After enduring several minutes of beatings with fists and clubs, Erick Izaguirri, 27, was expecting the worst when he was dragged into an outpost of Venezuela’s National Guard.
“They started to say, ‘Take his pants off, let’s stick the rifle in him,’ ” the anti-government protester recounted during an interview last month at a Caracas university where he studies law.
He stubbornly resisted their attempts, which he thinks prevented him from being raped, but it didn’t save him from being beaten for another 40 minutes.
“Six of them would take turns, three at a time,” he said. “One would beat me with the club, the other with a metal iron, and the other punched or kicked me.”
Venezuela’s National Police arrested Izaguirri after a protest on April 4, one of more than 2,700 people arrested in two months of ongoing anti-government demonstrations that have left more than 60 dead. While 1,100 protesters are thought to remain in detention, the rest, like Izaguirri, have been released. Many of them have described mistreatment and even torture by Venezuelan security forces.
The government has denied that there’s widespread or systematic abuse, but on Wednesday, Luisa Ortega Diaz, the country’s top prosecutor, said that 19 law enforcement officials had been charged with crimes including homicide and “cruel treatment.”
According to the Venezuelan Penal Forum, an advocacy group that represents and advises those arrested, authorities are using a number of tactics to intimidate and abuse arrested protesters, including, at least in one case, forcing detainees to eat pasta covered in human excrement.
“Beatings are the most common,” said the group’s director, Alfredo Romero. “But we’ve also heard of protesters being burned by cigarettes and in some cases where tear gas is used in a confined space.”
According to Romero, authorities have been more aggressive in rounding up protesters this year than during the country’s last wave of anti-government protests in 2014. In April of that year, security forces arrested 504 people, compared to 2,045 in the same month this year.
In some instances, those detained weren’t even involved in the protests, Romero said, citing the case of a 41-year-old woman who fled from a pharmacy when protests erupted outside and tear gas canisters started to fly.
“She was arrested, dragged to the ground, hit in the eye,” he said. “They stuck her in a bathroom of the National Guard outpost, and she was beaten so much that she lost a tooth. They left her tied up with shoestrings all night.”
Other arrested protesters have reported being subjected to electric shocks and being punched in the chest.
“I started to feel some type of pinch on my back and didn’t know what it was,” said a 21-year-old university student who wanted his identity concealed out of fear of retaliation for speaking out. “But I started to realize it was electricity.”
During an interview last month at the Andrés Bello Catholic University, he said he was held for 20 hours overnight. During that time, he claims National Guard soldiers required him to write all passwords and user names for his social media profiles on a paper, and when some of those combinations didn’t work, he was punished. They also forced him to hand over his cellphone’s password.
“They told me that if I cried, they would do something much worse,” he said. “I told them that I wouldn’t cry, and then they said, ‘Oh, so you’re not going to cry?’ ”
That’s when he says guards started punching him in the rib cage until he felt like he couldn’t breathe.
He says the beatings and electric shocks generally came after guards accused him of not cooperating with their orders, but in other instances, the beatings began for no apparent reason.
President Nicolás Maduro’s administration has said it isn’t using excessive force, even as social media is flooded with images of protesters being shot at close range with tear gas canisters and reports of police firing scrap metal — including ball bearings and spark plugs — into crowds.
Some protesters are also resorting to violence, relying on slingshots and Molotov cocktails to fight back. And a handful of security forces have died over the past two months.
On Wednesday, the Organization of American States held an extraordinary meeting to discuss the crisis but ended the session without a resolution — an outcome that Venezuela hailed as a diplomatic victory.
Beyond the abuses of protesters, Romero and the Penal Forum believe that the most disturbing trend during this outbreak of demonstrations is the use of military tribunals instead of civilian courts to try those arrested. The Forum’s latest numbers show 338 have so far faced proceedings in military courts.
The scheme could be the result of a growing rift between the country’s top prosecutor and other government officials. That rift seemed to widen Wednesday when, in a news conference, prosecutor Diaz denounced the use of military courts as “worrying.”
“Effectively, the prosecutor is not following the executive branch’s instructions and not justifying arbitrary arrests, which consequently has led these protesters to be tried in a military jurisdiction,” Romero said.
The newly rebellious chief prosecutor is one of the most prominent figures to break with the government line. In recent weeks, two Supreme Court justices have also voiced their opposition to Maduro’s plans to order a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.
Amid a deep economic recession that has caused shortages of basic food and medicines and the ongoing protests that for now show no sign of dying off, the government could be worried about further defections within its ranks or in the military.
Both Izaguirri and the 21-year-old protester were released less than 24 hours after their arrests, badly bruised and exhausted. Neither plans to press charges.
“I signed two documents saying I hadn’t been beaten, raped or robbed,” Izaguirri said. “I just wanted out.”
Miami Herald Writer Jim Wyss contributed to this article