherwise, about their cases.
Similar criminal procedures are provided for in Venezuelan law for prosecutions by military courts. However, international law provides that civilians should not be prosecuted before military courts. The Venezuelan Constitution, in article 261, limits military jurisdiction to crimes that are of a military nature. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Venezuela ratified in 1978, guarantees the right to a timely trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. In 2015, the Human Rights Committee, the expert body charged with interpreting the ICCPR, called on the Venezuelan government to “adopt the necessary measures to prohibit military courts from trying civilians.” Similarly, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled that military courts should not try civilians.
Arbitrary Arrests and Physical Abuse of Detainees
Since early April, members of different security forces have detained more than 5,300 people in the context of massive anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela. While some detainees may have been implicated in acts of violence, the vast majority were nonviolent demonstrators, bystanders, people filming demonstrations, government opponents, and some taken from their homes because the government claimed they had links to the political opposition. Police arrested some hours or days after demonstrations.
In many cases documented by Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum in which people were taken from their homes or picked up on the street in incidents unrelated to the protests, no search or arrest warrants were produced by detaining agents. Often, detainees were not informed of the reasons for their arrests, or even who was detaining them.
In several cases, those arrested described being driven around for hours—a practice called “spinning around” or “ruletear” in Venezuela—instead of being taken directly to a detention center or before a judge. During these “ruleteos,” security forces often harassed and threatened detainees, at times subjecting them to violent abuses inside the vehicles. Security agents and armed pro-government groups sometimes stole personal belongings, such as money or cell phones, from detainees during arrests.
Hundreds of detainees were released without ever being brought before a judge, but thousands of others were subject to prosecutions that lacked the most basic due-process guarantees. In addition to those who remain behind bars, according to the Penal Forum, 3,900 people are still subject to arbitrary criminal prosecutions and to precautionary measures that limit their freedom in different ways. At least 757 civilians were prosecuted by military courts, while others have been brought before civilian courts—without adequate access to lawyers or families—to face prosecutions, often based on planted evidence. Dozens remained behind bars for periods of up to several months, despite, in some cases, having a judicial order for their unconditional release or a judicial order for their release on bail, and having submitted the required paperwork for their release.
Detainees have been held in high-security prisons, military prisons, or headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN).
In 53 cases involving at least 233 people documented for this report, people were subjected to physical and psychological abuse while in detention, either with the apparent purpose of punishing them, or to force them to incriminate themselves or others.
Some of the abuses suffered by detainees include brutal beatings, electric shocks, exposure to teargas in closed environments, sexual abuse, and being held in small, overcrowded punishment cells called “Little Tigers” (Tigritos). Some detainees were denied access to food or water, while others were given, and sometimes forced to eat food with excrement or cigarette ashes in it. Some detainees who had suffered serious abuse during their arrest and subsequent detention did not have access to medical treatment while in custody. Many were insulted with political epithets, accused of being “guarimberos”—a pejorative term used by government supporters to describe those who participate in opposition demonstrations—or forced to incriminate leaders of the political opposition.
Cases of Detainee Torture
In the following seven cases, the abuses amounted to torture, as defined by international law. They illustrate how far Venezuelan security forces have been willing to go to punish detainees for their real or perceived links with the political opposition, or force them to incriminate themselves or others, including leaders of the political opposition.
Venezuela is a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Degrading and Inhuman Treatments, which prohibits such abuses.
Ernesto Martin (Caracas)
The account below is based on interviews with Ernesto Martin (pseudonym) and his wife, unless noted otherwise in footnotes. Details have been withheld to preserve his anonymity.
In April, a group of plainclothesmen arrived at the home of Martin and identified themselves as members of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar, or DGCIM). The officers told Martin that they had an order to take him in for interrogation. Before taking him away, they allowed Martin to tell his mother he was being arrested, and send his wife a Facebook message letting her know he was being taken for questioning.
The officers placed Martin in a truck and drove him to Caracas, where he was handed over to officers of the DGCIM and taken to a well-lit 2x2 meter room at the DGCIM headquarters. They handcuffed Martin with his arms behind his back, and blindfolded him. They left him there until the early morning, when they took him to another room in the same building where a man wearing the uniform of a Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) captain asked him if he knew why he was there, and told him it was a “grave crime” to “meddle with” the government. The officer was referring to a public statement from the day before in which Martin had criticized the regime.
The GNB captain accused Martin of having links to the opposition and of being a terrorist, and told him, “You receive dollars from the opposition and you will tell us who gave you those dollars.” When Martin said he did not receive any money, the captain said he knew Martin was funded by “Capriles and Leopoldo”—two prominent opposition leaders—slapped his face, and ordered a young officer from the DGCIM to give him the “reversed 440,” referring to the voltage of electric shocks that Martin was about to suffer. The young officer took Martin to a large enclosed space that was cold and had a wet floor, and forced him to undress.
Once Martin was naked, the young officer and two of his colleagues handcuffed Martin’s ankles and wrists together in front of him and attached the handcuffs to a chain that was hanging from the ceiling. They lifted Martin a few centimeters above the ground and started to throw water at him. Martin said he heard someone say that they needed to wet him well so he did not burn. The officers touched Martin with the tip of a long metal stick. An electric shock caused Martin’s body to spasm painfully. A man who Martin thinks was the GNB captain asked him who had given him the dollars, and when Martin said he did not have any dollars, the young officer said, “We were asked to give you 440, but since you’re a little girl, we’ll give you 220.”
For about 15 minutes, the officers alternated between questioning Martin, giving him electric shocks for five seconds at a time, and dousing him with water. The first time they applied the stick right under his buttocks, which caused him to urinate on himself. He was then left hanging there for about an hour.
Lowered and allowed to dress, Martin was taken to a room where the young officer pointed a gun at his head and told him that if he did not speak, he would never be released. The officers left Martin in that room for three days, and only entered the room to feed him three times a day, and twice a day to take him to the bathroom. The food had either insects or cigarette ashes in it, or had been spat or urinated upon, he said.
On the fourth day, the officers allowed Martin to call his wife, Beatriz Pérez (pseudonym). During that first call, she told him to have “strength and faith”—a phrase that imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, is known for using publicly when referring to her husband’s detention and the opposition’s struggle on the streets. After the call, Martin was taken back to the same room and subjected to the same torture with electricity for a total of 10 minutes, but this time they asked him about his relationship with López and Tintori. When Martin was taken back to an office for interrogation, the young officer who had tortured him and two others, including a man who Martin believed was an officer of the Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigations Police (CICPC in the Spanish acronym), interviewed him, beat him, called him a “triffling idiot,” and told him he had to respect the government. “Trifling” (esquálido) is an insult that government supporters often use to refer to opposition supporters in Venezuela.
Martin then spent three weeks in a communal office space used by various DGCIM officers —the first week, seated in a wooden chair, from which he was under orders not to move except to go to the bathroom. He was later transferred to a cell with a toilet and shower, where he was not mistreated. He had now been away from home for almost a month.
After the DGCIM agents arrested Martin, his wife visited every installation where she thought he might be held, including military headquarters, as well as offices of the intelligence services, the investigative police, and the Bolivarian National Police. Everywhere, officers told her that they had not detained anyone that day and Martin was not there, she said. She only learned of his whereabouts when he called days later. Martin was allowed to call his wife almost daily after that first call, but never mentioned the abuses for fear of exposing himself or his family to retaliation. No family member or lawyer was allowed to see Martin during his entire detention.
In June, a GNB colonel summoned Martin to his office, where an officer told him he could not discuss politics through his social networks and that he should forget about what had happened.
The officers then took Martin to a courtroom for the first time, where the DGCIM told him to sign a court document that said he had been detained for one day, not several weeks. He was released on condition that he present himself before the courts every 15 days.
In mid-October, Martin fled Venezuela.
Orlando Moreno (Monagas state)
The account below is based on an interview with Orlando Moreno and a written summary of his case provided by his lawyer, unless noted otherwise in footnotes.
On June 27, officers of the Monagas state police force tried to detain Moreno, a 26-year-old student and representative of the opposition party Vente Venezuela in Monagas state, as he was getting into a car after an anti-government demonstration in Maturín. Moreno managed to drive away in another vehicle, but he was intercepted by an unmarked car with no license plates, from which two armed men who did not identify themselves descended and forced him to get out. Minutes later, uniformed state police officers arrived, and the two unidentified men handed Moreno over to them.
While the officers were taking Moreno to the Comando Desur – the local headquarters of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB)— state police officers beat him on his head and back with their fists. At the station, a man who identified himself as a GNB lieutenant asked him if he had information about where they could find opposition leaders—including María Corina Machado, the leader of the political party to which Moreno belonged—and told Moreno that the opposition leaders would not be able to free him. The lieutenant took Moreno into an office where he counted about 10 officials who had arrived in three unmarked vehicles that Moreno thinks were from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN). One of the officers told him that he would “stay there like Yoel Bellorin.” A university professor affiliated with the Progressive Movement of Venezuela, a political party, Bellorin was arrested in April 2017 and reportedly subjected to physical abuse. He remained in detention at time of writing.
One of the officers told Moreno that “he would not come out of this shit” and tried to force him to say on camera that Machado and two other opposition leaders from Monagas state had provided him funding and instructed him to carry out violent protests. Moreno refused.
That night, GNB officials transferred him to a prison in La Pica, Monagas state, where he spent the night on the floor in a corridor with his hands handcuffed in front of him.
Immediately after that, the officer in charge of overseeing the prison took him outside to the back of the prison and handcuffed him to an elevated water tank high enough that Moreno could barely touch the ground with the tips of his toes. He spent all day—about nine hours—in that position, at times under blazing sun, without access to food, water, or a bathroom. While he was hanging there, several officers walked by, identified him as the one who refused to make a video confession, called him a “guarimbero” and beat him on the head or kicked his ribs. A GNB officer stood beside him all day and did not prevent the abuse.
At 5:30 p.m., officers took Moreno down and handcuffed him to a window. Although he was not hanging, he was not able to sit or lie down. He spent several hours standing up.
The following day, members of the GNB continued to hit him. One of them said, “Let’s see what the head of a guarimbero feels like” and punched him in the head while wearing a bulky graduation ring.
On June 30, Moreno was taken before a judge, who charged him with “instigating hatred” and possessing explosives, and released him on condition that he present himself before the court every 15 days. His lawyer said that the sole evidence against him were some containers with gasoline that security forces found near where he was detained, but with no evidence that they were his or that he had any involvement with them. At time of writing, no date had been set for Moreno’s preliminary hearing.
Armando López Carrera, Javier Mendoza, Antonio Alonzo Rivera, and Andrés Salamanca (Carabobo state)
The account below is based on interviews with Armando López Carrera (pseudonym), Antonio Alonzo Rivera (pseudonym), and Andrés Salamanca (pseudonym), unless noted otherwise in footnotes.
On July 20, police arrested and beat four teenagers—Salamanca, 17; Javier Mendoza, 17; Alonzo Rivera, 16; and López Carrera, 17 (who is a dual US-Venezuela citizen)—at demonstrations in various parts of Valencia, Carabobo state. In the course of doing so, they shot Salamanca with a shotgun while he was lying on the ground. The following day, the four teenagers were taken to a juvenile court. While the Attorney General’s Office did not find that the evidence against them warranted criminal charges, the judge charged Carrera, Rivera, Mendoza, and Salamanca with instigation to public disobedience and injuries and granted them bail. It took well over a week for them to be released.
The four teenagers were taken to the Comando Desur—the local GNB station—in Ciudad Chávez. At that point, Salamanca was separated from the others.
Salamanca told Human Rights Watch that he spent eight days at Comando Desur, during which time GNB officers refused to provide him with medication or alcohol to clean his shotgun wounds, which were rapidly becoming infected, claiming that they could not help him because they were not doctors. During the hearing, the judge had ordered that Salamanca receive medical treatment. They did not allow him to go to the bathroom or shower, so he had to urinate and defecate in the cell, Salamanca said.
Carrera, Mendoza, and Rivera were transferred by agents the following day—July 22—from Ciudad Chavez to the Dr. Alberto Ravelli Juvenile Prison. Carrera and Rivera described to Human Rights Watch how, upon arrival, prison guards forced them to squat and walk while crouched for about 100 meters. While they did so, the guards beat them with sticks. The guards later cut their hair and told them that they would have to eat it. Without giving them any food, they forced the three detainees to undergo at least two hours of military training in the sun. The guards forced them to bend over so they would have to stand on their feet and head without using their hands, and hold that pose, without using their hands, for about five minutes, as a form of punishment. When Salamanca joined them in Ravelli a few days later, agents subjected him to the same treatment.
The four teenagers were respectively held for 2 to 8 additional days in the “Tigrito” punishment cell, which was 1x3 meters, with no light or ventilation, and crowded with 26 detainees, including convicted prisoners. The detainees were only given five liters of water per day for all. Most detainees spent all day standing up. Once a day, they were allowed to shower for a few seconds, and to go to the toilet. Carrera told Human Rights Watch it was extremely hot, and the smell was unbearable. The conditions were so bad, he said, that some detainees asked others to hit them hard in the chest so they would faint, and guards would have to take them out. Carrera fainted several times as a consequence of the overcrowding.
They were all released on different dates in early August.
Reny Elías (Zulia state)
The account below is based on an interview with Reny Elías, unless noted otherwise in footnotes.
On July 20, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, an umbrella organization of opposition parties, organized a national strike to protest the election, scheduled for July 30, to choose members of the National Constituent Assembly. While the strike was taking place in Zulia state, Elías, a 35-year-old employee in the health division of the Zulia governor’s office, stayed at home. Elías said he also worked as a hair stylist, and was serving those clients at home on July 30.
At about 5:30 p.m., when he opened the door to let one of his clients leave, a group of heavily armed and uniformed members of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) abruptly entered without showing a warrant. The officers beat him with their shields and helmets, dragged him across the street by his hair, and placed him in an official vehicle.
They took Elías to a building that belongs to Corpoelec, a government-owned electric utility. They took away his personal belongings, which he never got back, and placed him in a GNB vehicle. An officer hit Elías’s leg with his helmet, which made Elías fall to the ground from the vehicle, and they continued to beat him as he lay there.
The officers then forced Elías to lie on the ground with a group of about 20 people, and some 15 PNB officers walked repeatedly on their backs in heavy boots. For about two hours, the officers beat them with their rifle butts, and threw teargas powder and water in their faces. The officers told the detainees not to look at them; if they did, they would beat them harshly. The whole time, they insulted the detainees, calling them “fucking guarimberos,” threatening them with death, and taunting, “Tell the opposition to come and get you out of here!
During the group’s detention at Corpoelec, Elías saw officers inappropriately touching the legs and breasts of two female detainees, including a 16-year-old girl. An officer grabbed one of the woman’s hands and placed it on his crotch, telling her boyfriend, who was also detained, “Look how your girlfriend touches my penis.” Officers took the woman to another room for about 20 minutes, and while she returned visibly traumatized, she did not say what the officers had done to her. The 16-year-old girl was let go, after being threatened with detention again, if she spoke of what had happened. (Another detainee, testifying at his presentation hearing, corroborated Elías’s account of sexual abuse that day and reported that an officer had offered another woman her freedom if she would have sex with him.)
Continuing his account of July 20, Elías told Human Rights Watch he witnessed the officers choosing one young man, pulling down his pants in front of the other detainees, putting teargas powder and water in his anus, and penetrating him with a broom stick. The man “screamed horribly,” Elías said.
Officers later ordered the detainees into the back of a government truck, where they forced them to kneel with their hands behind their backs, heads down. The officers used their helmets to beat anyone who looked up at them or tried to shift from that position.
The officers drove them to the Comando Regional 3 GNB station and put them in what the officers called “the tent for guarimberos.” Some GNB officers tried to help the detainees by giving them water or providing them with a pen and paper to send notes to their families, who by this point were waiting outside.
A week later, all 20 detainees were allowed visits from their lawyers, before being taken before a military court. During the hearing, a military prosecutor accused them all, en masse, of crimes including rebellion, “attacking a sentinel,” and disdain for the Armed Forces, alleging they were responsible for violent incidents that had occurred on the day of the strike. The prosecutor provided no evidence specific to any individual detainee.
A lawyer present at the hearing said that Elías and other detainees told the judge about the abuses they had suffered at the hands of the GNB officers. Two detainees said they had been beaten with a steel cable, and two others said the officers had set their hair on fire, causing burns on the back of one of them. A medical report reviewed by the lawyer confirmed evidence consistent with rape in the case in which the detainee reported having been penetrated with the broomstick.
The judge sent the detainee who said he had been raped with a broomstick to house arrest and the other 19 detainees back to the GNB station. This time, agents put them in a cell, instead of in the tent “for guarimberos.” A high-level PNB official told them that it was punishment for having told the judge about the abuses. They shared, with about 30 others, an overcrowded room that lacked ventilation and water. They ate only food brought to them by their families, and the GNB officers ate some of that.
A week later, Elías was transferred to a prison, where he was placed in the women’s pavilion, after telling the prison director he was gay. The prison director told Elías he would help him because “he was a compañero,” suggesting the director was only going easy on him because Elías worked for a Chavista governor. It was at the prison that Elías saw his family for the first time.
During his entire detention, Elías received no medical treatment, despite having severe pain in his ribs from the beatings he had received. A few officers tried to help him, but they did not have the medication or medical supplies necessary to provide proper care.
On September 15, a military judge released Elías and the other 18 detainees on conditional liberty, after dismissing all charges except that of “attacking a sentinel.” The judge ordered them all to appear before the court every week until their preliminary hearing on October 4. During that hearing, a judge acquitted 17 and charged Elías and two others of “attacking a sentinel.” The three formally pled guilty in order to receive suspended sentences; the judge ordered them to perform community service and present themselves before the court every month. He also barred them from leaving the country, according to their lawyer, who was present at the hearings.
Alejandro Pérez Castilla (Carabobo state)
The account below is based on interviews with Alejandro Pérez Castilla (pseudonym) and his lawyer, unless noted otherwise in footnotes.
On July 26, GNB members detained 32-year-old Pérez Castilla when he tried to stop agents from detaining a young boy with disabilities. At that time, violence broke out when about 20 GNB motorcycles, four armored vehicles, and dozens of GNB members on foot arrived at the site of the roadblock, and the officers began to fire shotgun and teargas canisters at protestors and nearby residences. Several shotgun pellets struck Pérez in the arm, chest, and abdomen.
He tried to run away, but a GNB officer blocked him with his motorcycle. Several officers beat and kicked him repeatedly. They pushed him into an armored vehicle, where they continued beating him, stepped on his fingers, and burned his back with a cigarette lighter. The officers forced Pérez to lie on the vehicle’s floor, placed a shield on him, and walked on the shield, which he said painfully compressed his ribcage. Another GNB member took his own penis out of his pants and pushed Pérez’s face towards it, while the others laughed. When they found out that Pérez had a daughter, they threatened to rape her.
When they arrived at a GNB station, a GNB member rubbed teargas powder on Pérez’s face, eyes, nose, and shotgun-pellet wounds. Another officer held his eyes open so they could put powder in them, while a female sergeant told him they were only getting started.
When GNB officers took Pérez to receive medical care, one of the officers threw away the painkillers that the medical staff gave him. When they arrived at another GNB station, the officers handcuffed Pérez to the cage of an air conditioner so high that he could barely stand on tiptoe. While he was hanging there, a sergeant beat Pérez in the ribs for approximately an hour, and later handcuffed him to a metal bench and used a taser to administer electric shocks to his calf.
An officer then ordered Pérez to be put in a small, windowless room, into which officers threw a teargas canister and closed the door. After Pérez fainted, officers took him outside. When he woke up, a captain put teargas powder on a damp towel, added inflammable oil to it, set it on fire, and forced Pérez to blow. When he did, it burned his face. Two guards and a third person Pérez could not identify beat Pérez again and urinated on him, before taking him to a small, overcrowded cell. Detainees in the cell shared some Betadine antiseptic they had hidden with Pérez so he could clean some of his wounds. He did not receive any medical treatment from the authorities.
A week after his arrest, Pérez was allowed to speak with a lawyer for five minutes, before a military tribunal hearing. A prosecutor charged Pérez with offending the Armed Forces, and on July 31 the judge sent him to house arrest pending trial.
Manuel Rojas Villas (Táchira state)
The account below is based on an interview with Manuel Rojas Villas (pseudonym).
On the morning of July 30, the day of the Constituent Assembly election, Rojas Villas, a 21-year-old who had been active in demonstrations, was walking home near the city of San Cristóbal, Táchira state, after an evening out with friends. He told Human Rights Watch that he walked past a parked truck, and five armed men wearing balaclavas got out.
One of them said, “You’re a guarimbero!” and punched him in the head. Rojas fell to the ground, and the men used his own jacket to cover his head, preventing him from seeing anything, and put him in the truck. They never identified themselves or gave him any other reason for taking him away.
The men drove Rojas to a school that was being used as a polling station, and presented him to the GNB commanding officer, who ordered his transfer to the nearby Copa de Oro GNB base. At the base, Rojas’s captors forced him to hold Molotov cocktails while they took pictures. The base commander informed Rojas’s captors that they could not detain him there, as they were already at full capacity. So the men brought Rojas back to the school.
When they arrived, people who had begun to queue to vote saw Rojas coming into the school and shouted: “They caught him! Give him 15 years!” The GNB commander in charge of the polling station ordered the agents who had captured Rojas to interrogate him. They took him to a small classroom, where they confiscated his phone and personal belongings and began to beat him. At some point, when Rojas’s girlfriend called, they stopped beating him and allowed him to briefly tell her that he had been detained. When she called back, seconds later, they instructed him to say that he was fine.
Rojas’s captors then sat him on the floor, took his blindfold off, and forced him to record a video in which they ordered him to incriminate local youths as leaders of the “Resistance” and admit to being paid 100,000 bolivares to demonstrate. Whenever he made a mistake in what they wanted him to say, they stopped the camera, hit him, and started recording again. Once they were done, the men tied Rojas’s ankles to his wrists behind him, and left him in the room with a guard. He felt dizzy from all the blows to his head.
After about 90 minutes, men wearing green uniforms that Rojas could not identify came in, blindfolded Rojas, and took him to a white truck parked outside. They drove Rojas to what appeared to be a GNB base, given the presence of several GNB members on the scene. They took him immediately to a room downstairs, where officers had him sit on the floor and kicked him in the stomach. Four new officers, wearing balaclavas to mask their faces, took him to another cell, where he was handcuffed to a chair and beaten again. They forced him to film another video, then took him to a cell.
Hours later, a nurse came to treat his wounds. Sometime afterwards, officers blindfolded him again and drove him, at night, to a nearby location in the mountains, where he received food and was not beaten. He described seeing uniformed personnel he thought were soldiers coming and going there. On the third day, officers blindfolded him again and took him to a truck, where someone he could not see threatened to kill him if he ever spoke of where he had been detained. Officers drove him to an unknown location where they took his handcuffs off and told him to get out of the truck and, once he could not hear the engine anymore, run away. When they left, he managed to get help from an old woman who lived nearby, and he made it home to his family.
Throughout his detention, which lasted almost four days, Rojas was, in effect, disappeared. While his family learned of his detention when his girlfriend called on the day of his arrest, security officials denied detaining him and claimed that they were unaware of his whereabouts and condition.
Wuilly Arteaga (Caracas)
The account below is based on interviews with Wuilly Arteaga, unless noted otherwise in footnotes.
On July 27, uniformed members of the GNB detained Arteaga, a 23-year-old violinist, during a protest in Caracas against the government’s plan to convene a Constituent Assembly. Between 2013 and 2015, Arteaga was a member of the National System of Juvenile and Children’s Orchestras, a state-run education program that former President Hugo Chávez strongly supported during his tenure in office. Arteaga said he joined the protests in May 2017 after Armando Cañizales, another violinist in the state-run program, was killed during an anti-government demonstration. Images of Arteaga playing his violin during the protests went viral on social media, and he soon became a symbol of peaceful protest in Venezuela.
After detaining him on the street, GNB agents forced Arteaga into an armored vehicle with other detainees, where they covered their eyes with pieces of cloth and tied their hands behind their backs with their own shoelaces. GNB officers hit Arteaga on the head with helmets and with his own violin, and he heard one officer say, “rape that bitch.” Although he had his eyes covered, he could hear a woman who was close to him scream that a member of the GNB was “raping her with his fingers.”
GNB agents moved Arteaga and about 20 others to a truck and took them to the parking lot of a government-run supermarket in the Bicentennial Shopping Mall in Caracas, where Arteaga said the GNB held detainees during the protests. There, a GNB officer asked loudly: “Where is the violinist? Raise your hand.” When officers found him among the detainees, they placed him underneath a stream of dirty water that was falling from the building’s roof into the parking lot.
A few hours later, they took Arteaga to the Fuerte Tiuna military base. There, a GNB member set Arteaga’s hair on fire with a cigarette lighter. Two officers put out the fire by hitting him in the head with their helmets.
The GNB officers then drove Arteaga and other detainees in a truck to a GNB base in the El Paraiso neighborhood of Caracas. In the vehicle, the officers “beat us more than ever,” he said. “Let’s see who beats them the hardest, the winner gets to hit them three more times,” he heard an officer say.
“Beat the violinist harder,” an officer shouted. While some officers held him, another hit Arteaga with a metal tube on his back, head, and right ear. His ear started bleeding, he said, and after that blow, he could not hear anything out of it for around two weeks. When we interviewed him two almost months later, he said he still could not hear properly.
On each of three consecutive days, GNB members took Arteaga to the same office inside the GNB base and interviewed him for about two hours. They asked him what he did for a living and whether he was paid to protest by opposition leaders, including by María Corina Machado and Lilian Tintori.
Arteaga told Human Rights Watch that officers did not force him to say anything, but he was afraid of expressing himself freely because, as he was being interviewed, on two occasions he saw officers making Molotov cocktails in the office. Arteaga later realized that the officers were making the Molotov cocktails in order to falsely implicate him in crimes. On his last visit to the office at the GNB base, an officer indeed asked him to stand beside the cocktails, while others took photos of him.
Five days before his detention, Arteaga was wounded when uniformed GNB officers shot him in the face with a pellet gun at another protest. Even though he received medical treatment immediately after being injured, he was still in pain when he was arrested. Arteaga said he repeatedly asked officers for medical treatment for the previous wounds, but they ignored his request.
A lawyer from the Penal Forum was allowed to see Arteaga on July 28, when Arteaga was taken to the investigative police offices in Caracas. The lawyer said that on July 30, he saw officers bring Arteaga to court, and waited outside to learn when Arteaga’s hearing would be and in which courtroom. At the same time, a civilian judge and a court official were telling Arteaga that he would be represented not by his Penal Forum attorney but by a public defender whom he had not yet met. A prosecutor charged Arteaga with possession of flammable substances, public incitement to commit crimes, and association to commit crimes. The judge said Arteaga could be released on bail, but only upon presentation of a guarantor.
When Arteaga’s Penal Forum lawyer eventually gained access to the case file, he filed the paperwork for someone to serve as guarantor. But Arteaga was not immediately released. Authorities only let Arteaga go several days later, on August 15, after his case received widespread international attention and his release was publicly and formally requested by Tarek William Saab—the attorney general appointed by the pro-government Constituent Assembly after the firing of Luisa Ortega Díaz. GNB members convinced Arteaga to sign a document saying he had not been mistreated, drove him to a park in Caracas, and dropped him off, without notifying his lawyers or family of his release.
On the day Arteaga was released, the powerful Chavista politician Diosdado Cabello aired a video on TV with parts of Arteaga’s interviews in prison to show what he called “the truth about Wuilly.” Arteaga explained that the video was edited to take his statements out of context. For example, in the video he is seen saying that GNB officers did not destroy his violin, but he was referring to the day he was detained in July and not to a previous incident in May, when officers did destroy it.
Arteaga was also shown saying that he had not been mistreated in the GNB base where he was detained; but the parts of the interviews in which he said he had suffered abuses elsewhere were edited out.
Arteaga, who was required to present himself before the court periodically and was told by the judge that he could not participate in demonstrations, fled Venezuela in September.
Arrests of Political Opponents or People with Links to the Opposition
In researching this report, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum documented at least 28 cases in which those arrested were political opponents or had real or perceived links to the opposition. These include the cases summarized below (other cases are described in the annex to this report).
Wilmer Azuaje, a 40-year-old opposition legislator, whom intelligence agents stopped on May 2. Azuaje and a member of his staff were driving in Barinas state when agents forced Azuaje out of the car, handcuffed him, and took him to SEBIN headquarters in Barinas, his mother said in documents filed with the Attorney General’s Office and the Ombudsman’s Office days later. The agents did not have an arrest warrant. For weeks, Azuaje’s family did not receive any official confirmation of his whereabouts, and Azuaje was unable to see his family or lawyer. On June 28, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled that Azuaje had been detained while committing a crime, because when SEBIN agents detained him and searched his vehicle, the agents claimed to have found grenades and explosives, in violation of the Law of Arms and Explosives. The court ordered Azuaje transferred to house arrest. Pictures of Azuaje in jail have circulated on social media, showing him handcuffed to a ladder. Azuaje was eventually transferred to the high-security prison “26th of July” in Guárico state, where he remains in detention at time of writing.
Roberto Picon, a 55-year-old engineer who for years has advised the opposition umbrella organization, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD), on electoral matters and had, since February, coordinated the opposition’s technical support team. On the evening of June 22, a group of more than 30 SEBIN officers entered the home of a colleague of Picon, without a search warrant, and arrested Picon and others. Members of the opposition had met several times at that home and, hours earlier, a meeting of leaders from the MUD had taken place there.
On June 25, President Maduro said on television that, days earlier, security forces had seized two servers which he claimed were used to organize “a hacking, intervention, and sabotage process” of the electoral computer system. He accused Picon, who he said was “very close” to opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, of directing the hacking attempt. The official TV channel Venezolana de Televisión reported that five people had been detained and were “cooperating with the investigation.”
A day later, Picon was brought before a military court, and a military prosecutor charged him with rebellion, treason, and “abduction of goods belonging to the Armed Forces.”
Picon’s family received no official information about his whereabouts for four days. Authorities allowed him to see his children 57 days into his detention, and to see his lawyer an additional 13 days after that. In August, he spent 17 days isolated in a bathroom, his daughter said, and was allowed exposure to sunlight only after 87 days in detention. In October, Picón’s case was transferred from military courts to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. At time of writing, Picon was still detained in SEBIN headquarters in Caracas.
Carlos Graffe, 31, an activist with the opposition party Popular Will, who has collaborated with human rights groups and worked for a decade in low-income neighborhoods in Carabobo state. Agents, whom Graffe later told his mother belonged to PNB, grabbed him on July 13, while he was leaving a meeting of health workers in Valencia, Graffe’s family said. Days prior to his detention, Graffe had actively promoted the unofficial plebiscite organized by the opposition on July 16. In a video of his arrest, filmed by a passerby, Graffe shouts that he is being kidnapped, and is seen being forced, by men in plainclothes, into a white van. Another man is seen climbing into a blue vehicle, which Graffe’s father said belonged to his son. On July 14, Graffe was brought before a military court and charged with stealing “materials that belong to the Armed Forces” and “instigating rebellion.” A judge ordered his pretrial detention in the Ramo Verde military prison. The family has not seen that vehicle since then. On October 13, Graffe was transferred to a military hospital to get medical treatment, and on November 15, he was transferred to house arrest. Graffe remains subject to criminal prosecution.
Ángel Vladimir Zerpa, 51. Newly appointed by the opposition-led National Assembly to Venezuela’s Supreme Court, Zerpa had lunch with a family member on July 22. Upon returning home, they noticed that a car that had been parked outside of their home since the previous day was still there. They decided to keep driving, and noticed that the parked car began to follow them. Someone in the car pointed a gun at them, forcing them to stop. Three men—two uniformed and one in plainclothes—identified themselves as SEBIN agents and arrested Zerpa. Zerpa asked to see the men’s order for his arrest, but they had none, according to family members.
The men said Zerpa’s arrest was an order from President Nicolás Maduro, according to the family. A day after Zerpa’s detention, Maduro said on TV—speaking of the Supreme Court appointments made by the opposition-led National Assembly—that “those people they appointed, those usurpers out there, they will all go to jail, one by one.”
Zerpa was taken to SEBIN headquarters, and for at least 48 hours, his family was unaware of his whereabouts. Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office asked to visit Zerpa at the intelligence headquarters, where they believed he was being held, but they were denied access.
On July 24, Zerpa was taken to a military court hearing from which his lawyers said they were excluded, charged with treason, and sent back to SEBIN headquarters in Caracas. On August 25, he was released on condition that he present himself before the courts every week. According to his family, the judge prohibited him from leaving the country and ordered him not to talk to the media about his case. In October, the case was transferred from military courts to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
Juan Carlos Marquina, 42, brother of opposition legislator José Manuel Olivares Marquina. Olivares said that on September 25, at least 12 armed SEBIN agents wearing ski masks tried to burst into the formal opening of a children’s soup kitchen in Vargas state, an event in which Olivares was participating. Olivares told Human Rights Watch that he was there with part of his team, his wife, and his brother—Juan Carlos Marquina—and that members of the community stopped the agents from entering.
Olivares said that he left with his wife in one car, while Marquina left in a car that his mother had bought him. SEBIN agents stopped both vehicles, forced everyone out, and searched the cars. Olivares said he heard an agent say that they were taking his brother, and he saw agents handcuff and detain Marquina.
That day, the powerful Chavista politician and current member of the Constituent Assembly Diosdado Cabello said that security forces had stopped a caravan of cars in Vargas state that had passed through a check point “by chance,” and that Marquina had been detained because he was driving a stolen car, according to news reports.
Over the course of more than two days, Olivares’s mother visited two SEBIN headquarters in Caracas and was told that Marquina was not being held at either. Olivares and his family did not know Marquina’s whereabouts until the evening of September 27, when he was brought before a judge. His lawyer was able to see him minutes before the hearing, in which Olivares was charged with having forged documents—authorities claimed the paperwork for his car had been altered prior to its purchase by Olivares’ mother, Olivares said. Marquina was taken to SEBIN headquarters in Caracas called “El Helicoide.”
More than 757 civilians have been prosecuted by military courts since early April, despite clear rules under international law prohibiting such prosecutions. While no public record of the military proceedings is available—a problem in its own right—the accounts by lawyers and family members include many disturbing allegations of abuses and procedural defects in the conduct of such prosecutions. Hearings are often held in military courts or other military installations, presided over by military judges who report to the minister of defense. Protesters are charged with serious crimes under the military code, such as “rebellion” and “treason,” for alleged acts of violence at protests for which these charges would be grossly disproportionate even if the defendants had committed them.
In researching this report, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum documented 18 cases involving at least 119 people in which detainees were brought before military courts. The examples below are as relayed to us by lawyers who were present at the proceedings and provided legal defense to some of the detainees (other cases of civilians prosecuted in military courts are described in the annex to this report).
On May 5, 40 people who had been detained separately near a food company in Valencia, Carabobo state, which had been looted a day earlier, were brought before a military judge in an improvised courtroom inside the GNB base “Ciudad Chávez.” The hearing started at 7 p.m. and lasted 12 hours.
During the hearing, most detainees showed bruises that they said were caused by GNB members who beat them, sometimes with an aluminum bar or a baseball bat. Some claimed the officers cut their hair during their detention. At least 15 said they were forced to eat raw pasta mixed with human excrement—the officers allegedly put teargas powder in their noses so they would be forced to open their mouths to eat.
Without individualizing the criminal responsibility of each, all 40 were charged en masse with rebellion. The military judge admitted the charges against all, but sent only 19 to the non-military “26th of July” high-security prison in Guárico state, without providing any explanation. The others were released on conditional liberty.
Weeks later, the judge authorized the conditional release of the 19, ordering them to present themselves before the court periodically. At time of writing, the investigation remained open.
On May 9, 16 people who had been detained in different circumstances in La Villa de Rosario, Zulia state, were brought together before a military court in Maracaibo. The detainees included a man who said he was walking home from work when he was picked up by the GNB, and two brothers who said they were working on the roof of their home and were detained without a judicial order. Two others were reportedly taken to the offices of the investigative police (CICPC) from the hospital where they were being treated—one said he was there after suffering an accident at home and the other said that he was a government supporter who had been hit by a bottle in a protest. CICPC agents asked them to declare who had injured them, and then held them.
Eight of the 16 claimed that they were beaten by GNB members when they were detained, and that the officers spread a white powder on their faces that caused a burning sensation and made them cry, which they described as being similar to the effect of teargas.
On May 11, the prosecutor charged the 16 detainees with rebellion and “attacking a sentinel,” without specifying what each of them had done. The judge accepted the charges against all detainees, but ordered seven of the 16 held in pretrial detention at the Santa Ana prison, an installation for people prosecuted in military courts, and released the rest on conditional liberty. The judge provided no explanation for the distinction.
In mid-August, during the preliminary hearing, the military judge dropped all charges against five, and accused 11 of several crimes, including attacking a sentinel, violating security zones, and insulting the Armed Forces. Their lawyer said the 11 who were charged feared a military trial and thus pleaded guilty; each of them was sentenced to three months of community service and was required to appear before the court every 30 days.
Politically Motivated Prosecutions of Opposition Mayors
In mid-2017, the Venezuelan Supreme Court sentenced five opposition mayors to 15 months in prison each and disqualified all from running for office for the same period of time. The convictions followed summary proceedings that lacked basic due process guarantees. Harassing mayors for their politics goes back at least to 2014, when, during a previous crackdown on anti-government protests, the Supreme Court instituted summary proceedings for the first time against two opposition mayors, Daniel Ceballos and Vicencio Scarano.
The mayors punished to date in 2017 are Alfredo Ramos, of the Iribarren municipality in Lara state, Gustavo Marcano of the Diego Bautista Urbaneja municipality in Anzoátegui state, Carlos García of the Libertador municipality in Mérida state, David Smolansky, of the El Hatillo municipality in Miranda state, and Ramón Muchacho, of the Chacao municipality in Miranda state.
In each of these cases, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber first issued a ruling ordering the mayors to ensure that people did not block roads in their municipalities, and to remove any obstacles that prevented citizens from moving around freely. Later, the Constitutional Chamber accused the mayors of contempt for failing to comply with this order and instituted summary proceedings in which the Constitutional Chamber itself was responsible for both the “accusation” and “sentencing” in the case. The rulings of the Constitutional Chamber, in these cases a court of first instance, are not subject to appeal, which violates the due process right of defendants to appeal a criminal conviction.
Four of the five mayors fled the country. Only Ramos was detained, on July 28, after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on his case. According to Ramos’ wife and daughter, Ramos learned he had been sentenced when the Supreme Court tweeted about it. They claim he was at the Irribaren municipal building with his family and staff when a group of at least 20 heavily armed men with faces covered forcefully entered his office. Without showing a judicial order, and after threatening to throw a teargas canister inside the office, they allegedly forced Ramos out and took him to a GNB station. Ramos’ wife was allowed to stay with him for several hours, but after telling her she could go home to fetch his medication and clothes, they did not allow her back in, she said.
Ramos was transferred to SEBIN headquarters in Caracas (El Helicoide) and was not allowed to see his family or lawyers for 26 days, his family said. They traveled from Barquisimeto to Caracas to try to visit him “many times” but SEBIN agents told them he was not authorized to receive visits. After Ramos suffered a hypertension crisis on August 31, he was able to see a cardiologist while in detention but his family was denied access to the medical report. At time of writing in November, Ramos had not been able to see another medical professional and remained in detention.
Between May and July 2017, the Supreme Court issued similar injunctions against at least nine other mayors and one governor, all of them from the opposition.
One of them is Omar Lares, the mayor of the Campo Elías municipality in Mérida state. On July 30, dozens of GNB, PNB, and SEBIN agents, as well as members of colectivos burst into his home. The mayor and most of his family were able to escape, but Juan Pedro Lares, his 23-year-old son, was captured and has since been arbitrarily detained.
An employee of the Lares family who was there when the security forces stormed the house said the officers forced him and Juan Pedro to kneel on the ground, handcuffed them, and told them they could shoot them anytime “because no one was watching.” They threatened to spray both of them with gasoline and set them on fire, he said, “if they did not tell them where the firearms where.” They also placed a gun against Juan Pedro’s head, threatening to kill him “if he didn’t tell the truth,” and then hit him on the neck with it. They let the employee go, and drove Juan Pedro away in an official SEBIN vehicle.
As of November 2017, Juan Pedro was being held at the Helicoide, one of SEBIN’s headquarters in Caracas. He had not been charged with any crime nor taken before a judge.
Arrests and Abuses of Demonstrators and Bystanders
On April 26, GNB personnel detained David Romero (pseudonym), a 19-year-old student, during confrontations between demonstrators and security forces in Barquisimeto, Lara state. According to Romero’s account of what followed, agents captured and then beat him and others with their fists and rifle butts during an operation in a residential zone that had been barricaded by anti-government protesters.
The GNB officers took Romero to a truck, where 28 people—including 11 who were under 18 years old—were already detained. According to Romero, when they arrived at a GNB station, uniformed men from CONAS started to beat several of the detainees, including Romero, who said the officers threatened him, grabbed him by the hair, punched and kicked him, and took away his ID, money, and cell phone.
On April 28, 28 detainees from the April 26 raid were presented before the courts. The adults, including Romero, were charged with several crimes, including obstructing public roads and attacking a sentinel. The prosecutor did not allege any facts that pointed to the individual criminal responsibility of any of the defendants. The judge authorized their release on bail and requested five guarantors for each, but it took several weeks after the guarantors were presented for the detainees to actually be released, forcing them to remain in detention arbitrarily.
During this period, and for more than a month, Romero said, he was held with 27 others at a detention center in horrible conditions. When the detainees arrived at the center, one sergeant struck each of them on the head with a rock, which he called the “stone of justice.” All detainees were held in a small 3x3 meter cell that did not have a toilet, so they had to use a bottle that the prison guards would take out in the morning. Once a day, they would throw a small teargas canister inside the cell, which would take about 10 minutes to dissipate through the only window the room had. The guards did not feed the detainees; they ate only what their families brought to them that the guards did not take for themselves, Romero said.
Romero was eventually released on bail but still needed to present himself before the courts every eight days as of October 2017.
On May 1, Emerson Ibarra, a 24-year-old student, was demonstrating in Mérida when about 10 PNB officers on motorcycles surrounded him. This, he told us, is what happened next:
One officer stripped off the balaclava Ibarra was wearing that day, and another told him to get on the motorcycle. When he resisted, one of them struck him in the face with his rifle butt and forced him onto the motorcycle.
Ibarra was taken with three others he did not know—whom he said were 17, 20, and 25 years old—to the state police headquarters in Glorias Patrias, downtown Mérida, where several officers beat them before taking them to the office of the intelligence division of the state police.
When they arrived, the police officers called them “fucking guarimberos.” One of the officers, whom he recognized as having participated in his arrest, beat him with handcuffs for 10 minutes, while another accused him of being a student leader and having pictures of the protests on his Twitter account. The officer said he did not want to see him on the streets again or he would: “fuck [him] over.”
That evening, the officers put them in a kitchen inside the intelligence offices, adjusted the handcuffs very tight, and deprived them of sleep by repeatedly entering the room screaming “guarimberos!” or insults at them. Ibarra’s family was unable to see him for six days.
On May 4, the four young men were taken before a court. Although the Attorney General’s Office requested their release without any precautionary measures, the judge ruled they would only be released on bail. The paperwork for their release on bail was filed that same day, but they remained in detention for eight days because of delays in processing the papers. A few days later, when Ibarra was at a room with other detainees, two officers of the intelligence division of the state police threw a teargas canister inside the room and mocked their reaction, he said. Ibarra fled the country.
On May 15, PNB officers detained Carlos Jordan (pseudonym) in Aragua state as he was heading home. An anti-government demonstration was taking place nearby at the time, and another nine people who claim they had not participated in the demonstration were also detained that day in the same vicinity.
After he was detained, the officers forced Jordan to take off his pants and one of the officers anally penetrated Jordan with a “tube,” Jordan told the judge in his first hearing. At the hearing, detainees said that during their detention the PNB officers brutally beat them with their helmets and the butts of their weapons, and forced them to breathe teargas residues and to dance sensually amongst themselves while the PNB officers laughed. The officers stole shoes, cellphones, and money from the detainees.
On May 17, Jordan and the others were taken before a judge and charged with instigation to commit crimes. His lawyer claimed his release was deliberately delayed and Jordan was taken back to the same detention facility for a week, until the court finally accepted the guarantors presented by his defense.
In June, GNB agents arrested Lawrence Esposito (pseudonym), a 17-year-old student, as he was filming an anti-government demonstration with his phone in Carabobo state. According to Esposito, a motorcycle officer pointed his firearm at his ribs and told him to get on the motorcycle.
GNB agents forced Esposito into an armored vehicle. Inside, he said, the officers repeatedly beat him and other detainees, threatened to rape them, and shot pepper spray in their faces. They then threw a teargas canister inside the vehicle and closed the doors, which caused Esposito and others to pass out.
The GNB members took Esposito and other detainees to a base and left them outside on a patio where the officers let two Pitbull dogs and two German Shepherds attack them, Esposito said. The highest-level official there punched Esposito on the chest, which interrupted his breathing, and when he fell, the chief said: “Now you’ll cry.”
At the detention center, 18 detainees were packed into a 3x3 meter cell, according to Esposito. During his detention, Esposito said, he saw GNB members take two detainees into a corridor to have one shoot the other. When one refused, an officer shot pellets at the other nonetheless and then put salt on his wounds, causing him to faint.
Within two days of his arrest, Esposito was allowed to speak to his lawyer, but for only five minutes, prior to being taken before a judge. Esposito says the judge released him but told him that he should tell no one what had happened.
Following Esposito’s release, his relatives received several intimidating phone messages from unknown numbers. Esposito’s mother said that a black motorcycle without a license plate stopped next to her and a man asked her if she was “Lawrence’s mother.” After she denied being his mother, the man said, “Yes. You are the mother of Lawrence. Let me give you some advice: keep quiet, because life is worth nothing in this country. Don’t go to the Attorney General’s Office anymore. Don’t file any complaints. Leave your son quiet at home. Mothers should take care of their sons.”
On June 20, Jorge Jiménez (pseudonym), a 17-year-old student, was walking to his grandmother’s home when he found himself between demonstrators and Márida police officials during a demonstration. He had his face covered with a T-shirt to avoid breathing teargas.
Police officers grabbed him and took him to a police station, where an officer beat him in the stomach and on the head and shoulder, slapped him, and hit him on the legs with a stick because, the officer said, Jiménez was a “guarimbero.” At CICPC headquarters, officers put a plastic bag over his head to force him to give them names and addresses of those who had been participating in protests.
When the Penal Forum found out about his detention, a lawyer went to the CICPC offices, and was told that Jiménez was not under arrest, but rather being interrogated. Neither the lawyer nor his family was allowed to see him, according to his lawyer, and the lawyer threatened to file a writ of habeas corpus. Hours later, CICPC officers let Jiménez go, without ever bringing him before a judge.
On July 6, GNB agents detained Carlos Julio Rojas, a journalist and social activist who had been collaborating with two nongovernmental organizations that work with residents of several Caracas neighborhoods, as he was walking in Caracas. Rojas said that the agents stopped him and, after he gave them his ID and press credentials, said they had an arrest warrant for him and forced him into a police car.
Once inside the car, Rojas heard the voice of someone he thought was a high-ranking official saying on speaker phone: “I want Carlos Julio’s cellphone.” The officers took the phone, and he never saw it again, Rojas said.
Rojas said he was taken from one location to another for hours until he was eventually taken to a police station where he was placed in a 2x2 meter cell with no bathroom or natural light, called “Tigrito” in Venezuela. Officers later forced Rojas out and into an office in what appears to have been an attempt to frame him: several teargas canisters sat on a table and officers beat him until they managed to take a picture of him beside the canisters, Rojas said. The picture finally taken shows Rojas’ back, and not his face, which had bruises, according to Rojas.
On July 20, agents arrested Manuel Rocas (pseudonym), a 19-year-old student, while he was jogging with a friend in Mérida close to a demonstration that his mother, who has spoken to him in detention, says he did not know was taking place. An armored vehicle passed by firing teargas, and GNB members on motorcycles with their faces covered by balaclavas surrounded and arrested him, his mother said. They spat on him, hit him, forced him onto a motorcycle, and drove him away. Rocas was charged with instigation. At time of writing, he remained detained.
On August 24, Rojas was taken before a judge for the preliminary hearing in which prosecutors are supposed to charge detainees with crimes. Even though the military prosecutor did not charge him with any crimes, the military judge nonetheless ruled that Rojas would be subject to precautionary measures—which are typically adopted, under Venezuelan law, to ensure that a person accused of committing a crime appears before a court. Rojas said he must now present himself before the military court every 30 days, cannot talk to the media about his case, and cannot participate in “political meetings for the purpose of engaging in conspiracy.”
The same day, near the spot where Rocas was arrested, agents from the GNB detained 33-year-old Ambrosio Arragoza (pseudonym). They grabbed him on the street when he was going to the bakery with three neighbors, his brother said; the agents arrested the others as well. Agents threw Arragoza inside a GNB armored vehicle, he said, where they beat him. Arragoza said that he was charged with “instigating public disorder” and spent a month in jail, according to his brother.
Illegal Detentions by Colectivos
In some cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum, it was impossible to determine whether arresting agents had the power to arrest or were acting on their own initiative. Often, they were wearing balaclavas, lacked official identification, and were not identifiable.
Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum documented some cases in which colectivos—who have no powers of arrest under Venezuelan law—illegally detained people and handed them over to police or GNB officers, including the cases described below.
On April 13, members of colectivos illegally detained Alberto Brito and Maribel Ilarraza in two separate incidents in Caracas, and then transferred them to security forces, according to relatives of Brito and their lawyer. The two did not know each other. The day following their detention, they were taken together before the same court in Caracas, where a judge charged them with “instigation to commit crimes” and “holding incendiary substances” during an anti-government demonstration. The judge imposed bail on Brito and authorized Ilarraza’s release without a guarantor, but requested a statement (caución juratoria) that she would present herself before the court. Brito and Ilarraza’s lawyer filed the paperwork in their cases on April 24, but the court had not yet processed the documents at time of writing. Both Brito and Ilarraza remained in detention as of October 2017.
On May 4, three female members of a colectivo detained Lina Espinoza (pseudonym), a 19-year-old student, as she was getting into her car after a visit to a pharmacy, she told Human Rights Watch. Espinoza said that the women kicked and punched her while asking if she was a student. They forced her to start the engine and sit in the back seat between two of them. The third drove the car towards a GNB station. When they arrived, they pushed Espinoza out of the car towards a GNB officer and said, “Here, we brought you another one.”
Espinoza said she was taken into an official vehicle together with an injured boy that she estimates was 15 years old and a third detainee. “From the trailer, I could see that they searched my whole car, and then four colectivos got inside the car. They were four men, dressed in [the government official party] t-shirts, and they said: ‘Let’s go kill some students,’ and they left,” Espinoza said.
The GNB personnel forced the three detainees into a jeep and asked them who had paid them. The 15-year-old gave them a name, and when the GNB personnel realized he had lied, they beat them all, Espinoza said.
Espinoza spent two days at the GNB headquarters, where the officers took pictures of her and the other two detainees with shields and Molotov cocktails, she said. Espinoza told us that she has diabetes and that following her arrest she suffered a medical crisis that required taking her to a health center. Despite a doctor’s objection, who told a GNB officer that he would be responsible if Espinoza died, the GNB officer insisted that she be taken back to GNB headquarters. The GNB let the 15-year-old go, but transferred Espinoza and the other detainee to a prison.
On May 7, Espinoza and the other detainee were presented before a military court. A military judge confirmed several charges against her, including attacking a soldier and demonstrating in a security zone, she said. Espinoza said that she remained in detention 19 more days, and her medical condition deteriorated.
On May 26, a military judge allowed her to be transferred to house arrest as a humanitarian measure. Prior to releasing her, agents had her sign a document saying that her human rights had not been violated, she said. On August 7, during the preliminary hearing in her case, Espinoza pleaded guilty to attacking a soldier to avoid going back to jail. A judge sentenced her to 120 hours of community service and ordered her to appear before the court every 30 days, she said.
Abuses in the Streets
Between April and July 2017, Venezuelan security forces—including the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), the Bolivarian National Police (PNB), the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN), and state police forces—together with armed pro-government groups called colectivos systematically used disproportionate force to suppress anti-government protests. In some of these cases it appeared not only that the force used was disproportionate, but that no use of force on the part of security forces was warranted at all.
In August 2017, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the Venezuelan government was pursuing “a policy to repress political dissent and instill fear in the population to curb demonstrations.” It asserted that its research “paint[ed] a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators in Venezuela,” as well as “patterns of other human rights violations, including violent house raids, torture and ill-treatment of those detained in connection with the protests.”
An official report by the Venezuelan Communications Ministry reported 167 deaths in connection with the demonstrations between April 6 and August 4, 2017, including 17 cases in which the deceased were younger than 18 years old. Twenty-nine of these deaths occurred on July 30, the day of the election of Constituent Assembly members.
According to the OHCHR, of the 124 deaths recorded by the Attorney General’s Office that occurred in the context of anti-government demonstrations between April 1 and July 31, 2017, security forces were responsible for at least 46 and colectivos for 27. The office lacked the evidence to issue findings as to who was responsible for the rest.
During the 2014 crackdown on anti-government protests, security forces allowed colectivos to assault unarmed civilians, and in some cases collaborated with them in the attacks. In at least four cases documented for this report, colectivos acted to make arrests or detain individuals who were then turned over to the security forces. In several cases, witnesses described how colectivos worked alongside or in sight of security forces to suppress demonstrations, at times shooting live ammunition at protesters. On July 5, members of colectivos attacked and besieged the opposition-controlled National Assembly in Caracas for several hours, in plain sight of security forces who appeared to do little to protect the institution or disperse the pro-government armed groups.
During the April-July period, security forces used such less lethal weapons as water cannons, teargas, and pellets in a way that appeared deliberately meant to inflict pain to protesters and bystanders. Witnesses, victims, and medical personnel who attended them described many incidents where security forces used modified rubber-pellet shotgun shells loaded instead with marbles, broken glass or metal bolts. Such projectiles can in some cases be lethal. Under some circumstances the abusive use of such less lethal weapons, when employed with the intent of causing grave harm, and depending on the seriousness of pain and suffering inflicted, may amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or torture.
Throughout the country, demonstrators and citizens living in areas barricaded by protestors have frequently been injured by teargas canisters, regular or modified shotgun rounds, and bullets fired at close range by security forces and colectivos, at times leading to serious injuries, some of them permanent, and even death. In many cases, security forces reportedly issued no warning prior to firing a wide range of riot-control munitions and teargas canisters on demonstrations and surrounding residential areas, according to interviews with demonstrators and bystanders. And, as already detailed earlier in the report, security forces also frequently subjected demonstrators and bystanders to vicious beatings and other forms of physical violence when suppressing demonstrations.
The government claims that 10 security-force officers—three from the GNB, one from the DGCIM, and six from state police forces—died in the context of the demonstrations. It reported several instances of violence against government supporters, including two cases in which the victims were allegedly set on fire and one in which a retired military officer was lynched.
Some groups of anti-government protesters at times used rocks, Molotov cocktails, weaponized fireworks, and homemade mortars and explosive devices in clashes with security forces.
Unlawful or violent assemblies may be dispersed by security forces. But in dispersing any peaceful assembly, even an unlawful one, security forces should avoid the use of force or, if that is not practicable, restrict its use to the minimum extent necessary. In dispersing violent assemblies, law enforcement may use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable, and then only to the minimum extent necessary. They should in all cases use firearms only in self-defence or in defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life or to arrest or prevent the escape of a person who presents such a danger and is resisting their authority. Even in these circumstances, firearms should be used only when less extreme methods are insufficient to achieve these objectives. The intentional lethal use of firearms is permissible only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
On April 26, Juan Pablo Pernalete, a 20-year-old basketball player who was studying public accounting, was participating in an anti-government demonstration in the Altamira neighbourhood in Caracas when a GNB officer fired a tear-gas projectile designed to be fired at long range into Pernalete’s chest from 15 meters away. The impact killed Pernalete.
While government officials immediately blamed Pernalete’s death on his fellow protesters, an investigation by the then-Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz established that a GNB officer indeed fired the fatal round. A lawyer working on the case said that evidence in Ortega Díaz’s file on the case indicated that the guard had shot the long-range projectile from a distance of about 15 meters from Pernalete.
On September 8, Tarek Saab William, the attorney general appointed by the pro-government Constituent Assembly after it fired Ortega, announced that he was reopening the investigation into Pernalete’s killing upon the suspicion that evidence incriminating the GNB had been manipulated.
On August 13, Luis Guillermo Espinoza, a 16-year-old student and soccer player, died several weeks after a GNB member shot him in the head at point blank range during a demonstration in San Diego, Carabobo state. A witness described to Human Rights Watch how the teenager was trying to run away from GNB members on June 5 when three motorcycles surrounded him. Espinoza resisted when the officers beat him, and then he tried to run away. “One officer pointed his gun at his head and Luis stopped for a second,” the witness told Human Rights Watch. “The guard turned his head and Luis began to run again. I heard a shot. I closed my eyes. And then I saw him [on the ground].”
In another case documented for this report, a bystander died when security forces allegedly fired into residential areas where protesters had sought refuge. On July 11, security forces allegedly fired their guns through the gates of a residential complex in El Tocuyo, Lara state, and killed Janeth Angulo, a 55-year-old retired sports teacher and community organizer, who was standing outside her home. “She had come out to let a pregnant demonstrator seek refuge in her home some 300 meters away from the gate where the security forces were shooting, when she was hit in the head by a bullet,” one of her sisters said. Her family said a police officer was later arrested in connection with Angulo’s death.
On June 7, Neomar Lander, 17, traveled with his mother and cousin from Guarenas, where they lived, to participate in an anti-government demonstration in Caracas. When GNB and PNB officers moved to disperse the demonstration, protestors began running in different directions, Zugeimar Armas, Lander’s mother, said. Armas lost sight of her son.
Later that afternoon, she got a phone call in which someone she knew told her there was a video circulating on social media showing that Lander had been killed. Armas went to a clinic where she had been told that Lander had been taken. When she arrived, a doctor told her that the boy had arrived without vital signs. Armas said she was allowed to see her son’s body; he had a “hole” in his chest that was “just too big.”
On June 8, the vice president of Venezuela said that Lander had died as a consequence of the explosion of a mortar, and that his death had not been caused by the impact of a teargas canister.
In October, a representative of the Attorney General’s Office told Armas and her husband that they should trust her and prosecutors, who were investigating the case at the time. Armas told Human Rights Watch, “How can she ask that we trust her if four months have gone by, nothing has happened, and the government has said Neomar killed himself?"
The last statistics published by the Attorney General’s Office under the recently fired Luisa Ortega Díaz indicate that by the end of July, the office was investigating nearly 2,000 cases of people injured during the protests. While the number appears to have included cases in which protesters as well as security forces were the alleged perpetrators, in more than half of the cases the office had evidence suggesting fundamental rights violations.
Medical professionals interviewed by Human Rights Watch who worked in different health centers in five locations reported treating numerous people with injuries caused by shotgun pellets and teargas canisters fired at point-blank range (a quemarropa) on protesters, with wounds located in the abdomen, upper body, head, and eyes.
On May 18, Oscar Serrada, a 22-year-old student, was participating in an anti-government protest on the Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas when GNB and PNB personnel started shooting teargas canisters towards demonstrators. Most demonstrators started to run away, but some began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails towards the security officials.
Serrada said that he ran from the highway and that when he was on a nearby avenue, he walked toward some members of the GNB with his hands up in the air, asking them to “stop repressing the demonstration.” As he got closer, he saw a guardsman less than 10 meters away pointing his shotgun at him, so he turned around and started to run away. He felt an impact on the back of his right leg, and felt he was losing a lot of blood, Serrada said.
Someone saw Serrada limping and drove him on a motorcycle to a nearby Green Cross urgent care station, where he received first-aid. Serrada later went to a clinic, where an X-ray revealed he had a glass marble lodged in his leg. Doctors operated on Serrada two days later to remove the marble, he said. We reviewed images of Serrada getting medical care on the street, of his X-rays, and the marble that was taken from his body.
In early July, Hernán Sánchez (pseudonym), a 16-year-old student in Mérida state, was walking to theatre practice from school when he encountered a demonstration. When the Mérida state police arrived, Sánchez said, he ran and tried to hide behind a car. He alleges that a policeman mounted on a motorcycle saw him and shot him at close range with a shotgun loaded with birdshot. Sánchez said that, unaware of his injuries, he continued to run until he was caught by policemen who took him to a nearby station. Only then did he notice that he was bleeding from his abdomen, Sánchez said.
Sánchez said that despite the blood-soaked white t-shirt indicating that he was wounded, police officers beat him at the station prior to releasing him in a public square a few minutes later. A man who passed by took him to a clinic, where, Sánchez said, doctors told him the pellets had ruptured his colon, and that a piece of the cartridge was still inside his body. Doctors performed a colostomy, and Sánchez spent over a month at the hospital. His family told Human Rights Watch that the three operations cost them around 15 million bolivares and that Sanchez’s mother, who had to stop working to take care of her son, had to cancel her restaurant’s lease, which she could not afford paying anymore, and take up loans to pay for his treatment.
In another case in late June, 19-year-old Carlos Rambrant (pseudonym) was at the frontline of a protest with other youths when he suddenly found himself on the ground. X-rays that Rambrant’s family shared with Human Rights Watch showed a bullet lodged in one of his cervical vertebrae. Rambrant explained that the bullet had not gone through his neck because it had first ricocheted off the inside of his gas mask. He could not move, and felt as though his body had died but he was still conscious.
Fellow demonstrators quickly brought Rambrant to a hospital where doctors stabilized him, he said. The investigative police (CICPC) quickly appeared to question him. For fear of being arrested, the Rambrant family lied to the CICPC and said that he had been shot by a robber.
Lying in bed, Rambrant told us that the bullet did not cut his spine but had burned a part of it, leaving him with temporary paralysis. “At first, because of the shock, all of the pain got blocked and I didn’t feel it. But my senses returned progressively and it is now really painful. I have a bit more mobility now, but I still don’t feel anything from the heart down,” he explained. He said doctors told him that it might take up to a year before he can walk again.
On July 22, in Barquisimeto, Lara state, GNB personnel allegedly beat up Luis Enrique Díaz Kay, a press photographer who had tried to prevent the arrest of a young man he thought had been mistakenly arrested for protesting. The GNB officers punched him in the head and he fell to the ground, he said. According to Díaz, while some were holding his feet, others beat and kicked him in different parts of his body. Díaz said he fought back and managed to put himself back on his feet but one of the guards put him in a strong chokehold that fractured two of his cerebral vertebrae, right before Díaz bit him and managed to escape, Díaz said. When we interviewed Díaz in August, he was wearing a neck brace. A copy of his medical report, seen by Human Rights Watch, was consistent with his description of his injuries.
On July 26, GNB agents captured 37-year-old Alberto Caramés (pseudonym) during an attempt to disperse a protest barricade in Mérida. Caramés said a guard broke his jaw with the butt of his gun, and that he could feel his lower molars touching his palate. Guards then took his shoes off and tied his hands with his sweater to a motorcycle. They dragged him barefoot at a speed of 20 or 30 kilometres per hour for about 10 meters, he said. As a result, his soles were completely burned, Caramés said. The sweater then broke, and he fell to the ground. He fainted and later woke up in a private clinic.
Raids in Residential Areas
In researching this report, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum also documented six instances in which Venezuelan security forces raided residential areas and apartment buildings in Caracas and four states. In some of these raids, which usually occurred near protest barricades that residents had erected, security forces allegedly burst into homes without warrants, stealing personal belongings and food, and beating and detaining residents.
On May 15, dozens of residents of the Mañongo residential area of Valencia, Carabobo state, participated in a nationwide anti-government protest called “the Planton,” or sit-out, with protestors blockading main roads. Around 4 p.m., after the demonstration ended, at least 50 GNB and CICPC members forcefully entered four residential buildings in the area claiming that they were looking for a sniper, one resident said. Residents told us that security agents used force to break into several apartments, where they stole personal belongings, including cell phones, clothes, and cash. One resident said she saw an agent pointing a gun at a woman who was carrying a baby; others reported that agents beat and detained several residents as well as two people working at the buildings.
On June 13, GNB and CONAS agents raided the Los Verdes apartment complex in Caracas, hours after many residents had participated in anti-government protests, a resident said.
The officers who entered the resident’s home were armed, had their faces covered with black masks, and did not have any identifying documents, the resident said. They had no judicial order, she said, and told her that if she cooperated with them, “there would be no violence.”
Another resident of the Los Verdes apartment complex told the news site Crónica Uno that a group of 10 armed men—two of them wearing masks—entered her home, accused her of collaborating with “terrorists,” and shot her dog in the eye when it started barking. Others told Venezuelan media outlets in taped interviews that security agents damaged cars, entered homes without a judicial warrant, seized computers and footage of security cameras from the building’s main offices, and detained several people. Residents recorded the moment when a military convoy broke into the building complex’s main entrance, and took pictures of destroyed cars and doors, according to press accounts.
That evening, Interior and Justice Minister Néstor Reverol said on Twitter that 23 “terrorists” had been detained during the operation.
In other instances, security forces are alleged to have fired indiscriminately into residential areas where protesters were active or presumed to live. In the city of Mérida, for instance, residential complexes near the areas of La Croacia, La Humboldt, and Cardenal Quintero were particularly affected. First aid volunteers who worked in those areas during the protests said that several individuals living in the residential complexes were affected by the teargas launched by security forces from the streets towards their homes. A young medical student living there, who also treated the patients, described how national guard personnel shot about 30 teargas canisters towards the Cardenal Quintero residences on May 27.
On May 30, residents of the Parque Las Américas apartment buildings complex in Mérida told Promedehum, a local human rights group, that several apartments, including some where the residents were at home, were set on fire when GNB personnel fired teargas canisters through the windows. The governor of Mérida state cited a firefighters’ report that said the cause of fire was “indeterminate,” according to Promedehum. Residents also said security forces fired shotgun shells modified with large glass marbles directly into the apartments. Other teargas canisters landed inside a pre-school in the area, Promedehum said. Although there were no children inside at the time, several staff members hid in the restrooms.
This report was researched and written by researchers from Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division and Emergencies Team, including and supervised by Tamara Taraciuk Broner, senior researcher for the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. It was reviewed by Alfredo Romero, Penal Forum executive director, and Gonzalo Himiob, Penal Forum director. It was edited by Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch; Dan Baum, senior researcher/editor; Joe Saunders, deputy program director; Chris Albin-Lackey, senior legal advisor; and José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division. Americas Division associates María Barragán-Santana and Delphine Starr contributed to the report production. Americas Division intern Camila Leone provided valuable research support. The report was prepared for publication by Madeline Cottingham, publications coordinator, Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager; and José Martinez, senior administration coordinator. It was translated into Spanish by Gabriela Haymes.
Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum would like to thank the numerous Venezuelan organizations and individuals that contributed to this report, many of whom asked not to be identified. We would like to thank the following Penal Forum lawyers who coordinated the legal defense work in their states and provided detailed information and contacts to document cases included in this report: Dimas Rivas (Aragua), Ezequiel Monsalve (Bolivar), Luis Betancourt (Carabobo), Fernando Cermeño (Mérida), Alberto Iturbe (Miranda), José Armando Sosa (Monagas), Raquel Sánchez (Táchira), and Laura Valbuena (Zulia). Mariana Ortega, another Penal Forum lawyer, contributed to the research in Caracas. We are also very grateful for the support provided by Nizar El Fakih and the following NGOs in contacting and arranging interviews with victims: Promedehum in Mérida state, Funpaz in Lara state, and Public Space (Espacio Público) in Caracas. Finally, we would like to thank the staff of Urgent Portraits (Retratos Urgentes), a project that publishes video interviews with victims, for sharing information with us.
Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum are deeply grateful to the victims and their family members who shared their testimonies with us. Human rights violations often inflict deep wounds on victims and their families, and recounting such stories can be painful. Many of the victims who spoke with us expressed the hope that, by telling their stories, they could help prevent others from suffering the same abuses.