“… Brown skin, black skin, they were criminalized before, such was the racism. Poverty was criminalized: ´the poor are the criminals´… That is the reactionary vision, it is the vision of this problem [of crime in the barrios] from the bourgeois point of view… That was used here, and we are still struggling with those old vices, old poisons that inoculated the social body, police forces, security forces”.
Hugo Chávez, 2012
The Committee for the Peoples’ Rights (La Vega, Caracas) brings together relatives, neighbors, and friends of people who have been victims of police abuses in the popular Caracas neighborhood this year. Alongside a number of allied popular organizations, they published a statement explaining what had taken place, demanding answers from authorities, and calling for solidarity from Chavista movements.
What happened in La Vega?
Earlier this year, several police operations took place to confront the expansion of gangs that operate in our territory, a state measure which we consider legitimate and necessary. However, these operations also saw serious human rights violations against people who, like our relatives, have no connection whatsoever with the gangs’ actions.
We documented 23 cases of human rights violations during these operations. This is only a fraction of the total cases, which led family members to set up the Committee for the Peoples’ Rights (La Vega) to assume a leading role in defending our peoples’ rights.
Of the documented cases, 19 correspond to arbitrary arrests and 4 to extrajudicial executions. Within the framework of these operations, the police mistreated people and used excessive force, sowed evidence to simulate crimes, and carried out illegal searches, robberies and destruction of some of our homes.
Police actions in La Vega, which were presented to public opinion as a success in the legitimate fight against gangs, were largely directed towards young or innocent people. These victims shared one or more of the following characteristics: holding a previous criminal record of unrelated causes; being a relative of someone linked to the gang with whom they have no relationship; living close the gangs territory; having responded impolitely to police officers during the days in which these operations were carried out; and/or be passing through the sector at the time and place in which the operation unfolded.
While several of the real gang members are still at large, innocent people paid the price by being either unjustly detained or killed as a result of security forces’ arbitrary actions. We are alarmed that during these events, police officers went so far as to acknowledge that they acted with mandatory arrest quotas. The experience of quotas, in Venezuela and other countries, has historically led to human rights abuses.
What is the current situation?
Eight people remain detained in inhumane confinement. Six confessed under duress and a lack of information on how to obtain a precautionary measure. Two are under house arrest. Three are on trial. In the cases of extrajudicial executions, there are three complaints filed with the attorney general’s human rights office.
The limited defense of our family members, whether through lawyers we have secured or public defenders, has been largely characterized by great weaknesses in due process and the right to defense. In many cases, key testimonies were excluded, evidence was not presented or requested, public defenders had little or no access to the case file and could not communicate with the detained person or their family.
In the framework of the proceedings carried out by the [special government-appointed reform body] Commission of the Judicial Revolution, preliminary hearings have been held without defense attorneys and with different prosecutors from those who investigated the case.
Our relatives who remain arrested face inhumane conditions. They do not have enough space to sleep lying down, they go to the bathroom in the same area in which they are confined without any type of privacy or latrine. They use devices such as plastic bottles, bags or paper boats that are then deposited in a trash bag. They must pay $1 to go outside and $5 to receive visits. Depending on the officers on duty, we have also had to pay to even get them food. In these terrible conditions, two people in La Yaguara Prison (Caracas) who are not related to the events in La Vega have died during the last two months.
[Note: On November 17, two of the people on trial were sentenced to six years in prison. The Committee decried the ruling and vowed to appeal.]
What impact has this had on our community and families?
In the sectors affected by these actions, most are very afraid of the police and feel impotence, anger and sadness. Our people know that many innocent bystanders were killed and arrested during these operations. This type of practice contradicts the rights that we as a people achieved with the  constitutional process. It also contradicts the egalitarian principles of our Bolivarian Revolution, since it is innocent people from the popular sectors who are criminalized, generating popular demobilization and the reproduction of poverty.
In our families, this situation has had a severe psychological impact in terms of nerves, helplessness, sadness, anger and great anguish due to the uncertainty about what may happen to our relatives. It has also implied a significant economic hardship due to the thefts carried out by officers during the operations, which have deprived us of important work tools. Likewise, many have had to leave their jobs to take on the legal and food responsibilities of family members. On top of everything we must pay the police in order to visit our people and ensure that they enjoy better conditions of detention.
Several of us are experiencing problems of blood pressure and anemia as a consequence of the despair and economic deficiencies that we face.
Those arrested have lost their jobs and feel a lot of anger, sadness and helplessness at being blamed for a crime they did not commit. The prison conditions have traumatized them to such an extent that many, even after getting out, suffer psychological problems such as not being able to speak without breaking down when they recall their experience while detained.
As a result of the inhumane prison conditions in which they find themselves, the health of our relatives has also been affected by significant weight loss and serious skin infections.
What do we request?
We ask the Bolivarian government and the Venezuelan criminal justice system to:
1. Review the cases of our relatives to verify the evidence chain deficiencies against them, as well as examine irregularities that occurred in the hearings that violated their rights to due process and defense.
2. Commute the pre-trial detention of the eight people unjustly detained to house arrest, so that they can face trial in freedom in strict observance of their rights to due process and defense which are guaranteed in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
3. Allow an adequate defense with public defenders who know the case files and meet with us and family members to agree on a defense strategy.
4. Ensure an impartial sentence that grants full freedom to the people who were unjustly detained as well as justice and damages for the people who were killed by the police.
5. Carry out an adequate investigation to penalize and discipline the civil servants and police officers responsible for the abuses committed.
6. Transform the inhumane conditions of imprisonment in La Yaguara and in Zone 7 of Boleíta prisons.
7. Stop the criminalization of poverty in our neighborhoods and set a revolution in motion within the police forces so that they are on the side of the interests of the people, respecting human rights.
Of the popular Chavista movements we ask:
1. Solidarity, support and accompaniment in the face of police abuses. What is happening to us today in La Vega is also happening or could happen in other places. Only together can we bring about a true transformation of class- or race-based prejudice that, as Commander Chávez denounced at the time, still characterizes the actions of the police forces and the entire penal system.
Only the people save the people!
No More Criminalization of Poverty!
Committee for the Peoples’ Rights (La Vega, Caracas)
To see the complete list of people and organizations that signed the letter follow this link.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.