Venezuela and the state of repression in times of pandemic

The Bolivarian nation has registered 757 forced disappearances from January 1, 2018 to May 31 of this year
Members of the CICPC (Scientific Police) arrest a student during an opposition demonstration against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on February 12, 2014

AFP/LEO RAMIREZ  -   Members of the CICPC (Scientific Police) arrest a student during an opposition demonstration against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on February 12, 2014

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile".  Despite this, in Venezuela alone, more than 15,160 people have been arbitrarily detained for political purposes between January 1, 2014 and August 31, 2019.  A report prepared by Foro Penal has indicated that, during this period, numerous cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment have also been recorded. Between January 1 and May 31, 2020 alone, in the nation presided over by Nicolás Maduro, there have been 757 forced disappearances, of which at least 14 remain unaccounted for.

"The Bolivarian regime releases detained groups as it detains others in similar proportions. This, in order to maintain a constant number of detainees and not to draw attention to the overwhelming number of arrests," explained Foro Penal, who pointed out that this tactic is known as the " rotating door". This non-governmental organization, which has been working to defend human rights in Venezuela since 2002, considers that the purposes and aims of political repression in the Latin American nation can be divided into five categories (exclusion, intimidation, propaganda, extraction, and for personal reasons).

Miembros del Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas y Penales de Venezuela (CICPC) patrullan cerca de un puesto de control en San Antonio, Táchira, Venezuela, el 22 de agosto de 2015
AFP/ GEORGE CASTELLANOS -Members of the Corps of Scientific and Criminal Investigations of Venezuela (CICPC) patrol near a checkpoint in San Antonio, Táchira, Venezuela, on August 22, 2015
The " rotating door" tactic

Thus, the first category would include those who are politically persecuted because they individually represent a political threat to the government, because they are political or social leaders; the second would be directed towards those who are part of a social group that needs to be intimidated or neutralized. On the other hand, certain persons are also arbitrarily detained who are used by the regime to support a propaganda, a campaign or a certain political power narrative. In fourth place, the category of extraction, refers to those persecuted with the objective of extracting information that allows the location of other people persecuted for political purposes and, finally, "depending on the purposes of the prison or persecution, it includes the Prisoners or Persecuted of Power, or PDP, who are the people unjustly imprisoned for the satisfaction of personal interests under the protection of the abusive and arbitrary exercise of their political power", underlines the investigation carried out by Foro Penal. 

Un manifestante de la oposición, es golpeado por un vehículo de la Guardia Nacional Venezolana (GNB) en una calle cerca de la Base Aérea Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda "La Carlota" en Caracas, Venezuela el 30 de abril de 2019
REUTERS/UESLEI MARCELINO - An opposition protester is hit by a vehicle of the Venezuelan National Guard (GNB) on a street near the Francisco de Miranda "La Carlota" Generalissimo Air Base in Caracas, Venezuela on April 30, 2019

The Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons - signed on 9 June 1994 - states that "forced disappearance" means the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with authorization, the support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law". "In Venezuela there is a diverse range of security forces that carry out control and repression actions under the structure of the Bolivarian regime," warns the Foro Penal in a report denouncing the increase in forced disappearances in this country during the last few months.

The interrupted daily life or how state repression can change your life

The New York Times tells the story of Ariana Granadillo, who was kidnapped without a judicial order. A crowd of Venezuelan government agents broke into her home and took her away. During the week following this event she was tortured and interrogated until one day, suddenly, she was allowed to leave. "I never, never, never got involved in any politics," said Granadillo, who would later understand that her situation was not unique. 

Miembros de la Guardia Nacional Bolivariana de Venezuela bloquean el acceso al Palacio Federal Legislativo, que alberga tanto a la Asamblea Nacional dirigida por la oposición como a la Asamblea Nacional Constituyente progubernamental, en Caracas el 15 de mayo de  2019
AFP/YURI CORTEZ - Members of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Guard block access to the Federal Legislative Palace, which houses both the opposition-led National Assembly and the pro-government Constituent National Assembly, in Caracas on 15 May 2019

Ariana Granadillo's life changed completely in February 2018, the day she was kidnapped. Her dream was to finish medical school. "They let us know [me and my cousin] that from then on they were the masters of our lives," she told the NYT.  In the building where they were tortured, "the music would go up and down, which at times allowed you to hear the screams of other people who were obviously being tortured," they recalled. 

Just three days later, this ordeal was repeated. The authorities put Granadillo and his family in a taxi without a license plate and hooded them to drive them to another house. This young woman remembers how an agent approached her, looked her in the eye and "without a word took a bag from her fist and placed it on my face, covering it completely. One of the men was holding my legs and my hands were behind my back, unmoving, tied".  Granadillo was reportedly arrested because she was the family of retired army colonel Oswaldo Garcia Palomo, who was accused by the regime of alleged military rebellion.

Miembros del Servicio de Inteligencia de Venezuela (SEBIN)
PHOTO/REUTERS - Members of Venezuela's Intelligence Service (SEBIN)

Fear forced Granadillo and his family to flee to a small town in Colombia. Her dream of becoming a doctor has been relegated to the background, partly because she has been unable to continue her studies by not keeping her academic papers. Even so, her biggest challenge is to face the drama of facing this event alone, without friends, as many are afraid to approach her because of the reprisals that the government might take. "I miss the innocence I had before this happened. From then on, I discovered an evil in human beings that I did not even know existed", she assured the American newspaper.

José Alberto Marulanda, a medical doctor and surgeon, lived an experience similar to Granadillo's. It was on May 20, 2018, the day of the presidential elections, when he was arrested and later subjected to torture that included suffocation with bags or beatings that caused serious damage to his ears and other parts of his body. He was locked up - according to Foro Penal - by the DGCIM in a place known as " the crazy room", a small completely dark enclosure, where he was interrogated and tortured for having had a sentimental relationship with a National Navy officer accused of organizing a military uprising. 

Miembros de la Policía Nacional Bolivariana (PNB)
AFP/LUIS ROBAYO - Members of the Bolivarian National Police

The story of Granadillo and Marulanda is the same one that dozens and dozens of Venezuelans suffer every year. The lack of transparency, exacerbated in recent months by the coronavirus pandemic, has created the perfect scenario for these types of acts to occur more regularly, according to several NGOs. According to the report prepared by Foro Penal, forced disappearances have been and are used by the Government as a tool of repression in Venezuela.

What are the main trends? 
En esta foto del 5 de noviembre de 2016, los hombres detenidos por el presunto robo de una motocicleta son escoltados por un oficial de seguridad del comando antiextorsión y secuestro de la Guardia Nacional (CONAS), en el estado Sucre, Venezuela
AP/RODRIGO ABD - In this photo from November 5, 2016, men arrested for allegedly stealing a motorcycle are escorted by a security officer from the anti-extortion and kidnapping command of the National Guard (CONAS) in the state of Sucre, Venezuela

This research has observed two main trends: one in relation to numbers and the other linked to the modus operandi. In 2018, 200 enforced disappearances were recorded, while in 2019 this number rose to 524, in particular the number of disappearances of members of the military. The change in the modus operandi - according to the Penal Forum - has to do with the fact that while in 2018 a large part of the disappearances began with a predetermined detention, in 2019 this same phenomenon occurred in the context of civil demonstrations and military uprisings. 

Imagen gráfico Foro Penal
PHOTO - Graph obtained from the Criminal Forum report showing the number of arrests and enforced disappearances committed between 2018 and 2019

This situation has to do with the spiral of political instability in which this country is immersed. Thus, if until 2015 the power was assumed in almost its entirety by the party of Chavez and Maduro, from the elections of that year the monopoly of institutional power by the current president is broken and power began to be shared between the Presidency and the Assembly.  The political crisis in Venezuela worsened after Maduro decided to begin a second six-year term in January 2019; a term that neither the opposition nor a large part of the international community recognized because they considered the elections held on May 20, 2018 to be a "fraud".

Faced with this situation, the President of the Assembly, Juan Guaidó, proclaimed himself interim President of Venezuela with the aim of "ceasing the usurpation, creating a transitional government and holding free elections". Since then, the confrontation between both institutions has worsened the economic, political and social crisis that the country is suffering and has led to increased repression, mainly directed against members of the opposition. "Armed groups from the dictatorship arrived at the residence of Rafael Rico, a member of the team (of) Juan Guaidó. They kidnapped two workers: Rómulo García and Víctor Silio," said Guaidó's communications center last March.  

Un vehículo de la Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar sale del edificio donde vive Juan Márquez, tío del líder de la oposición venezolana Juan Guaido, en Caracas, Venezuela, el 20 de febrero de 2020
PHOTO/REUTERS - A vehicle of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence leaves the building where Juan Marquez, uncle of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, lives in Caracas, Venezuela, on February 20, 2020

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on Thursday denounced the constant detention of political leaders, journalists, trade unionists, health professionals and people who were protesting against public services during the coronavirus pandemic and said that Venezuelans "continue to suffer serious violations of their economic and social rights due to low salaries, high food prices, persistent shortages of public services such as electricity, water and fuel, and precarious access to health services".

Security forces in Venezuela: security or repression?  

Forced disappearances are just one more piece of the puzzle of repression in Venezuela, where arbitrary detentions and torture are a constant, as dozens of non-governmental organizations have warned. The forces set up by President Chávez to defend the Bolivarian Revolution -- the General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence (DGCIM) and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) -- are largely responsible for the disappearances.  

Miembros de la unidad de fuerzas especiales (FAES) están junto a los autobuses con ciudadanos venezolanos que regresan a su país después de pasar 14 días en cuarentena en la frontera entre Venezuela y Colombia
REUTERS/CARLOS EDUARDO RAMÍREZ - Members of the Special Forces Unit (FAES) stand by buses with Venezuelan citizens returning home after spending 14 days in quarantine on the Venezuelan-Colombian border 

However, in the Latin American nation there is a large number of security forces that use this type of tactic to achieve their objectives, such as the Bolivarian National Police (PNB), which includes the Special Action Forces (FAES). The latter has been equated to a "death squad" and is responsible for at least 7,523 violent deaths from "resistance to authority" in 2018, and at least 2,124 for the same reason between January and May 2019, according to a report by the NGO Venezuelan Observatory of Violence to which the Penal Forum has had access. 

In general, all ethics and deontology seeks to establish the set of duties that must inspire the conduct of a professional.  Recent events have shown us that in Venezuela, beyond protecting its fellow citizens and the community against violence, the security forces are used by the State to exercise its policies of repression.

Miembros de la Fuerza de Acción Especial de la Policía Nacional Venezolana (FAES) detienen a personas durante una patrulla nocturna, en Barquisimeto, Venezuela, el 20 de septiembre de 2019
REUTERS/IVAN ALVARADO - Members of the Special Action Force of the Venezuelan National Police (FAES) detain people during a night patrol in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, on September 20, 2019
Geography of Disappearances

"In 2018 there were 525 arbitrary detentions and 200 forced disappearances in Venezuela. This means that 38% of the detentions also resulted in forced disappearances. In 2019 there were 2,246 detentions and 524 forced disappearances. That is to say, 23% of the detentions also resulted in forced disappearances," the investigators of Foro Penal have noted in their report. This deprivation of liberty to which certain people are subjected has increased in the context of the protests that have arisen throughout the country as a result of the economic crisis. In 2018, the regime used enforced disappearance against the military, while in recent months it has mainly targeted opposition leaders or people critical of the regime. 

Miembros de la Guardia Nacional Bolivariana se encuentran fuera de la penitenciaría de Los Llanos después de que un motín estallara dentro de la prisión dejando decenas de muertos en Guanare, Venezuela, el 2 de mayo de 2020
REUTERS/FREDDY RODRIGUEZ - Members of the Bolivarian National Guard are outside the Los Llanos Penitentiary after a riot broke out inside the prison, leaving dozens dead in Guanare, Venezuela, on May 2, 2020

Caracas and the Capital District have been two of the regions where most people have been forcibly disappeared. Even so, disappearances have occurred in other states with smaller populations. "In states with a very low number of detentions, it seems likely that these have been strategic, as these cases should not theoretically be enough to overwhelm the system," explained Foro Penal. 

After preparing this report, this body has asked the Venezuelan Executive to "completely abandon this practice" and to immediately release all political prisoners. It also considers it necessary to "strengthen judicial independence and the independence and management of the Public Prosecutor's Office or to eliminate the participation of the military armed forces in citizen security activities".  Finally, they have urged the Government to dissolve the FAES and to ensure accountability for the abuses committed by this security force.

Miembros de la Policía Nacional Bolivariana de Venezuela
PHOTO/AFP - Members of the Bolivarian National Guard
Venezuela, a country broken by three crises

Venezuela's oil exports plummeted in June to their lowest level since 1943. The triple crisis (economic, social and political) that this country is suffering and for which repression has increased could not be understood without the fall in oil prices that began in 2013 and forced an entire country to face problems such as shortages of basic products, fiscal deficit or inflation. 

Marcha desde la sede del Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD) hasta la Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar (DGCIM), el presidente de Venezuela Nicolás Maduro
ZUMA/JIMMY VILLALTA - March from the headquarters of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to the General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence (DGCIM)

The measures adopted by Chávez after his arrival in the presidency as leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in 1998 managed to lift millions of Venezuelans out of poverty. Analyst Edgardo Langer described it in the article 'Process and implosion of rentier Venezuela' as 'endless growth'. This period of bonanza caused by the stability in oil prices caused the state to become more interventionist. 

El presidente de Venezuela Nicolás Maduro, a la derecha, acompañado por su ministro de defensa Vladimir Padrino López, saluda a su llegada al Fuerte Tiuna, en Caracas, Venezuela
PHOTO/AP - Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, right, accompanied by his Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, greets his arrival at Fort Tiuna in Caracas, Venezuela

During this decade the government acted as if the price of oil barrels would always be the same and increased its debt by spending all its extraordinary fiscal income, which caused Venezuela to be plunged into a deep economic crisis - caused by the fall in oil prices - which laid the foundations for the current political and social crisis.  In 2015, the lack of food and health services began to be a reality that five years later is experiencing one of its worst moments. 

This economic crisis translates into a deterioration in the quality of life of the population of a country that a decade ago had begun to believe that its living conditions could improve. This situation also creates the perfect scenario for the emergence of dissident movements, harshly criticized by the regime, in a nation characterized by the absence of freedom of expression. ​​​​​​​