In this article, author Vanessa Moreno Losada explores a spate of deaths at the hands of Venezuelan security forces, questioning the legitimacy of the killings and if they represent a new form of death penalty in Venezuela.
For nine hours an elite unit from Venezuela's main national police agency (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas - CICPC) took control of Apartment Block 19 in the UD3 neighborhood of Caracas' Caricuao District. José Alfredo Chourio Mejías, Antony Gregorio Mejías, Mariangela Quintero Sánchez, Nelson Enrique García Oropeza, and one other youth died during the police siege after being singled out as having kidnapped the woman who owned apartment 601 on the 6th floor.
This article was originally published by Efecto Cocuyo and was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.
Police sources speaking off the record say that the youths threw a grenade in the living room, which prompted officers to open fire. The following day, media coverage described the siege as one more case of "criminals being killed in Caricuao."
"They said my son had captured the owner of the apartment. I am the owner of this house, and I was not there that day," said the mother of José Alfredo. Neighbors indicated that the youths sometimes smoked marijuana, but that they did not carry weapons or participate in kidnappings.
"A fallen person without life," "merchandise that has fallen from its regular price," "abject, ruined, despicable." These are the definitions established by the Royal Academy of Spain for the word "abatido," which in Venezuela seems to have been forgotten. In this country, the term has become synonymous with a criminal killed at the hands of the police.
"The word abatido is sensationalist. It is part of a war and should not be taken as a positive result of any citizen security policy," said Rafael Uzcátegui, director of Provea, an organization that monitors human rights violations in Venezuela and that has been tallying deaths from police encounters since 1999.
In the first month of 2016, more than 215 people died at the hands of police, according to an investigation by Efecto Cocuyo looking at the five most violent states in Venezuela (Miranda, Distrito Capital, Carabobo, Aragua y Zulia). This number is double the last official tally offered by the Ministry of Health in its 2012 annual mortality report (107 killed for "resisting authority"), and represents a 14 percent increase from the latest count by Provea in 2014 that showed 189 deaths.
Keymer Ávila, a professor of criminology at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), explains that, according to statistics from the Public Ministry, Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (Operación Liberación y Protección del Pueblo - OLP) has resulted in 245 deaths alone. This represents a 150 percent increase from the average number of deaths at the hands of security and police forces that Provea has tallied for the last 25 years. "And this is without counting deaths unconnected to OLP! This gives you approximately 50 deaths a month from these operations for 2015, and now in January of this year, this figure has quadrupled," he explained.
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Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz informed the country that 17,778 persons were murdered in 2015, 10,000 fewer cases than were reported by the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia - OVV). Specialists suspect the gap is due to a separating out of intentional homicides from other violent deaths. However, it is still unclear if deaths from "resisting authority" are included in the figure offered by the attorney general.
According to Keymer Ávila, Venezuela ranks third among eight Latin American countries when comparing the number of deaths attributed to police or other legal actions in 2011. Honduras ranks first (1,012), Colombia ranks second (553), and Brazil ranks fourth (396). Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela were all included in the study.
"They say we are pro-crime when we criticize the confrontations, but the truth is that in the majority of these cases this is the most real and clear way that the death penalty exists in Venezuela, even though it is prohibited by the constitution," explained Rocío San Miguel, director of the group Citizen Control for National Security, Defense, and the Armed Forces (Control Ciudadano para la Seguridad, la Defensa y la Fuerza Armada Nacional - Ovedese).
Legal or Not?
The state is the source of legitimate use of violence, but this should be justified only in situations of risk against the nation or risk against citizens.
In 2010, the manual for Progressive and Differentiated Use of Force was published on the website of the National Bolivarian Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana - PNB), which is supposed to regulate the legitimate use of violence.
Broadly speaking, these norms establish that officers should neutralize a situation and generate the least harm possible for any suspected criminal; just as they are required to transport a wounded suspect to seek medical treatment and notify his or her family members.
San Miguel offered the reminder that even in times of war, "combatants" are subject to regulations. For example, prohibitions on firing on civilian populations or enemy paratroopers.
"In times of peace, violence should be the exception; but in Venezuela there is a low-intensity war happening between criminal organizations and the police. It is a grey zone that is more difficult to precisely define in legal terms, because this is not a wartime situation but it also is not a peacetime situation. It is in these grey zones that more human rights violations happen," said San Miguel.
Uzcátegui, San Miguel and Ávila all agree that the government describes these deadly encounters in ways that seek to justify the killings. "The words 'downed' and 'confrontation' are media terms used to legitimize a death and communicate to the public at large that the deaths of so many people are a positive result of a police operation," explained Ávila, who is also an investigator at the Institute of Criminal Science at UCV.
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For Ávila, we are talking about an asymmetric war that is causing more insecurity for the population at large. "You should not see this as a regular war, nor as a straightforward confrontation between police and criminals; it is better to see this, on one hand, as hunting civilians, and on the other, as the ambushing of security forces. In a vicious circle, state violence reproduces and strengthens criminal and social violence. The two sides of the violence feed and reinforce one another."
*This article was originally published by Efecto Cocuyo and was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.