Democracy Dies in Darkness

The_americas

In Venezuela, prisoners say abuse is so bad they are forced to eat pasta mixed with excrement

By Rachelle Krygier, Joshua Partlow

June 24, 2017 at 2:36 PM

CARACAS, VE - MAY 27 An opposition demonstrator throws back a teargas canister fired by the Bolivarian National Police
CARACAS, VE - MAY 26 Protesters take positions during clashes between them and Venezuelan security forces in the main highway in Caracas.
CARACAS, VE - MAY 27 Antigovernment demonstrators in front two burned trucks during clashes between Venezuelan security forces and opposition demonstrators in Francisco Fajardo highway
CARACAS, VE - MAY 27 A protesters holds a torch during a protest against Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro
CARACAS, VE - MAY 29 Antigovernment protesters defend themselves with homemade shields from the teargas canisters fired by the Bolivarian National Police.
CARACAS, VE - MAY 28 Victor, left, affected by the teargas throw by the National Guard.
CARACAS, VE - MAY 26 Protesters celebrate after burn a police motorbike during a protest against Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro
CARACAS, VE - MAY 27 A antigovernment demonstrator runs from the Bolivarian National Guard during clashes between opposition protesters and Venezuelan security forces in Francisco Fajardo Highway
CARACAS, VE - MAY 26 Antigovernment protesters wait for the Bolivarian National Guard to confront them with homemade shields.
epaselect epa06053410 Venezuelan authorities inspect the area around the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) after an inspector of the Venezuelan scientific police, identified as Oscar Perez, reportedly flew a helicopter over the court headquarters displaying a banner reading 'freedom,' in Caracas, Venezuela, 27 June 2017. Perez also issued a video statement on social media where he condemned the government. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said that 'this person threw grenades, one did not explode' calling the happening an 'armed terrorist attack' against the institutions of the country. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard soldiers dressed in riot gear enter the National Assembly building in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, June 27, 2017. Opposition lawmakers got into fisticuffs with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly. In a video circulating on social media, the commander of a national guard unit protecting the legislature aggressively shoved congress president Julio Borges as he was walking away from a heated discussion. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Venezuelan General Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, third left, is surrounded by loyal employees of the General Prosecutor's office, as she was barred from entering her office by security forces, outside of the General Prosecutor headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. Security forces surrounded the entrance ahead of a session of the newly-installed constitutional assembly in which the pro-government body is expected to debate the onetime loyalist turned arch critic's removal. (AP Photo/Wil Riera)
epa06125230 A protester is aided by emergency personnel as opposition demonstrators protest against the National Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, 04 August 2017. Venezuela is installing the 500 member assembly denounced by opposition groups and international leaders and which will rewrite the constitution. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez
epa06124791 A handout photo made available by Miraflores press, shows Cilia Flores (R) wife of the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the First vice president of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) Diosdado Cabello (L), and the former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez (C), participate in a demonstration to support the installation of the National Constituent Assembly, in Caracas, Venezuela, on 4 August 2017. Hundreds of chavistas support the installation of the National Constituent Assembly which will rewrite the constitution. EPA/Feliciano Sequera HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro demonstrate outside Palacio Federal Legislativo during the National Constituent Assembly's first session, in Caracas, Venezuela August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
epa06120252 Officials of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) guard the headquarters of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in Caracas, Venezuela, 01 August 2017. The Supreme Court denounced the US Government's sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro as a threat to democracy. EPA/CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ
epa06120319 Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino (C) speaks during a statement in Caracas, Venezuela, 01 July 2017. The Venezuelan National Armed Forces (Fanb) ratified its 'unconditional support' and 'loyalty' to the President Nicol�s Maduro, before the sanctions he received from the United States Government, which he considered a violation of international law. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez
Omar Estacio, lawyer of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma, talks to the press outside the Supreme Court building in Caracas on August 1, 2017. Venezuela's intelligence service took prominent opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma back to prison early Tuesday, authorities said, as embattled President Nicolas Maduro moved to shore up his power after an election widely denounced as a sham. The action, carried out in the dead of night, came one day before a new assembly elected on Sunday is supposed to take office, superseding the opposition-controlled legislature. / AFP PHOTO / Federico PARRAFEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images
People celebrates the results of "Constituent Assembly", in Caracas, on July 31. Deadly violence erupted around the controversial vote, with a candidate to the all-powerful body being elected shot dead and troops firing weapons to clear protesters in Caracas and elsewhere. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro celebrates the results of "Constituent Assembly", in Caracas, on July 31, 2017. Deadly violence erupted around the controversial vote, with a candidate to the all-powerful body being elected shot dead and troops firing weapons to clear protesters in Caracas and elsewhere. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
epa06117977 Bolivarian National Police (PNB) agent was wounded in an explosion in the street near motorized police in the vicinity of the Altamira Square, in Caracas, Venezuela, 30 July 2017. Clashes are breaking out as the voting on a constituent assembly takes place under strict security measures and despite the rejection of local opposition and the international community. The new assembly would have powers to rewrite a constitution and bypass the National Assembly which is currently controlled by the opposition. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
A wounded anti-government activist is carried away by medics during clashes with the police which erupted during a protest against the elections for a Constituent Assembly in Caracas on July 30, 2017. Deadly violence erupted around the controversial vote, with a candidate to the all-powerful body being elected shot dead and troops firing weapons to clear protesters in Caracas and elsewhere. / AFP PHOTO / Ronaldo SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators stand near a burning barricade as clashes broke out with security forces while the Constituent Assembly election was being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters set up a barricade as clashes break out with security forces while the Constituent Assembly election is being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado makes declarations as the Constituent Assembly election was being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
People queue to cast their vote to elect a Constituent Assembly in Caracas on July 30, 2017. Polls opened in Venezuela on Sunday for the election of a new, all-powerful "Constituent Assembly" that President Nicolas Maduro promised would end his country's political and economic crisis by rewriting the constitution. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
epa06117814 Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino Lopez talk to the press at a voting station in Caracas, Venezuela, 30 July 2017. The voting on a constituent assembly takes place under strict security measures and despite the rejection of local opposition and the international community. The new assembly would have powers to rewrite a constitution and bypass the National Assembly which is currently controlled by the opposition. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez
An anti-government activist fires a improvised weapon during clashes with riot police in a protest in Caracas on July 28, 2017. Protesters took over streets in Caracas on Friday in a show of defiance to President Nicolas Maduro, as the crisis gripping Venezuela turned deadlier ahead of a controversial weekend election that has earned international scorn. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
epa06115569 Members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) shiled themselves from a Molotov cocktail as they confront a group of demonstrators during a protest against the government in Caracas, Venezuela, 28 July 2017. The Venezuelan Opposition called for three days of nationwide protest and blockades of key thoroughfares despite a government ban on demonstrations. The country will hold a controversial National Constituent Assembly voting on 30 July 2017. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
Demonstrators clash with riot security forces while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 28, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Bolivarian National Guards charge on anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, July 28, 2017, two days before the vote to begin the rewriting of Venezuela's constitution. Protesters say the election of a constitutional assembly will allow President Nicolas Maduro to eliminate democratic checks and balances and install an authoritarian single-party system. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
A member of the national guard fires his shotgun at opposition demonstrators during clashes in Caracas on July 28, 2017. Protesters took over streets in Caracas on Friday in a show of defiance to President Nicolas Maduro, as the crisis gripping Venezuela turned deadlier ahead of a controversial weekend election that has earned international scorn. / AFP PHOTO / Carlos BECERRACARLOS BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images
An anti-government activist prepares to throw a Molotov cocktail at members of the National Guard during a 48-hour general strike called by the opposition, in Caracas on July 26, 2017. Venezuelans began blocking off deserted streets Wednesday as the opposition launched a 48-hour general strike aimed at thwarting embattled President Nicolas Maduro's controversial plans to rewrite the country's constitution. / AFP PHOTO / Ronaldo SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-government protesters run from advancing Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard officers on the first day of a 48-hour general strike in protest of government plans to rewrite the constitution, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. President Nicolas Maduro is promoting the constitution rewrite as a means of resolving Venezuela's political standoff and economic crisis, but opposition leaders are boycotting it. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Opposition demonstrators set a police boot afire during an anti-government protest in Caracas, on July 20, 2017. A 24-hour nationwide strike got underway in Venezuela Thursday, in a bid by the opposition to increase pressure on beleaguered leftist President Nicolas Maduro following four months of deadly street demonstrations. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Youngsters throw on the avenue unused subway tickets during an anti-government protest in Caracas, on July 20, 2017. A 24-hour nationwide strike got underway in Venezuela Thursday, in a bid by the opposition to increase pressure on beleaguered leftist President Nicolas Maduro following four months of deadly street demonstrations. / AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
A demonstrator carries homemade shields while clashing with riot security forces during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Demonstrators build barricades while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Valencia, Venezuela August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Anti-government activists stand near a barricade burning in flames in Venezuela's third city, Valencia, on August 6, 2016, a day after a new assembly with supreme powers and loyal to President Nicolas Maduro started functioning in the country. In the video posted online earlier, allegedly at an army base used by the National Bolivarian Armed Forces in Valencia, a man presenting himself as an army captain declared a "legitimate rebellion... to reject the murderous tyranny of Nicolas Maduro" and demanded a transitional government and "free elections." After the video surfaced, military chiefs said troops had put down the "terrorist" attack. / AFP PHOTO / Ronaldo SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the National Guard stand guard in the streets of Venezuela's third city, Valencia, on August 6, 2016, a day after a new assembly with supreme powers and loyal to President Nicolas Maduro started functioning in the country. In the video posted online earlier, allegedly at an army base used by the National Bolivarian Armed Forces in Valencia, a man presenting himself as an army captain declared a "legitimate rebellion... to reject the murderous tyranny of Nicolas Maduro" and demanded a transitional government and "free elections." After the video surfaced, military chiefs said troops had put down the "terrorist" attack. / AFP PHOTO / Ronaldo SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Riot security forces use tear gas during protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Valencia, Venezuela August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Venezuela's chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz shakes hands with Julio Borges, president of the National Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), alongside lawmaker Freddy Guevara (R) and Venezuelan opposition leader and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles during a meeting in defense of the Constitution in Caracas, Venezuela August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Venezuela's dismissed chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, one of President Nicolas Maduro's most vocal critics, speaks to the press after the "In Defence of Democracy Forum" held by the opposition in Caracas on August 6, 2017 a day after a new assembly with supreme powers and loyal to President Nicolas Maduro started functioning and fired her. Ortega has been a thorn in Maduro's side for months, breaking ranks with him over the legality of the Constituent Assembly, which was elected last week in a vote marred by violence and fraud allegations. She refused to recognize her sacking, or the assembly's swearing in of Tarek William Saab, the national ombudsman, in her place. / AFP PHOTO / Federico PARRAFEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-government supporters holding Venezuela's flag march in Caracas, Venezuela August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Venezuelan pro-government activists rally to express their support to the Constituent Assembly in Caracas, on August 7, 2017. Venezuela's military on Monday hunted a group of "mercenaries" who made off with weapons in an attack on an army base carried out against what they called the "murderous tyranny" of President Nicolas Maduro. / AFP PHOTO / Federico ParraFEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-government supporters holding a sign that reads "Pastora Mercedes with the Constituent" march in Caracas, Venezuela August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Photo Gallery: People took to the streets to either vote in or boycott a controversial election to choose members of an all-powerful Constituent Assembly.

by Rachelle Krygier and Joshua Partlow

CARACAS, Venezuela — The headquarters of the Venezuelan intelligence service is a vast pyramid-shaped edifice known as the Helicoide, a former shopping mall which now functions as an interrogation pen for political prisoners and protesters.

The 30-year-old economics student had heard enough about the infamous building to be terrified as he was led into a dank cell in early April — his eyes blindfolded, his wrists bound by his shoelaces.

"You're going to die here," a guard informed him, he later recalled.

The student had been detained after throwing rocks at an anti-government protest. During the 12 hours he spent inside the Helicoide, he said, the guards pummeled his torso, gave him electric shocks and ignited a type of powder in his cell that had the effect of tear gas, causing him to press his face into the concrete floor to escape the fumes.

Watch more!
The Washington Post’s Josh Partlow takes you inside the chaotic, often violent protests taking place in Venezuela and explains why they’re taking place. (Joshua Partlow, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Over the past 10 weeks of protests in Venezuela, security forces have detained more than 3,200 people, with over a third of them remaining in custody, according to Foro Penal, a legal aid group. Allegations of mistreatment during the arrests and detention have ballooned, according to human rights groups. They come as authorities have also begun to send demonstrators to military courts, where they can face charges of treason and rebellion that carry lengthy sentences.

The government's fierce crackdown on the demonstrations, along with its efforts to disband the legislature and change the constitution, have brought international condemnation and fueled debate over whether Venezuela is sliding toward dictatorship.

"We have to call things by their name, and what we have here is a country that, in fact, has ceased to be a functional democracy, and this is a tremendously dangerous thing for the region," Mexico's foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, said in May.

Related: [How a new kind of protest movement has risen in Venezuela]

Nearly as many people have been detained in the past two months during anti-government demonstrations as in all of 2014, a year of intense protest in Venezuela, said Nizar El Fakih, director of the human rights organization Proiuris.

Some demonstrators say they are picked up by security forces who manhandle them and hold them in overcrowded detention centers. The worst treatment appears to be meted out by the intelligence service and the armed forces, whose prisoners have endured regular beatings and sometimes other forms of physical and sexual abuse, according to interviews with former detainees, defense attorneys and human rights advocates. While Venezuelan security forces have been accused of using excessive force in the past, the upsurge in such allegations has alarmed human rights activists.

"We've noted a great increase in the number of torture and cruel, inhumane-treatment cases," El Fakih said, noting there are no definitive numbers on the phenomenon. "I can say that the increase has been exponential."

The office of President Nicolás Maduro — as well as the National Guard, the National Police and the Ministry of the Interior — did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the allegations. But the government has publicly defended its actions against the demonstrators and reiterated its commitment to human rights.

"The National Guard and the National Police have made a heroic effort and should keep doing it, with no firearms, no pellets, only water and tear gas," Maduro said on television this past week.

Interrogated while detained

The current unrest began with peaceful marches against what protesters call an increasingly authoritarian government and an economic crisis. But the demonstrations have devolved into chaotic street battles between protesters hurling rocks and molotov cocktails at National Guard and police, who fire water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

At least 70 people have died, and more than 1,300 have been injured in the demonstrations.

The economics student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution by the government, said that during his detention in the Helicoide, intelligence agents interrogated him about whether he worked with opposition political parties and scoured his social-media accounts.

At one point, after he was zapped with a stun gun three times, he begged to borrow a cell phone to call his mother, the student recounted.

"Do you think you're in Disneyland?" he recalled a guard taunting him.

The student was eventually taken to a police station in downtown Caracas, where he spent 29 days handcuffed to another detainee before being released on a charge of public disorder, he said. The only severe physical abuse he suffered, he said, occurred in the Helicoide, a facility that repeatedly comes up in protesters' allegations of mistreatment.

The student's account, and those of the other ex-detainees interviewed for this story, could not be independently confirmed. But they have similar characteristics to other testimonies gathered by human rights groups.

Related: [Stuck in a death spiral, Venezuela is borrowing money at any cost]

Maduro's administration says the street demonstrations are aimed at overthrowing the government. Authorities have begun to send protesters to military tribunals, with more than 300 facing charges such as rebellion against the state, which carry sentences of decades in prison. This shift comes as the attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz, has emerged as a critic of the Maduro administration.

"This is a way to bypass the attorney general when she's started to identify that security forces are committing abuses and are using excessive force against detainees," said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Americas senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The government releases little information about those who get arrested, and families are often in the dark about their situation.

Many of those detained say they were not involved in any violence. In early May, two National Guardsmen converged on Ana Rosa Cisneros, a 41-year-old single mother, as she was leaving a pharmacy near one of the protests, she said.

"I was caught in the middle of tear gas and rubber bullets, and I wasn't even protesting," she said. "They hit me, pulled my hair, dragged me to a car and insulted me."

Cisneros, who works as a cleaner at an Italian restaurant in southeastern Caracas, spent 16 days in a National Guard detention facility in a small room with seven men, she said. She was charged with illegal association and must report to court monthly.

Argenis Ugueto, 27, and five of his friends said they were detained by the National Guard on April 19, as they walked to an afternoon protest, wearing hats and shirts in the colors of the Venezuelan flag. The National Guard — who are part of the armed forces — accused them of being guarimberos, the name for violent, front-line protesters, he said. At the National Guard headquarters in western Caracas, Ugueto said, the guards planted molotov cocktails and helmets in their belongings.

"They wanted us to be scared but at the beginning we weren't because, you know, we thought we were innocent," said Ugueto, a former communications student from the port town of Catia La Mar. "That's when they started hitting us."

Ugueto said he was held at the base for 30 days, with the guards punching him repeatedly in the face and torso. He was charged with inciting violence and released with a requirement to check in with authorities.

"They made us sign a form where it says they didn't treat us badly, and of course we all signed," he said, due to "the fear of not knowing what would happen."

Human Rights Watch documented a case in May in the city of Valencia in which 40 people were arrested near a food company that had been looted the day before, and brought before a military judge on charges of rebellion. During the hearing, some showed bruises and said they had been beaten by members of the National Guard with aluminum rods and baseball bats.

"At least 15 said they were forced to eat raw pasta with human excrement — the officers allegedly put tear gas powder in their noses so they would be forced to open their mouths to eat," the Human Rights Watch report read.

Detainees have reported that the prisons are dismal, with detainees forced to sleep on dirty concrete floors and sometimes defecate in plastic bags. One young woman arrested on her way to a protest, Yusneimi Lopez, was so upset at the prison conditions that she tried to hurl herself out of a window of a courthouse during her preliminary hearing, according to Gonzalo Himiob, who attended the hearing and works with Foro Penal.

A woman detained with Lopez, Yajaira Braque, said that the woman had told her earlier that day that her time in prison had been so miserable that if she was convicted and sent back, "she would commit suicide."

Mariana Zuñiga contributed to this report.

Related: Venezuela is sliding into anarchy

Related: Five ways in which this wave of demonstrations in Venezuela is different

Related: Venezuela’s paradox: people are hungry, but farmers can’t feed them

Related: Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Related: Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news


Joshua Partlow is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.

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The_americas

In Venezuela, prisoners say abuse is so bad they are forced to eat pasta mixed with excrement

By Rachelle Krygier, Joshua Partlow

June 24, 2017 at 2:36 PM

CARACAS, VE - MAY 27 An opposition demonstrator throws back a teargas canister fired by the Bolivarian National Police
CARACAS, VE - MAY 26 Protesters take positions during clashes between them and Venezuelan security forces in the main highway in Caracas.
CARACAS, VE - MAY 27 Antigovernment demonstrators in front two burned trucks during clashes between Venezuelan security forces and opposition demonstrators in Francisco Fajardo highway
CARACAS, VE - MAY 27 A protesters holds a torch during a protest against Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro
CARACAS, VE - MAY 29 Antigovernment protesters defend themselves with homemade shields from the teargas canisters fired by the Bolivarian National Police.
CARACAS, VE - MAY 28 Victor, left, affected by the teargas throw by the National Guard.
CARACAS, VE - MAY 26 Protesters celebrate after burn a police motorbike during a protest against Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro
CARACAS, VE - MAY 27 A antigovernment demonstrator runs from the Bolivarian National Guard during clashes between opposition protesters and Venezuelan security forces in Francisco Fajardo Highway
CARACAS, VE - MAY 26 Antigovernment protesters wait for the Bolivarian National Guard to confront them with homemade shields.
epaselect epa06053410 Venezuelan authorities inspect the area around the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) after an inspector of the Venezuelan scientific police, identified as Oscar Perez, reportedly flew a helicopter over the court headquarters displaying a banner reading 'freedom,' in Caracas, Venezuela, 27 June 2017. Perez also issued a video statement on social media where he condemned the government. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said that 'this person threw grenades, one did not explode' calling the happening an 'armed terrorist attack' against the institutions of the country. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard soldiers dressed in riot gear enter the National Assembly building in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, June 27, 2017. Opposition lawmakers got into fisticuffs with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly. In a video circulating on social media, the commander of a national guard unit protecting the legislature aggressively shoved congress president Julio Borges as he was walking away from a heated discussion. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Venezuelan General Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, third left, is surrounded by loyal employees of the General Prosecutor's office, as she was barred from entering her office by security forces, outside of the General Prosecutor headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. Security forces surrounded the entrance ahead of a session of the newly-installed constitutional assembly in which the pro-government body is expected to debate the onetime loyalist turned arch critic's removal. (AP Photo/Wil Riera)
epa06125230 A protester is aided by emergency personnel as opposition demonstrators protest against the National Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, 04 August 2017. Venezuela is installing the 500 member assembly denounced by opposition groups and international leaders and which will rewrite the constitution. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez
epa06124791 A handout photo made available by Miraflores press, shows Cilia Flores (R) wife of the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the First vice president of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) Diosdado Cabello (L), and the former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez (C), participate in a demonstration to support the installation of the National Constituent Assembly, in Caracas, Venezuela, on 4 August 2017. Hundreds of chavistas support the installation of the National Constituent Assembly which will rewrite the constitution. EPA/Feliciano Sequera HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro demonstrate outside Palacio Federal Legislativo during the National Constituent Assembly's first session, in Caracas, Venezuela August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
epa06120252 Officials of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) guard the headquarters of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in Caracas, Venezuela, 01 August 2017. The Supreme Court denounced the US Government's sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro as a threat to democracy. EPA/CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ
epa06120319 Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino (C) speaks during a statement in Caracas, Venezuela, 01 July 2017. The Venezuelan National Armed Forces (Fanb) ratified its 'unconditional support' and 'loyalty' to the President Nicol�s Maduro, before the sanctions he received from the United States Government, which he considered a violation of international law. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez
Omar Estacio, lawyer of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma, talks to the press outside the Supreme Court building in Caracas on August 1, 2017. Venezuela's intelligence service took prominent opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma back to prison early Tuesday, authorities said, as embattled President Nicolas Maduro moved to shore up his power after an election widely denounced as a sham. The action, carried out in the dead of night, came one day before a new assembly elected on Sunday is supposed to take office, superseding the opposition-controlled legislature. / AFP PHOTO / Federico PARRAFEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images
People celebrates the results of "Constituent Assembly", in Caracas, on July 31. Deadly violence erupted around the controversial vote, with a candidate to the all-powerful body being elected shot dead and troops firing weapons to clear protesters in Caracas and elsewhere. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro celebrates the results of "Constituent Assembly", in Caracas, on July 31, 2017. Deadly violence erupted around the controversial vote, with a candidate to the all-powerful body being elected shot dead and troops firing weapons to clear protesters in Caracas and elsewhere. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
epa06117977 Bolivarian National Police (PNB) agent was wounded in an explosion in the street near motorized police in the vicinity of the Altamira Square, in Caracas, Venezuela, 30 July 2017. Clashes are breaking out as the voting on a constituent assembly takes place under strict security measures and despite the rejection of local opposition and the international community. The new assembly would have powers to rewrite a constitution and bypass the National Assembly which is currently controlled by the opposition. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
A wounded anti-government activist is carried away by medics during clashes with the police which erupted during a protest against the elections for a Constituent Assembly in Caracas on July 30, 2017. Deadly violence erupted around the controversial vote, with a candidate to the all-powerful body being elected shot dead and troops firing weapons to clear protesters in Caracas and elsewhere. / AFP PHOTO / Ronaldo SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators stand near a burning barricade as clashes broke out with security forces while the Constituent Assembly election was being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters set up a barricade as clashes break out with security forces while the Constituent Assembly election is being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado makes declarations as the Constituent Assembly election was being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
People queue to cast their vote to elect a Constituent Assembly in Caracas on July 30, 2017. Polls opened in Venezuela on Sunday for the election of a new, all-powerful "Constituent Assembly" that President Nicolas Maduro promised would end his country's political and economic crisis by rewriting the constitution. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
epa06117814 Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino Lopez talk to the press at a voting station in Caracas, Venezuela, 30 July 2017. The voting on a constituent assembly takes place under strict security measures and despite the rejection of local opposition and the international community. The new assembly would have powers to rewrite a constitution and bypass the National Assembly which is currently controlled by the opposition. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez
An anti-government activist fires a improvised weapon during clashes with riot police in a protest in Caracas on July 28, 2017. Protesters took over streets in Caracas on Friday in a show of defiance to President Nicolas Maduro, as the crisis gripping Venezuela turned deadlier ahead of a controversial weekend election that has earned international scorn. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
epa06115569 Members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) shiled themselves from a Molotov cocktail as they confront a group of demonstrators during a protest against the government in Caracas, Venezuela, 28 July 2017. The Venezuelan Opposition called for three days of nationwide protest and blockades of key thoroughfares despite a government ban on demonstrations. The country will hold a controversial National Constituent Assembly voting on 30 July 2017. EPA/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ
Demonstrators clash with riot security forces while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 28, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Bolivarian National Guards charge on anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, July 28, 2017, two days before the vote to begin the rewriting of Venezuela's constitution. Protesters say the election of a constitutional assembly will allow President Nicolas Maduro to eliminate democratic checks and balances and install an authoritarian single-party system. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
A member of the national guard fires his shotgun at opposition demonstrators during clashes in Caracas on July 28, 2017. Protesters took over streets in Caracas on Friday in a show of defiance to President Nicolas Maduro, as the crisis gripping Venezuela turned deadlier ahead of a controversial weekend election that has earned international scorn. / AFP PHOTO / Carlos BECERRACARLOS BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images
An anti-government activist prepares to throw a Molotov cocktail at members of the National Guard during a 48-hour general strike called by the opposition, in Caracas on July 26, 2017. Venezuelans began blocking off deserted streets Wednesday as the opposition launched a 48-hour general strike aimed at thwarting embattled President Nicolas Maduro's controversial plans to rewrite the country's constitution. / AFP PHOTO / Ronaldo SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-government protesters run from advancing Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard officers on the first day of a 48-hour general strike in protest of government plans to rewrite the constitution, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. President Nicolas Maduro is promoting the constitution rewrite as a means of resolving Venezuela's political standoff and economic crisis, but opposition leaders are boycotting it. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Opposition demonstrators set a police boot afire during an anti-government protest in Caracas, on July 20, 2017. A 24-hour nationwide strike got underway in Venezuela Thursday, in a bid by the opposition to increase pressure on beleaguered leftist President Nicolas Maduro following four months of deadly street demonstrations. / AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Youngsters throw on the avenue unused subway tickets during an anti-government protest in Caracas, on July 20, 2017. A 24-hour nationwide strike got underway in Venezuela Thursday, in a bid by the opposition to increase pressure on beleaguered leftist President Nicolas Maduro following four months of deadly street demonstrations. / AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
A demonstrator carries homemade shields while clashing with riot security forces during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Demonstrators build barricades while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Valencia, Venezuela August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Anti-government activists stand near a barricade burning in flames in Venezuela's third city, Valencia, on August 6, 2016, a day after a new assembly with supreme powers and loyal to President Nicolas Maduro started functioning in the country. In the video posted online earlier, allegedly at an army base used by the National Bolivarian Armed Forces in Valencia, a man presenting himself as an army captain declared a "legitimate rebellion... to reject the murderous tyranny of Nicolas Maduro" and demanded a transitional government and "free elections." After the video surfaced, military chiefs said troops had put down the "terrorist" attack. / AFP PHOTO / Ronaldo SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the National Guard stand guard in the streets of Venezuela's third city, Valencia, on August 6, 2016, a day after a new assembly with supreme powers and loyal to President Nicolas Maduro started functioning in the country. In the video posted online earlier, allegedly at an army base used by the National Bolivarian Armed Forces in Valencia, a man presenting himself as an army captain declared a "legitimate rebellion... to reject the murderous tyranny of Nicolas Maduro" and demanded a transitional government and "free elections." After the video surfaced, military chiefs said troops had put down the "terrorist" attack. / AFP PHOTO / Ronaldo SCHEMIDTRONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Riot security forces use tear gas during protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Valencia, Venezuela August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Venezuela's chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz shakes hands with Julio Borges, president of the National Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), alongside lawmaker Freddy Guevara (R) and Venezuelan opposition leader and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles during a meeting in defense of the Constitution in Caracas, Venezuela August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Venezuela's dismissed chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, one of President Nicolas Maduro's most vocal critics, speaks to the press after the "In Defence of Democracy Forum" held by the opposition in Caracas on August 6, 2017 a day after a new assembly with supreme powers and loyal to President Nicolas Maduro started functioning and fired her. Ortega has been a thorn in Maduro's side for months, breaking ranks with him over the legality of the Constituent Assembly, which was elected last week in a vote marred by violence and fraud allegations. She refused to recognize her sacking, or the assembly's swearing in of Tarek William Saab, the national ombudsman, in her place. / AFP PHOTO / Federico PARRAFEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-government supporters holding Venezuela's flag march in Caracas, Venezuela August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Venezuelan pro-government activists rally to express their support to the Constituent Assembly in Caracas, on August 7, 2017. Venezuela's military on Monday hunted a group of "mercenaries" who made off with weapons in an attack on an army base carried out against what they called the "murderous tyranny" of President Nicolas Maduro. / AFP PHOTO / Federico ParraFEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-government supporters holding a sign that reads "Pastora Mercedes with the Constituent" march in Caracas, Venezuela August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Photo Gallery: People took to the streets to either vote in or boycott a controversial election to choose members of an all-powerful Constituent Assembly.

by Rachelle Krygier and Joshua Partlow

CARACAS, Venezuela — The headquarters of the Venezuelan intelligence service is a vast pyramid-shaped edifice known as the Helicoide, a former shopping mall which now functions as an interrogation pen for political prisoners and protesters.

The 30-year-old economics student had heard enough about the infamous building to be terrified as he was led into a dank cell in early April — his eyes blindfolded, his wrists bound by his shoelaces.

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