The Venezuelan State must hold those responsible for extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture to account, and prevent further acts of this nature from taking place, said the United Nations Independent International Fact-finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in its first report, published today.
The Mission investigated 223 cases, of which 48 are included as comprehensive case studies in the 443-page report. Additionally, the Mission examined 2,891 other cases to corroborate the patterns of violations and crimes.
Although it recognized the nature of the crisis and the tensions in the country and the responsibility of the State to maintain public order, the Mission found that the Government, State agents and the armed groups that worked with them had committed flagrant violations of human rights of men and women in Venezuela. It identified highly coordinated patterns of violations and crimes in accordance with State policies and part of a generalized and systematic course of conduct, thus constituting crimes against humanity.
The Mission found that high-level state authorities had and exercised power under the supervision of the security forces and intelligence agencies identified in this report as responsible for these violations. President Maduro and the Ministers of the Interior and Defense were aware of the crimes. They issued orders, coordinated activities and provided resources in support of the plans and policies under which the crimes were committed.
“The Mission found reasonable grounds to believe that the Venezuelan authorities and security forces have planned and carried out serious human rights violations since 2014, some of which – including arbitrary executions and the systematic use of torture – constitute crimes of against humanity,” said Ms. Marta Valiñas, president of the Mission.
“Far from being isolated acts, these crimes were coordinated and committed in accordance with state policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanders and senior government officials.”
Even conservative estimates suggest that Venezuela has one of Latin America’s highest murder rates by state agents.
The Mission investigated 16 cases of police, military or joint operations that resulted in 53 extrajudicial executions. It also examined 2,552 additional incidents in which 5,094 deaths occurred by security forces, although not all were necessarily arbitrary.
Between 2015 and 2017, the People’s Liberation Operations (OLP), supposedly established to combat crime, led to arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions. The Mission investigated or examined 140 such operations, which resulted in the deaths of 413 people, sometimes shot at point-blank range.
Senior government officials repeatedly praised the operations, often involving hundreds of armed officers who raided entire areas, sometimes using armored vehicles and helicopters. In September 2015, an OLP in the Santa Rosa de Agua de Maracaibo area, Zulia State, left five men dead and more than 60 detained, most of them fishermen returning from work, women were abused and household items were looted.
Eight of the operations examined resulted in 10 or more deaths. Following criticism of heavy-handed tactics, the government relaunched the OLPs as Operations for the Humanist Liberation of the People (OLHP) before phasing them out in mid-2017.
However, extrajudicial executions continued. Two security forces – the CICPC and the Special Action Forces (FAES) of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) – were responsible for 59% of all deaths perpetrated by the security forces in the period analyzed and were also the authors of the extrajudicial executions documented in the report.
PNB/FAES officials told the Mission that it was common practice to cover up the killings by planting weapons to simulate “confrontations,” a process that PNB/FAES officials refer to as sowing “seeds.” A source with insider knowledge confirmed that superiors could give officers a “green light to kill.” A FAES training video, authenticated by the Mission, shows officials being encouraged to “kill criminals without compassion.”
They also killed civilians following the implementation of a military plan. An operation in the Barlovento sub-region of Miranda State in mid-October 2016 ended in a massacre after soldiers arbitrarily detained 35 men, some of whom disappeared and were tortured. Twelve victims, all men 30 years of age or younger, were extrajudicially executed and buried in mass graves – two had bullets that pierced their skulls and 10 had probable machete wounds to the chest, neck and head. Another five are still missing.
The vast majority of unlawful killings by the security forces have not resulted in prosecution and at no time have officials with command responsibility been brought to justice.
“These extrajudicial executions cannot be attributed to the lack of discipline of the security forces. High-ranking officers had effective command and control over the perpetrators and knowledge of their actions, but were unwilling to prevent or suppress the violations. The murders appear to be part of a policy of eliminating unwanted members of society under the cover of the fight against crime,” said Marta Valiñas.
The FAES must be dismantled and those responsible for all security forces as well as their chains of command must be held accountable.
Arrest and torture for political reasons
The Mission also investigated the selective repression of state intelligence agencies.
The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) had the objective of identifying political dissidents and human rights activists, as well as other men and women who were perceived as contrary to the Government, while the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) had as a target military personnel and associated civilians, allegedly implicated, in rebellions or coup attempts.
Detained men and women were often held in poor conditions outside the official prison system, at the agencies’ headquarters in Caracas, or in unofficial ‘safe houses’. In some cases, victims were accused of bogus crimes, evidence was planted, and due process was flouted.
The detentions in some cases amounted to short-term enforced disappearances and included torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including acts of sexual violence, either to obtain confessions or as punishment. A former director of SEBIN told the Mission that the institution had a ‘cultural behavior’ of torture.
The torture techniques included: stress positions, suffocation, beatings, electric shocks, cuts and mutilations, death threats and psychological torture.
“The intelligence organizations also subjected the dissent – both men and women – to sexual violence, including rape with parts of the body or objects and threats of rape against the detained person or their loved ones, forced nudity, as well as beatings and electric shocks to the genitals. These acts of sexual violence also constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said Mr. Francisco Cox.
Former Navy Captain Rafael Acosta Arévalo died after being tortured in the custody of the DGCIM and at least two people have also died in the custody of the SEBIN.
“These arbitrary detentions, short-term disappearances and torture were directed against the civilian population as part of a policy to silence the opposition to Maduro’s government,” said Francisco Cox.
“Commanders, including high-level authorities within SEBIN and DGCIM, were fully aware of this pattern of crimes, which often occurred in the very buildings where they worked. The Mission has registered the names of more than 45 SEBIN and DGCIM officials directly responsible for these crimes that must be investigated and prosecuted.”
Violations related to protests
The Mission also documented violations amid the state’s increasingly violent response to massive opposition protests, especially in 2014, 2017 and 2019. This includes the killing of 36 protesters who were shot with firearms and weapons, less lethal practices, as well as practices of torture and other ill-treatment during detention, such as beatings, humiliations, sexual and gender-based violence, and mock executions.
State authorities also did not intervene in at least seven cases in which protesters were killed by armed civilian groups known as ‘colectivos’ (pro dictatorship armed gangs). This came amid the Government’s increasing reliance on military-civil coordination to maintain public order in recent years.
“The surveillance of protests and the system to authorize them are deeply worrying. The system is designed to prevent and discourage peaceful assemblies, often violently,” said Mr. Paul Seils.
“Of particular concern is the systematic practice of torture and cruel treatment of people detained in protests, not because of dishonest elements, but as part of a clear policy.”
A committed judiciary
The violations that the Mission investigated occurred amid a gradual breakdown of democratic institutions and the rule of law, including an erosion of judicial independence in Venezuela.
The judiciary of Venezuela did not serve to control other agents of the State. Further investigation is needed to what extent undue political influence has hampered judicial independence.
“The violations must stop. And impunity must end. Venezuelan authorities must immediately carry out prompt, effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into violations and crimes, holding perpetrators accountable and providing justice for victims. The victims must receive full reparation for the damage they have suffered,” said Marta Valiñas.
“Other jurisdictions, in accordance with their national laws, as well as the International Criminal Court, should also consider taking legal action against the individuals responsible for the violations and crimes that the Fact Finding Mission has identified.”