While Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, the illegitimate authoritarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro usurped control over the executive, judicial, citizens’ power (which includes the prosecutor general and ombudsman), and electoral branches of government, and stood up a parallel, illegitimate legislative body alongside the existing elected one. On January 10, 2019, Maduro’s constitutional term as president ended, but he refused to cede control based on his claimed “victory” in the 2018 presidential elections, which were widely condemned as neither free nor fair. On January 23, 2019, Juan Guaido, as president of the National Assembly, assumed the role of interim president pursuant to the provisions of the constitution related to vacancies. Maduro, with the backing of Cuban security force members, refused to cede control over the instruments of state power, preventing interim president Guaido from exercising authority within the country despite his constitutional mandate. On December 6, the illegitimate Maduro regime organized parliamentary elections that were rigged in favor of the regime, and nearly 60 countries and international bodies publicly declared the elections were neither free nor fair.
Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces declined and was deeply politicized. Increasingly unpopular with Venezuelans, the illegitimate Maduro regime depended on civilian and military intelligence services, and to a lesser extent, progovernment armed gangs known as colectivos, to neutralize political opposition and subdue the population. The National Guard–a branch of the military that reports to the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the National Scientific Criminal and Investigative Corps, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, which collects intelligence within the country and abroad and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The Venezuelan National Police reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the national police largely focused on policing Caracas’ Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The national police maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states. Members of security forces committed numerous abuses, and a UN report concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe that government authorities and security forces committed crimes against humanity.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces of the illegitimate Maduro regime and colectivos; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; and unlawful interference with privacy. The regime imposed serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, routinely blocking signals and interfering with the operations of, or shutting down, privately owned television, radio, and other media outlets. The regime essentially criminalized freedom of speech by declaring reporting unfavorable to its policies as libel and slander, incitement to violence, or terrorism, including accurate reporting regarding COVID-19 infection rates. The illegitimate Maduro regime used violence to repress peaceful demonstrations and freedom of assembly. The regime and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property and that of other nongovernmental organizations and civil society. Citizens were unable to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, and there were restrictions on political participation as well as intimidation, harassment, and abuse of National Assembly members, including denial of due process and parliamentary immunity. Pervasive corruption and impunity continued among all Maduro-aligned security forces and in other national and state regime offices, including at the highest levels, which the illegitimate regime made minimal efforts to eliminate. Other significant issues included trafficking in persons, including forced labor; violence against indigenous persons; and existence of the worst forms of child labor.
The illegitimate regime took no effective action to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the illegitimate Maduro regime committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Although the regime did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and regime-supported colectivos, carried out thousands of such killings during the year.
The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office for Protection of Human Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials. There was also no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced to prison for involvement in extrajudicial killings, which, in the case of killings committed by police, were often classified as “resistance to authority.”
On August 20, FAES officers shot and killed journalists Andres Nieves Zacarias and Victor Torres during a raid at the headquarters of Guacamaya TV in Zulia State. Torres’ father, the director of the television station, stated FAES officers then seized all of the station’s audiovisual equipment and planted weapons on the victims’ bodies to simulate an alleged confrontation. Illegitimate regime attorney general Tarek William Saab called the homicides extrajudicial killings, and four FAES officers were arrested in connection with the killings.
The illegitimate regime attorney general reported that from 2017 to July, one officer was convicted of homicide for killings in the context of security operations. The regime did not release details on the officer’s conviction or other investigations of security officers involved in killings. The OHCHR found that investigations of human rights violations committed by regime security forces were hampered by its refusal to cooperate, tampering with evidence, judicial delays, and harassment of relatives of victims. According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal. In many cases the regime appeared to be scapegoating low-level functionaries while allowing high-level officials who issued the illegal orders to continue in their positions.
A UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela report released in September stated that extrajudicial killings were committed by officers belonging to the military, police, and intelligence services, including in more recent years by FAES and the National Scientific Criminal and Investigative Corps (CICPC) officers. The FFM asserted that some high-level authorities had knowledge of and contributed to the crimes, while others who knew or should have known of the crimes did not take measures to prevent or stop them. Victims were typically young men, targeted due to alleged criminal activity, revenge, or mistaken identity, who were shot and killed in their homes or neighborhoods. Media and NGOs reported security forces attempted to cover up extrajudicial killings by planting evidence or altering crime scenes to suggest an altercation or attempted escape by the victim. The FFM concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe that authorities and security forces planned and executed serious human rights violations, including killings, some of which amounted to crimes against humanity, since 2014. The FFM report also stated there were reasonable grounds to believe that Maduro and other regime officials either ordered, contributed to, or were involved in the commission of the crimes and human rights abuses documented in the FFM report.
The NGOs Foro Penal and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights documented 753 enforced disappearances of political detainees between 2018 and June 2020. An OHCHR investigation found that almost all individuals detained by the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) were subjected to enforced disappearances for periods of seven to 40 days after their arrest, raising their risk of also becoming victims of torture and abuse. The illegitimate Maduro regime continued to deny requests by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to visit the country to conduct an investigation.
On March 10, FAES officers detained National Assembly (AN) deputy Renzo Prieto and two assistants, without a warrant for their arrest, after the three participated in a protest in support of interim president Guaido. The illegitimate Maduro regime authorities did not disclose Prieto’s location, nor did they allow any form of communication between Prieto and his family or lawyers during his detention. Prieto’s family expressed significant concern for his state of health, due to an injury that required urgent surgical care and risk of contracting COVID-19. While in regime custody, Prieto stated he was forced to sleep on the floor in a frigid, windowless, four-by-eight-foot cell with five other detainees. On August 31, Prieto was released. Prieto previously had been in regime detention from 2014 to 2018, also after participating in a protest, in what the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was an arbitrary arrest.
The illegitimate Maduro regime arrested AN deputy Gilber Caro in December 2019, his third detention since 2017, and did not reveal his location or permit contact with his lawyer until January 21. On August 31, he was released.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were credible reports that Maduro-aligned security forces tortured and abused detainees. According to the illegitimate Maduro regime, as of May, 26 individuals had been convicted of torturing or abusing detainees.
The regime-aligned Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Human rights groups reported the regime continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. No official data were available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. The NGO Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because victims feared reprisal. The OHCHR found that in some cases doctors issued false or inaccurate medical reports not disclosing signs of torture.
Press and NGOs reported that beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military controlled by the illegitimate Maduro regime. Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were also reported during the year. Regime-aligned authorities reportedly subjected detainees to asphyxiation, electric shock, broken bones, being hung by their limbs, and being forced to spend hours on their knees. Detainees were also subjected to cold temperatures, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation; remained handcuffed for extended periods of time; and received death threats to themselves and their relatives. Detainees reported regime-aligned security forces moved them from detention centers to houses and other clandestine locations where abuse took place. Cruel treatment frequently involved illegitimate regime authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs detailed reports from detainees who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence by regime-aligned authorities. The FFM found that regime-aligned security forces, specifically the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) and DGCIM, subjected detainees to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and that high-level regime officials committed, ordered, or contributed to the abuses or were aware of their activities and failed to prevent or stop them.
Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in regime custody. Foro Penal noted instances in which regime authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, they were interrogated by security officials. PROVEA identified 574 cases of torture by regime-aligned security forces in 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least 23 individuals. NGOs reported that members of the military represented a growing number of victims of torture, such as retired naval captain Rafael Acosta Arevalo, who died of injuries sustained from torture while in regime custody in June 2019.
Political activist Vasco Da Costa, who had been detained in the Ramo Verde military prison despite being a civilian, was released in August 2019 after more than two years in regime custody. Da Costa described extended periods of torture at the hands of the DGCIM, including use of electric shocks, simulated drownings, and beatings to the feet and stomach to the point that he lost control of his bowels. According to Da Costa, prison guards systematically beat and mutilated detainees according to the detainees’ occupations, targeting the legs of soldiers, the hands of a surgeon who was arrested because he was the spouse of a soldier wanted by the regime, and in the case of Da Costa, his eyes due to his role as an academic.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Despite continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force, the illegitimate Maduro regime took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses. Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. NGOs noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other regime authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in police. The regime, backed by Cuban security force members embedded in Maduro’s security and intelligence services, refused to cede power, preventing the interim government from taking action.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, systemic violence, and poor infrastructure.
Physical Conditions: According to the NGO A Window to Liberty (UVL), prison capacity was approximately 19,000 inmates for penitentiaries and 5,000 for police station jails. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails. Overcrowding was 172 percent for penitentiaries and 415 percent for police station jails on average, although the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP) noted that in some jails the overcrowding ranged from 800 to 1,200 percent. Overcrowding and generally unsanitary conditions placed prisoners at increased risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and COVID-19.
There were two women’s prisons, one each in the states of Miranda and Zulia. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks. A local NGO reported that male and female prisoners intermingled. Illegitimate Maduro regime security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, although separate facilities existed. Because institutions were filled beyond capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers, where they were reportedly crowded into small, unsanitary cells.
The CICPC detention facility, police station jails, and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Long delays in court proceedings and prison transfers created a parallel system that held prisoners in police station jails, in some cases for years, although these facilities were designed to hold individuals only for 48 hours. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A UVL study of 248 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 315 percent overcrowding. The UVL also found that 5 percent of facilities provided medical services, more than 90 percent did not have potable water, 50 percent did not have regular trash collection or proper restrooms, and 35 percent lacked electricity.
The National Guard (GNB) and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The illegitimate Maduro regime failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with one guard for every 100 inmates, instead of one for every 10 as recommended by international standards. Armed gangs, known as pranes, exercised de facto control within some prisons.
According to the UVL and OVP, between March and August, 287 prisoners died in prisons and jails, more than double the number compared with the same period in 2018. Some deaths resulted from prison and detention center riots. For example, on May 1, GNB officers opened fire on prisoners during a riot at the Los Llanos penitentiary in Portuguesa State, leaving 47 prisoners killed and 67 injured. Illegitimate regime Minister of Prisons Iris Varela claimed the riot began as an attempted prison escape, an account disputed by inmates and their family members, who stated the prisoners were protesting malnutrition. Media reported the prison, which was designed for 750 prisoners, held at least 2,500 inmates. AN members called the violence a massacre, and human rights NGOs and the OHCHR called for an investigation. The illegitimate Maduro regime charged 10 persons for their involvement in the violence.
The OVP reported inmate deaths due to generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons, with 73 percent the result of tuberculosis and malnutrition. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates. The UVL reported that in more than 90 percent of detention facilities, prisoners depended upon family visits to supply them with food, water, and medicine. Media reported prison guards regularly stole food families purchased for inmates. Prisoners were unable to meet their basic needs when illegitimate Maduro regime authorities suspended family visits to prisons and detention centers on April 2 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A study by the NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces without food and medical attention.” The OVP reported a generalized lack of medical care, drugs, equipment, and physicians for prisoners. Inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms, and pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for medical attention.
Administration: The illegitimate regime’s Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding inmates or investigations of the harsh conditions that led to hunger strikes, violent uprisings, and massacres.
Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, until authorities suspended family visits in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. For political prisoners, prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits by family and legal representation. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.
Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers experienced lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. More than 300 lay members from the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church volunteered in 40 prisons. Although prohibited from formally entering prisons, Catholic laity visited prisoners on family visitation days. As of September the OHCHR had conducted 15 visits of 13 detention centers.