The Faces of Repression


Por: Mariana Atencio

The fear gripping Venezuela's opposition is palpable in the plaza in front of the new headquarters of the country's intelligence agency, Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (officials raided her house looking ), home to the country's most notorious and secretive underground prison.

Twice a week Yamile Saleh emerges from the bowels of the subterranean jail in tears after visiting her only son, 26-year-old Lorent.

"Im scared of what might happen to Lorent. And really I don't wish this on anyone," she says, sitting a couple of blocks away from the building that was originally intended to be a subway station, but now houses the jail known as “La Tumba”. "What’s happening to me can happen to any mother in Venezuela," she asks.

Another mother, Jacqueline Muñoz, has nightmares after being “punished” regularly in an female prison. She was detained there for almost a year, after SEBIN officials raided her house looking for evidence that she had written a novel about the protests.

“They punished me by making me walk in a way they call ‘chicken,’ which is squatting, with your feet and ankles held together...and you have to walk,” she said.

Every night, Marco Coello, a 19 year-old student, tries to get some sleep -its been impossible due to the PTSD he suffers from since he was tortured after being detained in a protest.

Likewise, Marvinia Jiménez, a seamstress from the city of Valencia, trembles as she walks down the avenue where she was brutally beaten by a Government official, when she attempted to take cell phone pictures of National Guard troops shooting at student protesters.

“I went in search of evidence about human rights violations,” she said. “And I ended up being the protagonist of those human rights abuses.”

Even though the beating was captured in a viral video, Jiménez is being charged with five crimes. She fears for her life and her son’s life, as her assailant is free and a couple of months ago her house was shoot at by pro-government groups.

Ivette González’s father possibly had the worst outcome: he ended up hanged in a jail cell. 64 year-old Rodolfo presumably killed himself in jail. Ivette blames the authorities, who she says psychologically tortured her dad, threatening him with being transferred to a more dangerous prison.

“Nobody responds here,” she said. “A family is left desolated and sad. And life goes on. And my father is dead.”

Her torment isn’t over. Her mother, Josefa González, 67, is also being accused by the government, and is free on parole.

These are just five of 150 cases of cruel treatment, including torture, reported by the United Nations in Venezuela after last year’s protests. Likewise, the UN stated that 3,300 people, including minors, were detained between February and June of 2014.

The Intimidation Strategy

Ever since violent street demonstrations left 43 people dead last year, the government has been relentless in curtailing future protests by detaining opponents and subjecting them to cruel and inhumane treatment in jail.

According to the UN, those acts included beatings, electric shock, burns, asphyxiation, rape and threats, presumably with the objective of hiding actions by security forces, obtaining confessions or punishment.

This is particularly worrisome given that Venezuela was elected to sit on the United Nations Security Council until the end of 2016.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Committee have also expressed their concern that opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is still in jail after more than a year, recently joined by Antonio Ledezma, the Mayor of Caracas.

And earlier this year, the Venezuelan Defense Ministry passed a resolution allowing the use the deadly weapons to curtail protests. The decree, which critics claim violates Article 68 of the Constitution, does not differentiate between violent and peaceful protests.

The intimidation tactics appear to be working. A year after the street protests, Venezuela's economy is rapidly worsening, violence is soaring to new heights, and currency controls, monstrous inflation and product shortages have made life a daily struggle.

In short, Venezuelans have more reason to protest than ever before. But they're not, because fear of reprisal has become debilitating.

Giving way to torture

"This government has specialized not only on physical torture, but on psychologically torturing those who don't think like them," said 26-year-old Mariana de Carrero, whose husband Gerardo was detained a year ago when government officials destroyed an Occupy-like student camp in front of the UN headquarters in Caracas. Carrero was held in "The Tomb" for six months.

Mariana says her husband got "spots on his skin, especially on his back" from his time in the underground cell. "He was covered with black spots because he couldn't see the sun," she asks. "His eyes were yellow...and his skin was very white, even though my husband is dark-skinned."

Gerardo was eventually transferred to another prison in February, but his wife says the torture has continued there.

"In the headquarters of El Helicoide he was physically tortured. They hit him on the legs with wooden planks until the wood broke in half. He was hanged by his arms for 12 hours," she asks.

In March, a human rights expert from the Robert F. Kennedy Center testified before the Senate detailing how detainees inside "The Tomb" suffer from vomiting, diarrhea, fever and hallucinations, but are denied proper medical treatment.

"That place is a lab”, said Yamile, the mother of Lorent Saleh, who has been detained there for over 8 months. “They are analyzing what they think, what they say, with cameras and mics.”

Saleh tried to take his own life inside The Tomb, as confirmed by Noticias Univision. His lawyers later corroborated that the event happened on April 20th.

His case is complex. In September 2014 he was deported from Colombia, accused of violating the laws of political proselytism. Saleh was also blamed for participating in activities with neo nazi groups. In Venezuela he is accused of rebellion, among other crimes.

However, the UN recently criticized Colombia for no verifying whether Lorent was at risk of being tortured, if sent back to Venezuela.

Gabriel Valle, a student leader and accomplice of Lorent, is also inside "The Tomb".

Noticias Univision and our sister station, Fusion, repeatedly reached out to the Venezuelan government for comment on these cases, but both the office of the presidency and the ombudsman's office declined interview requests.

Back to the Past

Tales of torture are somewhat of a novelty in Venezuela. People haven't talked about torture here since the days of former dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in the 1950s.

But Venezuela recently had to appear before the UN Commission against Torture.

Gonzalo Himiob, of Foro Penal Venezolano, the country's main human rights organization, says the cruel treatment of opponents has become state policy.

"Last year we received close to 350-400 complaints, not only of torture but also of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," he said. "To date, we have documented 138 clearcut cases of torture."

The UN defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering —whether physical or mental — is intentionally inflicted on a person” for the purposes of confession, coercion or punishment.

The parents of 19 year-old Marco Coello said that’s exactly what happened to their son, who was arrested during a protest and detained for seven months. He was accused of conspiring against the government with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez — an accusation the family denies.

“About 80 witnesses have been called forward and up until now they haven’t been able to present sufficient evidence to prove Marco’s guilt,” said Doris, sitting next to their son, who remained silent after his lawyer advised him not to speak.

Marco's dad, Armando, said his son is dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, and is still undergoing psychiatric treatment.

"He was wrapped and taped inside a roll of foam and beaten with fire extinguishers, bats, clubs, and had a loaded gun pointed at him. They even tried to make him sign a confession. They doused him in gasoline, threatening to light him on fire," both parents said.

Punishing Disillusionment

It's not only students or protesters getting plucked off the streets.

Ivette González says her 64-year-old father Rodolfo, a retired airline pilot, was detained in El Helicoide for 10 months. He was accused of being the logistical organizer of the protests. Rodolfo voted for Hugo Chávez, but became disillusioned with the chavista project. President Maduro dubbed him "The Aviator" during a televised speech.

"He was never physically tortured, but psychologically yes, because he was constantly threatened with being transported to a more dangerous prison. That was his biggest torment," said Ivette.

After a prison committee visited his cell, allegedly to evaluate him for relocation to a harsher prison, González hanged himself in his cell. He never went to trial.

Ivette said she was devastated to learn about her father's death on social media.

"When they allowed me to see my father's corpse, he was on the floor. They removed the sheet, and I threw myself at him. I hugged him, told him I loved him, and said goodbye," she asks.

The prosecutor in charge of Rodolfo's case was Katherine Harrington, the same sanctioned Venezuelan official who oversaw Lorent Saleh's case. She has recently been promoted to head a Government Ministry.

“No Venezuelan is exempt from being watched, persecuted or detained if you don’t agree with the government’s socialist ideas, regardless of age or social status,” said Elenis Rodriguez, Gonzalez’s lawyer and a member of Fundeci, a local NGO.

Cooperating Patriots

In a scenario that has become all too common, González was reported to police by a neighbor who was suspicious of his support for the students.

These secret neighborhood watch groups call themselves "patriotas cooperantes" or "cooperating patriots" and have contributed to the general climate of fear here.

55-year-old Maria Magalis was also snitched on for tweeting against the government. The SEBIN then arrested her son Leonardo on trumped up charges to lure her down to the station, where she was arrested.

“They had everything, her IP address, the internet provider. They knew where our wifi signal was coming from. The SEBIN was at our neighbor’s house days before the arrest,” says daughter, Leyda, who was with her mother at the police station.

Leyda said the SEBIN officials, who had printed her mother’s tweets and circled them in red, told her, “There are certain people on Twitter making inappropriate comments about the government.”

Her mother was arrested for over six months, despite suffering from depression and kidney failure.

“My mom’s detention was very traumatic for us. I stopped eating,” Leyda says. “I couldn’t get over the trauma, knowing that my mother was detained, not only at her age, but given her physical conditions and the state of her health.”

At the time of her arrest, her Twitter handle @marletmaga had a little over a 1,000 followers. She was one of eight people arrested between August and October for tweeting messages criticizing the government.

Maria Magalis was finally released on April 10. She’s been legally prohibited from tweeting, according to her lawyer.

A Policy of Fear

These cases illustrate what has happened in Venezuela for the past year. They are an example of the politics of fear imposed by the government to prevent protests.

Marco still can’t sleep at night.

Jacqueline tries to finally publish her novel, but doesn’t want to go back to jail.

As she leaves her house every day, Marvinia fears for her life.

And every Monday and Friday Yamile Saleh seats on a bench in Plaza Venezuela staring at the gray building that houses her son five stories below ground. Tears roll down her cheeks as she questions the point of civil disobedience.

""How does a parent tell her child not to love his country?, How could a parent tell her child not , to love his country?," she asks. "How do I tell him that it's not worth fighting for Venezuela?"