He had spent two years in hiding, a life of uncertainty filled with the constant fear of being detected — not because he might be arrested, but because he could turn up dead in a country with an alarming number of extrajudicial killings.
But once Venezuelan opposition activist Villca Fernández was arrested early in 2016, he suffered even more.
“Welcome to hell,” he was told as he entered the Caracas jail called El Helicoide, run by the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service known as Sebin.
“And they were not exaggerating,” Fernández told el Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview this month. “If it’s not hell, then at least it’s the door.”
Fernández, who was freed in mid-June and is now in Peru, said political prisoners held by the regime of President Nicolás Maduro have to fight for space with dangerous criminals and keep a wary eye on rats that roam the prison.
But the worst part, he said, is the torture. Fernández said guards in El Helicoide frequently use cruel and inhumane treatment to break the prisoners’ spirits.
“Several times I saw how electricity was applied to prisoners on their testicles, on the ankles and behind the ears. I saw it several times, and I heard it other times when they screamed,” said Fernández, now 37, who was a leader of several student protests.
Seeing torture or hearing the screams affects the prisoners psychologically, Fernández said, “because even when they don’t apply it to you, you realize how far they can go and what they are capable of doing.”
The use of torture in Venezuela has increased over the years but especially after Maduro became president, said Patricia Andrade, Miami-based president of Venezuela Awareness, which monitors human rights abuses in the South American country.
“The treatment of political prisoners was already deplorable during the presidency of [Hugo] Chávez,” Andrade said. But starting in 2014, with a wave of street protests against Maduro, “the conditions and treatment of the prisoners deteriorated rapidly, and today torture and inhuman conditions are the rule.”
The abuses pushed prisoners in El Helicoide to riot in July, the second time in two months. They seized control of the prison for three days before authorities crushed the revolt by force.
In a letter sent to prosecutors and the news media, the prisoners said they seized control of the prison to protest the sustained human rights abuses and demand the freedom of prisoners held illegally because they had received release orders months ago.
Relatives and lawyers of the political prisoners told journalists that they fear reprisals by prison officials against the inmates.
“They are keeping them in total isolation, without any visits at all. They do not allow the delivery of food or medicines. The families are afraid that the repression will sharpen and that conditions inside will grow worse for those who protested,” opposition parliament member Adriana Pichardo told the EFE news agency.
Fernández had been organizing street protests for years. At first, he wanted better conditions for students. But the struggle changed over time as it became clear to the students that Venezuela’s democracy was being dismantled by a government that was trying to impose a Castro-like rule.
The protests had made him a target for the regime, Fernández believes, and he was accused of being part of one of the many plots to topple Maduro, something the government does sometimes before it arrests opposition activists and military officers.
Then-Foreign Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres — now another of Maduro’s prisoners — identified Fernández as part of the conspiracy known as The Mexican Feast. Also accused at the time: opposition leader Maria Corina Machado, former Presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Vicente Fox of Mexico and former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich.
Knowing that the regime uses the courts to persecute political opponents, Fernández decided to go into hiding.
He lived in hiding for nearly two years, at times in the countryside near his home city of Merida, other times with friends who protected him. But he knew that was risky for him as well as the friends, who could go to jail for sheltering him.
In January, Oscar Perez, a rebel police officer, was killed by security forces, along with several of his supporters, even though he repeatedly said he planned to surrender. Tape recordings of his offers were later made public on social networks, sparking a wave of condemnation.
Fernández knew that could also happen to him, given the growing reports of “extrajudicial executions” to silence opponents.
At the end of 2015, he saw an opportunity to come out of hiding. An opposition victory in parliamentary elections in December had sparked speculation of an amnesty for jailed and wanted opposition activists. Those hopes were eventually dashed when Maduro’s handpicked Supreme Court blocked the assembly’s powers.
Fernández decided to surrender to prosecutors, hoping for a short stay in prison. He was not arrested immediately, but was detained weeks later and taken to El Helicoide.
From the first days, Fernández said, he knew that he would be tested. One of his wrists was handcuffed to a metal gate. He thought it would be brief, until guards found a cell for him.
He spent 28 days that way, standing or squatting but never able to lie down to sleep. He was released for only 15 minutes per day, just to go to the bathroom.
Sometimes he leaned against the gate. Sometimes he squatted, with his arm up, to try to rest. But there was no way to be comfortable.
It was also difficult to sleep. The gate opened to an sewage spillway that was home to some of the biggest rats Fernández had ever seen. The smell from the sewer was terrible.
As the days passed, he grew more tired. “You could not sleep a lot because of fears that one of the rats, which were so big they looked more like cats, would come and bite you,” he said. “You slept for a few minutes, then woke up startled.”
The protest leader concluded that the goal of the guards was to humiliate and “break” him — to reduce him to a permanent state of submission.
He was also hungry. The food was meager and bad. Guards did not provide water, and inmates in his cell depended on the prisoners in a cell across the hallway, nicknamed Guantanamo, to occasionally throw them bottles of water.
Fernández said Sebin officials would probably have left him handcuffed to the gate much longer were it not for a fellow inmate who took a photo of him handcuffed to the gate. The image made the rounds of the social networks.
Under public pressure, guards finally removed the handcuff and put him in the Guantanamo cell. That was only marginally better. Roughly 30 feet by 36 feet, it held 60 prisoners.
“There was no space for anything. I could lie down, but I couldn’t move much,” Fernández said. Plus, he added, he was required to remain at all times within view of the video camera that monitored part of the cell.
The prisoners were a mixed lot. Some were criminals, some had records of violence, and others were innocent people “kidnapped” by the regime on false charges.
Sharing the space with murderers and violent criminals was difficult.
“Sometimes there were violent fights, and prisoners were stabbed,” so inmates could never really rest, he said. Most of the fights were for thefts and other problems from living together. There was no leader to enforce order within the cell, and arguments were settled with fists and knives.
The prisoners also had no toilets and defecated on the same space where they slept, on newspapers later put into plastic bags that were eventually picked up by the guards, he said, “when they remembered.”
The overcrowding and lack of hygiene led the prisoners in the cell to organize and demand the right to go to the bathroom once a day and to go outdoors, because the lack of sunlight was creating serious skin lesions.
“We started to ask them to respect our human rights,” he said.
Many prisoners refused to join the protests, however. Many “were very afraid because they were tortured a lot, they were clubbed a lot. They mistreated everyone, but the common prisoners more frequently.”
“They were stripped naked at dawn and beaten until they could no longer stand up. Their whole bodies were black and blue, but they were mostly beaten on their butts,” Fernández said.
“Everyone who goes in is going to be tortured in one way or another,” he added.
The beatings and other tortures sought to show inmates that the guards have all the power, he said. “They try to break you, but there’s also a lot of sadism,” he said.
One of the most feared prison officials was nicknamed “The Dog.”
“The prisoners were terrified of him, because his sadism was incredible. He would walk past the cells and suddenly say, ‘Take this one out for me’ or ‘Take these two out for me,’ ” Fernández said. “He would walk the hallways at night, and if he heard you talking or singing or screaming, he would order you be taken out.
“He used a long and thick pine club. He hit you brutally, all over your body. One time he nearly killed a common prisoner who had to have emergency surgery,” he added. “Every day he had a victim.”
One case remembered by the prisoners involved an inmate accused of killing a policeman. He arrived healthy but started to deteriorate from one day to another. Guards refused the prisoners’ request that he see a doctor, and he died.
Fernández was eventually moved to a larger cell he shared with 23 other prisoners until his release last month.
Conflicts between political prisoners and the others being held continued while he was there. Fights erupted, and guards would rush in.
“They put black [plastic] bags over our heads to asphyxiate us. And if that wasn’t enough, they sprayed tear gas or insecticide inside the bags,” Fernández said.
“They keep the bag on you until they see that you can’t take it any more. You become desperate, and in the panic you lose track of how much time you’re under the bag.”
Prisoners were also punished with trips to a tiny dark cell nicknamed the Time Machine.
“You can spend one night, one week, one month or even six months locked in there without light. When you go in there, you don’t know when you’re coming out,” he said.
Fernández said that although he was tortured — except for the application of electricity — he fought constantly to try to improve conditions for the inmates. He was among those involved in the first prison riot at El Helicoide in May, demanding an end to human rights abuses there.
Prison guards trying to retake control of the building fired shotguns and tear gas at the inmates, who had blocked all the entrances, and the riot could have ended badly, Fernández said.
“We were not going to surrender. Many of us were ready to fight and defend our demands with our lives,” he said.
The prisoners gave up after prosecutors went into prison and promised to listen to the demands.
Fernández was freed a few weeks later, as part of Maduro’s decision to release several political prisoners in a bid to contain the growing international complaints against human rights abuses in Venezuela.
Many of the political prisoners were allowed to return home under a sort of conditional freedom which Fernández dismissed.
“They cannot speak, cannot make public statements, can’t move around the country. They have to check in every eight days with a judge who is not independent, who is the enforcement arm of the government’s human rights violations,” he said.
The government freed Fernández, but then forced him to leave for Peru.
“They threw me out of the country of my birth, like some sort of thing,” he said. “I don’t feel like I am free today. I will be free when Venezuela is free.”