CARACAS, Venezuela — The pace of politically motivated arrests in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela has reached a fever pitch, advocates say, putting 2019 on track to record the highest number of political prisoners in two decades and signaling rising repression in the oil-rich country.
More than 900 political prisoners are being held across Venezuela, according to Foro Penal, a nonprofit human rights organization that tracks and defends detainees. The ruling Socialist Party routinely detains political opponents — including opposition leader Leopoldo López and, recently, interim president Juan Guaidó’s chief of staff.
But observers say the spike in arrests represents a crackdown not seen in the 20 years since the late president Hugo Chávez ushered in the socialist revolution that his successor, Maduro, is now struggling to maintain amid growing international pressure and crippling economic sanctions led by the United States.
Detainees are being held for longer, in worsening conditions and on increasingly flimsy charges, said Foro Penal Director Alfredo Romero. The group has documented torture by Venezuelan military counterintelligence forces that has become “systematic, planned and structural,” recording at least 50 cases, including sexual abuse, strangulation using plastic bags and the use of razor blades to cut detainees’ feet.
“It has been the year in Venezuela’s history with the highest number of people held for the longest time,” Romero said. “These are the worst prison conditions I’ve seen in the 18 years I have been doing this. Prisoners are sleeping and defecating while standing. They are given a few drops of water each day. The smells are . . . indescribable.”
Maduro is locked in a power struggle with opposition leader Guaidó, who invoked the constitution and declared himself interim president this year after the 2018 elections were widely denounced as illegitimate. More than 50 countries have recognized the lawmaker’s claim as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
In March, Venezuelan intelligence forces raided the home of Guaidó’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, who was detained and charged with four counts of conspiracy and illegal gun ownership in a “purely political” operation, said attorney Joel Garcia.
Maduro’s government has defended the arrests, saying intelligence officers are pursuing hardened criminals who bear ill intentions toward Venezuela as agents of imperial powers such as the United States.
“I want it to be clear that the Bolivarian revolutionary government will not hesitate to combat terrorist groups and send them to prison. What they do is not politics, it’s simply terrorism,” Maduro said March 22.
Garcia’s client, Marrero, has yet to have a hearing; they are often delayed for months and take place behind closed doors.
Juan Guillermo Requesens waited outside a Caracas courthouse Thursday in the hopes that the preliminary hearing for his son, an opposition lawmaker and his namesake, Juan Requesens, would take place.
It’s been pushed back four times since the 29-year-old from the Andean state of Táchira was arrested in August at a Caracas apartment. He is accused of being a right-wing terrorist and was charged in a mysterious assassination attempt last August in which a drone outfitted with explosives targeted Maduro as he addressed a military parade.
The younger Requesens was charged with attempted manslaughter against military personnel, treason, terrorism, illegal firearms possession and several other violations. His attorney denies that his client has confessed or was involved in any terrorist plot.
“Physically, Juan is fine but morally, not so much,” he said. “The only physical torture he has been subjected to is denying him access to medication when he has been ill. Psychologically, the torture began on Day One.”
Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez said in a news conference Thursday that Guaidó’s chief of staff confessed to being part of a “fascist criminal organization” — including foreigners — planning “terror attacks” against Venezuela’s public institutions. The investigation uncovered information from Marrero’s phone that the group, Cocoon 2.0, has ties to at least 15 opposition leaders close to Guaidó.
So far this year, 1,712 individuals have been detained, and of those, 1,214 were held for at least 48 hours — the threshold researchers use to classify a detainee as a political prisoner. Foro Penal data shows that the number of arrests in the first three months of this year accounts for nearly half of all the political detentions carried out since Maduro’s rise to power in 2014.
The purpose of those arrests is simple, advocates say: intimidation. Among the detained this year were four men who were setting up a sound system for Guaidó’s political rally last week. They were released after two nights in detention.
“If you have a sound tech company, and Guaidó’s team calls to hire you to set up a sound stage for another rally, will you do it? Hell no!” Romero said.
Garcia, the lawyer who represents Guaidó’s chief of staff (and who has also defended several high-profile political prisoners), said he will argue that Maduro’s intelligence service planted weapons to charge Marrero with possession.
“He is a ‘ficha,’ ” or a pawn, Garcia said. “ . . . That the government can use to negotiate and extort. It is a way to send a message: If we did it with Marrero, we can do it to others.”
The demographics of the imprisoned are also changing, advocates say. Dozens of new inmates are members of the working class, who have been historically loyal to the socialist government. But a deepening humanitarian crisis, water shortages and rolling blackouts have brought people out of the barrios and into the streets to express their anger.
Violence, Romero said, is an effective tool for instilling fear and maintaining power.
“After dozens of arrests and tortures of young people from the slums, the protests in those areas simply came to a halt,” he said. “The government will keep detentions going, I have no doubt of that.”