In a Brutal Year in Venezuela, Even Crime Fighters Are Killers

A funeral procession in Capaya, Venezuela, for men killed after raids by the security forces. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — The soldiers barged into Rafael González’s home as his mother and girlfriend looked on. It would be a routine questioning, they assured him and others arrested that night, before hauling them off to a dark military barracks.

What happened next was anything but normal, Mr. González recalled.

He was stripped naked, kicked and struck with the butt of a rifle, he said. Soldiers hung him by his arms from the ceiling with a cord, demanding to know whether he belonged to one of the gangs that had terrorized his neighborhood in Venezuela’s rural area of Barlovento with robberies and kidnappings.

“They told me: ‘We are going to play a game, Little Rafael. It is called electrocution,’” said Mr. González, who is 17. “They shocked me on the abdomen, the neck, the penis, the butt, the back, my hands — everywhere. I felt like my eardrums would explode.”

On Oct. 21, five days after he was arrested, Mr. González, bruised and terrified, was released, he said.

He would soon realize that he was among the lucky ones. Weeks later, the bodies of 13 others arrested in similar raids were found, most at the bottom of a mass grave. Many had been tortured, according to the authorities.

“Imagine how I felt as a mother,” said Petra Pérez, whose 18-year-old son, Anthony Vargas, was found dead, his body partly decomposed. “I’d had a little hope that my son was still alive, that my son was not in that lot.”

The killings at Barlovento, which government investigators have condemned as a massacre of innocents, have pointed to a troubling culprit in the country’s rising violence: its own security forces.

Venezuela has long suffered from one of the world’s highest crime rates. But the nation’s economic crisis, which has upended everything from its hospitals to its food supply, has deepened the misery and criminality.

A shop in Guasipati, Venezuela, that had been looted. The nation’s economic crisis has led to crime and unrest. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Killings have risen to 28,479 this year, the highest number ever recorded in the country, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an independent group that tracks violence.

Armed gangs have established a tight grip over neighborhoods, with many Venezuelans turning to crime as inflation shrivels their wages and jobs become harder to find.

Some of these armed groups were once anchors of government support in the barrios. These so-called colectivos started as community groups and were eventually armed by members of President Hugo Chávez’s movement, enabling their rise as militant defenders of the government.

But after Mr. Chávez died in 2013 and Venezuela’s economy began to spiral downward, some of his loyal street enforcers increasingly turned to crime, breaking with the government and joining a constellation of armed groups that kidnap, steal and kill.

In a jail cell outside Caracas. Many who have been arrested turned to crime because of the country’s economic woes. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

In a bid to restore order, the government has turned to the institution it trusts the most: the military. Throughout the country, the armed forces have become Venezuela’s law keepers, engaging in commando-style raids that sometimes take on the profile of urban warfare.

“It has become more militaristic and more repressive,” Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan political scientist, said. “Anyone can be caught.”

Ms. López said that the victims of the crackdowns were often the impoverished civilians who needed protection the most, and that the violence was a reflection of the severity of Venezuela’s decline.

“We are walking on the path to a failed state,” she said. “It will come to a point where no one is in control.”

A man with a makeshift catheter being held in a jail on the outskirts of Caracas. The security forces have been deployed to combat crime, but their actions have drawn criticism. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Tarek William Saab, a government ombudsman investigating the Barlovento case, said the victims were innocent men and women subjected to “the most unfortunate cases of cruelty and inhuman denigrations of torture.”

The authorities have said 18 soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel and a captain, had been arrested in connection with the killings. All will be brought to justice in Venezuela’s courts, Mr. Saab said, but he argued that the massacre was not part of a broader pattern of abuse.

Human rights groups and survivors of other raids strongly dispute that, saying the military has killed hundreds of people, many of them innocent.

Representatives of Venezuela’s military and national guard did not respond to requests for interviews. But one organization, Provea, which tracks deaths in raids by monitoring official statistics and local news reports, said more than 600 people had been killed this year in episodes like the one in Barlovento, up from about 245 in 2015.

The New York Times interviewed 10 victims of raids and members of their families who detailed a similar pattern of abuse. They described arbitrary detentions, violent interrogations and killings by security forces.

A cemetery overlooking a poor neighborhood in Capaya. Government critics say the security forces have detained and killed innocent people. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Rosinis Morales, 39, recalled a raid on Oct. 6 in her barrio in the capital, Caracas, saying security forces broke into her home and ordered the men inside to go with them. She said they had shot and killed her husband, José Alberto Gordillo, 32; her brother, Heller Morales, 34; and a family friend, Johnary Cardozo, 23. The government later said nine people it described as criminals had been killed in the raid.

Asdrubal Granados, 51, said his 25-year-old son, Yanderson, had been arrested during another raid that day in a different part of Caracas. Mr. Granados said the family had tried to find the son, who had previously been convicted of a robbery, by calling police stations, to no avail. He was later found in the morgue, shot to death, Mr. Granados said.

On Aug. 17, 2015, security forces raided the home of Joel Antonio Torrealba and his son Ángel Joel, 15, around 2 a.m. on Margarita Island on the country’s central coast, according to the father. He said they had shot his son dead while he had been in bed. “He was just sleeping,” Mr. Torrealba said.

Mr. Torrealba said he, his wife and his daughter, 21, had been arrested, only to be released in an abandoned lot far from their homes, with no explanation.

But none of these raids have resulted in the same kind of public accusations as in the Barlovento case, in which both victims and the authorities have cited beatings, torture and homicide.

It all began on television. On Oct. 10, Néstor Reverol, the country’s powerful interior minister, released a video in which he stood before soldiers and armored vehicles, announcing that he would send nearly 1,400 members of the security forces into six municipalities.

“It’s an important deployment that will run the entire axis of Barlovento,” said Mr. Reverol, a military general who is wanted in the United States on charges that he aided drug traffickers.

Barlovento, a stretch of the coastal plains east of Caracas, is a cluster of towns and villages where the capital’s urban areas give way to farms cultivating cacao. But rising crime had shattered the countryside idyll. Residents said they were terrorized by armed gangs who regularly robbed farmers, carjacked vehicles and held villagers for ransom.

Gang members in Bolívar State, in eastern Venezuela. A constellation of armed groups have turned to kidnappings and robberies. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Few suspected there was anything to fear from the arrival of the soldiers, whom they believed had been sent to help them.

“It was the first time something like this had happened to us,” Ms. Pérez said.

Mr. González, the 17-year-old who said he had been shocked with electricity, was among the first arrested on Oct. 16. He had been spending the evening burning the family’s trash nearby and had just returned home when, he and his mother said, two soldiers entered the living room and forced him into a jeep.

A five-day ordeal began, he said. At the military barracks, he said, he was stripped naked and photographed. Around 10 p.m. he said, he and five others were taken to a jail where the soldiers tied his arms together, threw him on the ground and stomped on his head.

“If you scream, it will only get worse,” he said one of them had warned.

They stripped him naked again and blindfolded him, he said, and then poured buckets of water onto his face, asking him if he had anything to confess.

“I knew nothing,” he said. “I was just a quiet kid and didn’t run around with anyone.”

In another room, with his eyes covered, he was given electric shocks for about 40 minutes as the soldiers continued to press him about Barlovento’s gangs, he said.

“‘If you are going to kill us, do it now, but don’t keep us suffering this way. Not even dogs would do this,’” he recalled pleading.

Around the same time, security forces were catching others in Barlovento.

On Oct. 15, Carlos Marchena, a 20-year-old who worked at his family’s trucking company, was holding a small party when soldiers entered and forced the men to kneel, according to his widow, Mayerlin Pita. They took the men’s identification cards and loaded them into trucks. It was the last time she saw her husband alive, she said.

The next day, Luis Sanz, a 30-year-old mechanic, was arrested by soldiers, members of his family said. Seven or eight soldiers in ski masks raided the house, his sister Alimirely Sanz said, pushing everyone aside except for Mr. Sanz. Lucía Espinoza, his mother, said she had been thrown to the floor in the melee.

“‘You mothers are the accomplices; you go about aiding and abetting,’” Ms. Espinoza said the soldiers had told her before taking her son away.

The Sanz and Marchena families, along with those of many other people who had been detained, began gathering at a military barracks known as El Café, where they believed their loved ones were being held. For three days, they brought food, water and clothes, handing them to the soldiers in the hope they would pass the items along to the detainees.

Weapons confiscated by the authorities. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

But on the third day, Ms. Pita said, she realized something had happened.

The soldiers who had been accepting the food started telling relatives that they had no registry of their loved ones, or that they had been taken to a different facility, relatives said.

On Oct. 18, Mr. Reverol, the interior minister, returned to television to say the operation was a success. Security forces had dismantled what he called a dangerous criminal group called “The Anthony” and found a safe house being used for kidnappings.

“We are keeping our promise to keep advancing, to continue liberating the people,” he said.

A month passed with little news. Then the bodies appeared.

On Nov. 25, the authorities said, a tip led them to two corpses buried next to a highway. Ten more were found in a mass grave near a town in the area.

The families of those who had disappeared went to the morgue immediately. The smell of death hung in the air as national guardsmen kept order, allowing families to enter, one at a time.

Ms. Sanz said she had identified her brother by pictures of his teeth and clothes, because officials told her that the body was too badly decomposed to be viewed. Ms. Pita said a DNA test had confirmed that her husband, Mr. Marchena, was also dead.

Ms. Pérez identified her son, Mr. Vargas, through a number of tattoos, one on his chest.

“There is no doubt,” she said.

The death certificates of Mr. Sanz and Mr. Vargas, reviewed by The Times, said they had been killed by stab wounds to the neck. Mr. Marchena was killed by a shot to the head, according to his family.

“They killed them like animals,” Ms. Pérez said. “That’s how my son died.

Mourning in Capaya after the deaths of men taken in government raids. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Mr. Saab, the government investigator, said the events were evidence that the military should not be involved in fighting street crime.

“The army doesn’t have the preparation or the professional capacity to do crime prevention,” he said. “They’re not trained to do it.”

On Nov. 29, the remains of Mr. Vargas and Mr. Sanz were buried in their town, Capaya, along with two others. Much of the town came out for the procession, as the coffins wound past mud homes and a barracks where a dozen soldiers stood guard — the same one where the men were originally taken.

The caravan stopped several times as mourners looked out from their homes. Several motorcycle taxi drivers drove circles around their coffins, in a sign of respect.

“Anthony, my son, stand up and dance to your music,” Ms. Pérez screamed.

Moments later, the coffins were lowered into the ground.

Many of Capaya’s residents came out for the funeral procession. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Source: NYTimes