The Washington Post

U.N. investigat­ors accuse Venezuela’s top leaders of crimes against humanity

Report says president and inner circle order abuse to silence dissent

- BY MARÍA LUISA PAÚL

Screams often spill out in the halls of El Helicoide, the headquarte­rs of Venezuela’s intelligen­ce service, investigat­ors say. Inside the imposing, spiral-shaped building in the center of Caracas, they found that detainees — who are often journalist­s, activists or government opponents — are routinely subjected to beatings, rape, electric shocks, mutilation, asphyxiati­on and other types of torture.

The orders for the abuse — which internatio­nal organizati­ons and human rights leaders say constitute crimes against humanity — usually come from the highest level of government: the president and his inner circle, according to a new U.N. report.

“President Nicolás Maduro, supported by other high-level authoritie­s, stand out as the main architects in the design, implementa­tion and maintenanc­e of a machinery with the purpose of repressing dissent,” U.N. investigat­ors concluded.

Tuesday’s report is the third to be released by the U.N. FactFindin­g Mission on Venezuela (FFMV) since 2019, when it began assessing the country’s human rights violations. The previous documents delved into extrajudic­ial killings, arbitrary detentions and torture in Venezuela, as well as the justice system’s response to such violations. But by carrying out interviews with nearly 250 people, the FFMV says it has identified the chain of command that works to silence, discourage and quash opposition to the government.

“This has been the most blunt report when it comes to pinpointin­g who’s responsibl­e,” Enderson Sequera, a Venezuelan political analyst, told The Washington Post. “It shows the real reason why we haven’t been able to recover democracy and freedom in Venezuela — because we’re facing an authoritar­ian regime that is capable of murder, torture and persecutio­n to stay in power.”

The report’s evidence points to Maduro, his closest allies, and two state military and civilian intelligen­ce services — namely, the Directorat­e General of Military Counterint­elligence (DGCIM) and the Bolivarian National Intelligen­ce Service (SEBIN).

In El Helicoide, where SEBIN operates, “substantiv­e orders mainly came from President Maduro,” the agency’s former director, Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, told investigat­ors. Diosdado Cabello, the country’s former vice president and a member of the National Assembly, would also provide a list of targets to detain — mainly civilians, highprofil­e critics and opposition members. The government would then surveil those targets, sometimes bugging their phones, before planting evidence on them, arresting them without warrants or kidnapping them, according to the report.

Detainees told investigat­ors that once inside the prison, they were subjected to torture ranging from death threats against their families to forceful feedings of feces and vomit. Some recalled being put on “la señorita,” a device that lifts and distorts bodies before plunging them into a water tank. At other times, they were held naked inside a room with freezing temperatur­es, under bright lights and in isolation — a form of psychologi­cal abuse that distorts the senses, the report states. Detainees also frequently experience­d sexual violence, investigat­ors found.

“One male detainee reported that SEBIN agents threatened to rape him, and forced a gun inside his mouth,” the report details. “When he started crying, they laughed. The agents then made him ask for their blessing.”

Those acts were closely mirrored about eight miles east in Boleíta, which houses the DGCIM’S detention cells and administra­tive offices. Prisoners there include current and former military officers, some of whom are accused of plotting against Maduro or not showing enough support for the government, the report states. Similarly to SEBIN’S modus operandi, “in certain cases, President Nicolás Maduro and other persons of his inner circle, as well as other highlevel authoritie­s were involved in selecting targets,” according to the report.

Investigat­ors recorded over 120 cases of torture in Boleíta. In one, the DGCIM officials created a game using a long stick where they had “detainees fall backwards on the stick to see if it would enter their anuses,” according to the report. Another man was made to conduct a “torture session” of other detainees.

“Guards required him to hit five men on the head, after they had been forced to jump up and down and then to kneel, while naked. The men were in their sixties and seventies,” investigat­ors wrote.

The report also details abuses in Arco Minero del Orinoco, a swath of gold-mining land in southern Venezuela that has turned lawless as state and armed criminal groups battle for control of the precious mineral — leaving local population­s, including Indigenous communitie­s, caught up in the violence. According to investigat­ors, they too have been subjected to extortion, murder, disappeara­nces, beatings, sexual violence and an utter lack of the rule of law.

“Our report highlights the need for further investigat­ion of this region which is, paradoxica­lly, an almost forgotten area of the country that at the same time generates large amounts of both licit and illicit wealth from minerals,” Patricia Tappatá Valdez, a member of the FFMV, said in a news release.

Venezuelan government entities, including SEBIN, DGCIM and the office of the president, didn’t immediatel­y respond to requests for comment from The Post. However, when the first report published in 2020, the government — which hasn’t allowed the FFMV to enter Venezuela — denied its findings. The country’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jorge Valero, has insisted Venezuela is “a free, democratic, sovereign and independen­t nation where human rights are respected.”

Sequera, the political scientist, disagreed: “This isn’t a democracy with problems. The report demonstrat­es that a regime change isn’t just a democratic ideal, it’s essential. The truth is that in Venezuela, it can be any day that a citizen could be subjected to these crimes.”

The findings, Sequera said, put pressure on the internatio­nal community to “deeply assess whether they’ll continue turning a blind eye to the crimes against humanity in Venezuela, or take a stand to protect the victims by taking actions against the regime.”

It’s those human rights violations, he added, that have played a major role in precipitat­ing Venezuela’s immigratio­n crisis — one that has forced nearly 7 million people to flee the nation since 2015, with many seeking asylum in the United States.

But the biggest tension, he added, falls on Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who has restored the diplomatic relations with Venezuela that were severed in 2019. Last week, Maduro said Petro asked him to serve as a guarantor in peace talks that will begin later this year between Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army, the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group.

“The question for Petro would be: Can a person accused of crimes against humanity be a guarantor in a peace treaty that’s so important for his government?” Sequera wondered.

 ?? YURI CORTEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? A U.N. report details instances of torture at El Helicoide, the headquarte­rs of Venezuela’s intelligen­ce service in Caracas.
YURI CORTEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES A U.N. report details instances of torture at El Helicoide, the headquarte­rs of Venezuela’s intelligen­ce service in Caracas.

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