WORLD REPORT 1999 - Venezuela

Human Rights Developments
Venezuela’s intractable human rights problems, especially the ingrained abuses that have long been a feature of law enforcement work, remained of primary concern to human rights defenders during 1998. Police continued to use excessively violent methods against criminal suspects, including unjustified lethal force. Although Venezuelan human rights groups reported a significant decline in the number of deaths in such circumstances compared with previous years, the total number was still over one hundred for the first seven months of the year. Both police and military personnel beat and tortured suspects with little fear of punishment, given the virtual absence of prosecutions for this type of abuse. Although a vagrancy law that had been used to arbitrarily detain suspects was declared unconstitutional in October 1997, widespread arbitrary arrests were still reported during police anti-crime sweeps. At the same time, archaic judicial procedures and an underpaid and inefficient judiciary contributed to long delays in the trials of criminal suspects. Pre-trial imprisonment often extended for years, and two-thirds of the prison population had not even received a final sentence.

Prison conditions were among the grimmest on the continent, due to overcrowding, lack of staff, corruption, and extreme levels of inmate violence.

A more constructive position adopted by the government of President Rafael Caldera toward nongovernmental human rights groups created a favorable climate for measures to improve respect for human rights. Paradoxically, however, the greater legitimacy and official acceptance enjoyed by human rights defenders was offset by an increase in the number of death threats and other forms of harassment they suffered during the year.

The Venezuelan Program of Action and Education in Human Rights (Programa Venezolana de Educación y Acción en Derechos Humanos, PROVEA), a respected human rights monitoring group, reported 104 deaths resulting from the illegal use of lethal force in the first seven months of the year. This alarming figure represented a drop of more than 30 percent from the annual average of such cases reported since 1994. More than half of these cases were attributed to members of state and municipal police forces, the worst offenders being the Metropolitan Police (Policía Metropolitana, PM) and municipal police forces in Caracas and the state and municipal police forces of Zulia and Lara states. All three police forces that operated at a national level were also blamed by human rights groups and in press reports for deaths: the Technical Judicial Police (Policía Técnica Judicial , PTJ), which is responsible for criminal investigations, the National Guard (Guardia Nacional, GN), a volunteer force that is part of the Venezuelan armed forces, and the Directorate of Services of Intelligence and Prevention (Dirección de Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención, DISIP), dependent on the Interior Ministry and responsible for investigation of subversion and drug trafficking. Approximately half of the deaths recorded were apparent extrajudicial executions, while twenty-two criminal suspects were reported to have died in custody.

In some instances, police appeared to have searched for criminal suspects then executed them on the spot. Police, fabricatingevidence, sometimes claimed afterward to have fired in self-defense. In some cases, police seemed to have executed criminal suspects as revenge for prior attacks against officers. In a number of cases, the killings appeared to be the result of mistaken identity. In addition to deliberate killings, innocent civilians were killed or wounded because of indiscriminate or reckless shooting by police, often apparently unprovoked.

The case of sixteen-year-old Arturo José Hernández, a vendor at a vegetable market, illustrated the problem of police violence. Hernández was hit by gunfire on January 24, when members of the Metropolitan Police entered the Plan de La Silsa neighborhood in Caracas, reportedly firing their weapons wildly. According to neighbors’ accounts published in the press, Hernández was surrounded by police after falling with a gunshot wound. Rising to his knees, he showed his identification and begged for his life to be spared. The police took him away on a motorcycle. Hernández’s mother, Luisa Ramírez Mora, after searching in vain in hospitals and police stations, went to the Metropolitan Police headquarters, where she was told that her son was in the Bello Monte morgue. She found him with three bullet wounds in the chest. The forensic report reportedly documented other injuries, including compound fractures in his left leg and right wrist, a collapsed skull, and bruises to his back and disfigurement, suggesting that he had been tortured after entering police custody.

Relatives who denounced unlawful killings by police often faced harassment and threats. On June 8, for instance, municipal police from the Caracas district of Sucre fatally shot eighteen-year-old Freddy Antonio Díaz in circumstances that indicated that the police had, at the very least, used their weapons recklessly. At about 10:00 that evening, Yolima Díaz Rangel, a resident of the Caracas suburb of Petare, was told that municipal police officers were mistreating her fourteen-year-old nephew, Alí Eduardo Sojo Díaz. Arriving on the scene, Yolima Díaz spoke with the officers but received a slap in the face in response. She managed to rescue her nephew and, with the police in pursuit, took him into her home. According to witnesses present at the scene, one of the officers had drawn his weapon and pointed it at her. Despite Yolima Díaz’s warning that there were children in the house, the officer opened fire, wounding her in the left arm and hitting her son, Freddy Antonio Díaz, who fell to the ground. The municipal police officers initially refused to take the wounded boy to hospital until the arrival of a Metropolitan Police officer, who eventually persuaded them to do so. Freddy Díaz was dead on arrival. Several members of his family, including Yolima Díaz, his mother, were arrested and taken to the municipal police station, where the police allegedly threatened them not to denounce what had happened.

Venezuelan law made the punishment of police responsible for abuses very difficult. Investigators must carry out pre-trial administrative inquiries, known as nudo hecho, before an official could even be charged. Such inquiries were notorious for protracted delays ranging from months to years. At the same time, the proceedings in criminal investigations were secret, so human rights defenders and victims could not ascertain the status of probes or advocate for greater official interest in the cases.

Venezuelan human rights groups reported frequent cases of prolonged detentions without charge, some exceeding sixty days, in emergency zones along Venezuela’s border with Colombia, where constitutional guarantees were suspended throughout the year due to incursions by Colombian guerrillas. Authorities also explained the suspension of guarantees in terms of the risks run by cattlemen and traders of kidnappings both by guerrillas and common criminals. Most of those detained were held in military outposts on suspicion of collaborating with guerrillas. In past years, reports of the torture of detainees held without charge in the border zones received considerable publicity in the press. According to PROVEA, the Theater of Operations No. 1 (Teatro de Operaciones No. 1), a military task force in charge of law-enforcement in the border zone, was responsible for eleven of the thirty-five cases of torture reported in January through July. Detainees also frequently reported being beaten or otherwise mistreated at the time of arrest.

According to the Network in Support of Justice and Peace (Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz, or Red de Apoyo), military conscripts, forcibly inducted, also suffered brutal treatment. One such case was that of Robert Antonio Cabrera Márquez, a young Jehovah’s Witness who was detained on a bus in Caracas on August 17 by the Metropolitan Police and taken the next day to an air force base in Maracay. After he claimed to be a conscientious objector, Cabrera was allegedly beaten by servicemen. Cabrera alleged that they took him into a room where they locked him in a cupboard and threw in teargas grenades, which made him nearly suffocate and caused serious burns to his body.

Congress took a step toward the improvement of the notoriously slow judicial system when, in January, it adopted a new code of criminal procedure proposed by the Caldera administation. Expected to enter into full force in July 1999, the new code would allow for the oral, rather than exclusively written, presentation of evidence, promising to facilitate legal processes. The new code, if implemented, would also provide other human rights-related benefits. The nudo hecho procedure, identified by human rights groups as one of the most serious obstacles to police accountability, was due to be eliminated when the new code entered force, although it continued to be applied throughout the year. During the transitional period, certain provisions of the new code were implemented. Starting in March, for instance, criminal suspects and their legal counsel were given access to the findings of pre-trial criminal investigations, which were previously kept secret. In contrast, neither victims of police abuse nor the victims’ legal representatives were allowed access.

With some 25,000 inmates crowded into facilities built for far fewer, conditions in Venezuela’s prisons remained grim. Overcrowded, understaffed, physically deteriorated, lacking adequate medical services, conditions in many prisons were cruel, inhuman, or degrading, but their most appalling problem was their high levels of violence. With small numbers of guards exercising little effective control within the prisons, inmates—armed with knives, homemade firearms, pistols, and even grenades—killed each other with impunity. Reflecting on the abundance of such arms, a Venezuelan newspaper opined in March that, “The capacity for the production of rudimentary weapons in the country’s prisons outstrips, by far, that of any other craft activity in Venezuela.” The more than two tons of arms confiscated from several Caracas-area prisons over a three-month period certainly lent credence to this claim.

The first few months of the year witnessed a spectacular barrage of prison violence, even by Venezuelan standards. In theopening days of January, several prisoners at La Planta prison and Yare I prison had already reported been killed. By the end of the month, some thirty-six inmates had died violently. Besides individual killings, violent incidents in which several prisoners died occurred with almost monotonous regularity over the course of the year. On January 16, five inmates were killed at La Planta prison; on March 27, four were killed at the Venezuelan National Penitentiary; in mid-April, five more were killed there; in late May, seven were killed at the Judicial Internment Center of San Juan de los Morros; in mid-June, four were killed at the Tocuyito prison, and on July 23, five were killed at the Tocorón prison.

The rampant corruption of guards facilitated the entry of arms, drugs, and other contraband into the prisons. Even high-level prison officials were not immune to such illicit dealings, as suggested by the dismissal and criminal investigation of the director of Tocuyito prison in August; he was reportedly accused of misappropriating funds meant for the renovation of the prison infrastructure and for—in return for a substantial bribe—facilitating the escape of an inmate. Such corruption favored a minority of inmates, particularly those with money, to the detriment of larger inmate population.

Women prisoners were generally held in somewhat better conditions than men prisoners, although in Ciudad Bolívar, where a small number of women prisoners were confined within the men’s prison, living conditions for both men and women were horrendous, and women prisoners faced a heightened threat of sexual abuse. At the National Institute for Women, the country’s only women’s prison, some members of the National Guard allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with inmates.

The main cause of prison overcrowding remained the confinement of high numbers of unsentenced inmates. Indeed, some two-thirds of the Venezuelan prison population was made up of unsentenced inmates and others whose sentence was not final. In August, the minister of justice announced that 1,500 unsentenced inmates had languished for over three years in the prisons, compelling proof of the slowness of the criminal justice process.

Prison authorities primarily sought to handle overcrowding by building new penal facilities, a program of expansion begun in 1997—after nearly a decade without any new prison construction—with the opening of two new Caracas-area prisons. In late January, the Lagunillas prison opened in the state of Mérida, adding incrementally to the prison system’s overall capacity. A much more troubling development was the expansion and renovation of El Dorado prison, formally called the Penal Center of the Eastern Region (Centro Penitenciario de la Región Oriental), which was located in a remote jungle region near Venezuela’s border with Guyana. The prison’s relative inaccessibility reduced prisoners’ ability to maintain contact with their families, rendering it an extremely poor choice for expansion. Despite this obvious problem, the Ministry of Justice announced the reopening of the facility in August, stating that it would henceforth be used for the confinement of convicted prisoners from the country’s entire eastern region. In late September, the 1,300 prisoners held there initiated a hunger strike to call for improvements at the facility.

As this incident suggests, the prisons’ chronic deficiencies inspired numerous inmate protests, including frequent hunger strikes, some involving large numbers of prisoners. In March, at the Los Llanos prison in Guanare state, inmates’ family members participated in a protest against physical abuse by members of the National Guard. More than one hundred people, including some ninety women, refused to leave the prison when visiting hours were over, spending several days inside the facility in an attempt to draw attention to the need for improvements.

With El Dorado prison as a notable exception, the prison system’s strong suit remained its support of prisoners’ family relationships. Prisoners were allowed frequent and close contact with family members and friends, including conjugal visits. In late March, the Ministry of Justice announced a plan to install public telephones in all of the prisons, an innovation that would further assist prisoners in maintaining strong ties with relatives and friends.

Defending Human Rights
The improvement in the political climate for human rights advocacy noted in 1997 was maintained during the year, as the National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH), composed of key government ministers and the governor of Caracas, continued to meet with nongovernmental organizations to discuss a national agenda of human rights reforms and to participate in joint activities. The formation of a human rights commission within the armed forces brought the Venezuelan military into these discussions. Despite the holding of events and the release of publications aimed at promoting human rights, progress in implementing reforms was slow. The CNDH was not empowered to investigate human rights violations, but it did receive complaints and channel them to the respective authorities for investigation and action. The formation of a National Police Committee in 1997 led to the introduction of police human rights training programs, and police chiefs showed greater willingness to admit that abuses had taken place. In March, a human rights course for prison directors organized by the main non-governmental prison reform group was inaugurated with support from the embassy of Switzerland and the Basque government.

By the end of July, eight human rights defenders had been subjected to death threats and harassment for their work in favor of alleged victims of police abuse or advocating prison reform. Among those who received threats were Liliana Ortega, executive director of the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the Events of February-March 1989 (Comité de Familiares de los Sucesos de Febrero-Marzo de 1989, COFAVIC) , a group that has played a prominent role advocating prisoners’ rights, and Noel Azócar, president of the Human Rights Foundation of the State of Anzoátegui (Fundación de los Derechos Humanos del Estado Anzoátegui), which has denounced summary executions by Anzoátegui state police officials. Death threats made against volunteers for the Red de Apoyo appeared to be connected directly to their work on behalf of victims of police brutality. On June 5, Nilson Enrique Benítez Videz, a taxi driver, and José Pirela, a blacksmith, were killed in Maracaíbo, Zulia state, allegedly by members of the Technical Branch of the Judicial Police (Cuerpo Técnico de la Policia Judicial, CPTJ). Relatives of the victims, who strongly disputed the police version of the killings, enlisted the support of the Red de Apoyo. Thereafter, several relatives and two Red de Apoyo volunteer workers, Sergio Salvador and Maridex Valera, began to receive anonymous telephone calls. When they picked up the telephone theycould hear only the sounds of office equipment. Sergio Salvador, accompanying relatives, was shadowed by vehicles with darkened windows, while he tried to interview witnesses close to the scene of the shootings. On July 27, he was approached in the street by two men, who told him that if he persisted in seeking an exhumation of the bodies of Benítez and Pirela, “he would be the next to be exhumed.”

In June, PROVEA reported that human rights defenders in the state of Aragua had been publicly accused by state government officials of defending criminals and obstructing law enforcement. The officials allegedly encouraged individuals claiming to represent neighborhood groups to physically attack the activists. In PROVEA’s 1997 annual report Aragua had been signaled as the state with the highest number of extrajudicial killings in Venezuela, with more than thirty alleged cases. During the first seven months of 1998, the organization recorded only seven cases.

On June 5, three men claiming to be police officers stopped Carlos Nieto Palma, a human rights attorney and president of A Window to Freedom (Una Ventana a la Libertad), a prison reform group, as he arrived at his office in central Caracas and ordered him to accompany them. They took him by car to a house where they interrogated him about his activities, intimating that they suspected him of instigating prison riots. The men warned him to “take care what he was getting into since they were watching him and to leave the prisoners in our jails alone, so that they can kill one another.”

European Union
Direct financial support from European Union member countries to a range of Venezuelan nongovernmental human rights and prison reform organizations continued. Embassy officials helped to facilitate the ongoing dialogue between the non-governmental organizations and government officials, and attended policy-setting meetings as observers.

United States
As in previous years, public comment by the Clinton administration on human rights issues was limited to the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 , which in general provided a comprehensive and accurate picture of human rights conditions in the country.

World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank
The international community continued to direct its efforts toward supporting reform of Venezuela’s criminal justice and prison systems. World Bank support for Venezuelan judicial reform continued. A U.S.$150 million Inter-American Development Bank loan for prison modernization, restructuring of the public prosecutor’s office and the Judicial Police was under discussion in August with government authorities. Bank officials aimed to establish targets of a 10 percent improvement in key indicators such as levels of prison violence and delays in justice: these targets remained under discussion at the time of writing.