Amid fears of military coups and assassination plots, the Venezuelan government has increasingly been detaining and torturing military personnel and their families, a new report finds. The increased abuses against the armed forces — one of the linchpins of President Nicolás Maduro’s political survival — underscore the challenges he’ll face as he begins a new six-year term on Thursday.
The report released Wednesday, which is produced by Human Rights Watch and Venezuela’s Foro Penal, documented almost three dozen cases where military officers, their family, spouses or acquaintances were arbitrarily detained and often tortured as the government reacted to suspected coup plots.
In most cases, the detainees were taken without warrants, held in isolation, choked, starved and beaten, the report found.
“The Venezuelan government has brutally cracked down on members of the military accused of plotting against it,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Not only are intelligence agents detaining and torturing members of the military, in some cases they are also going after their families or other civilians when they can’t find the suspects.”
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Maduro, who has been in power since 2013, routinely warns of assassination and coup plots against him. Last month, he said that almost 800 “mercenaries” were training in northern Colombia to topple his administration — a charge that Colombia has denied. While many of his allegations are presented with little or no proof, there appear to have been some genuine attempts on his life. In August, during a military parade, a drone packed with explosives detonated near the grandstand where Maduro was speaking. And in 2017, Óscar Pérez, a police officer, tried to organize an uprising before he was killed — some claim executed — in January of 2018.
Many of the cases of abuse documented by Human Rights Watch and the Foro Penal revolve around Oswaldo García Palomo, a Venezuelan colonel who is accused of conspiring against the government from neighboring Colombia.
In one case, on May 19, 2018, armed men arrived at the home of Army Sgt. Emmy Mirella Da Costa Venegas, whom they accused of being in contact with Palomo. Unable to find her, they detained her partner, José Alberto Marulanda Bedoya, a 53-year-old surgeon. Five days later, he was presented before a military tribunal and accused of treason, instigating rebellion and participating in a conspiracy.
Marulanda and his lawyers claim he’s innocent and that he was tortured to reveal his partner’s whereabouts. Among the abuses, he says officials hit him on the back and stomach, asphyxiated him with a plastic bag and beat the soles of his feet with a metal bar. He was hit so hard in the head that he lost his hearing in one ear.
His preliminary hearing — where evidence is supposed to be presented — was postponed six times as guards refused to take him to court. That hearing finally took place in December, but Marulanda remains in military jail awaiting trial.
Other detainees — including military officers — described having their feet slashed with razors, being deprived of food for days and being forced to drink water out of a toilet.
Calls to the Ministry of Communication seeking comment went unanswered.
The abuses against military personnel are part of a larger pattern of detainee torture that human rights groups have documented since 2014, when nationwide protests led to a broad crackdown.
Human Rights Watch has recorded more than 380 cases of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” against government opponents, or perceived opponents, including at least 31 cases of torture. And Foro Penal said that at least 15 percent of those detained for political motives have suffered torture or mistreatment.
In all, more than 12,800 people have been arrested since 2014 in connection with anti-government protests. While some 7,500 have been conditionally released, they remain subject to prosecution. Since 2017, military courts have prosecuted more than 800 civilians, in violation of international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.
It’s unclear how many military officers may be behind bars. While some reporters and non-profits, citing confidential sources, say there are more than 160 armed forces members behind bars, former National Assembly President Julio Borges says there are more than 200 currently being detained.
Wednesday’s report comes as Maduro, 56, is poised to begin a controversial six-year term on Thursday. More than a dozen nations in the region — including the United States, Canada, Colombia, Brazil and Perú — have said they consider the May 20 election that kept Maduro in power fraudulent and flawed and won’t recognize him as president.
Despite international condemnation and record-low approval ratings, Maduro has managed to hold onto power by coddling the military, giving them control over key aspects of the economy including the petroleum industry and food distribution.
Borges said the crackdown on the military is one more sign that Maduro is losing control over the rank and file.
“The fractures within the armed forces are growing every day,” he said. “And the people are asking the armed forces, not to stage a coup d’état but to save Venezuela from the coup that is the Maduro administration.”