In Venezuela, special police force wreaks havoc in slums
Miriam Gamarra, a 39-year-old bank employee living in a tough part of Caracas, remembers feeling an ache in her chest when she heard the gunshots in the distance as she was heading to work.
"Lord, please take care of my son," she murmured to herself.
But her prayers were in vain.
Her 21-year-old son Luis Ariza was killed that May night by a special Venezuelan police force that has sown fear in the capital's slums.
Gamarra is not alone in her heartache.
Ariza is one of hundreds of residents who have been killed by the Special Action Forces (FAES) in what their loved ones and advocacy groups have told AFP were "executions."
These accusations have made it all the way to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.
After meeting with relatives of victims in June in Caracas, Bachelet called for the disbanding of the FAES, an elite unit created in 2017 by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to "fight crime."
Since 2018, the non-governmental human rights group Cofavic has recorded 831 "executions" carried out by FAES members, based on information from relatives and its own observations on the ground.
- Conflicting accounts -
On May 13, the FAES entered the home that Ariza shared with his wife and two children, his family says.
As his wife and children were blockaded in the house, agents took him away. He was unarmed, relatives say.
Ariza's wife says when she was finally able to leave her home, she found his dead body in the street.
But the FAES tells an entirely different story.
In an internal report obtained by AFP, the special forces say the young man was in the street carrying a weapon when an agent ordered him to stop and he failed to comply.
Ariza then fired shots at a police station, which triggered a furious gun battle with officers in which he was fatally wounded.
The FAES says Ariza was suspected of involvement in a homicide, but the internal report also says he was not the subject of an arrest warrant, nor was his weapon flagged in any way.
Two years earlier, he had spent three months in preventive detention in connection with anti-Maduro protests. It was roughly the same time that Maduro decided to create the FAES.
The special forces were tasked with "protecting the people from crime and terrorist gangs" that Maduro said were linked to the opposition.
It was not long before complaints and accusations of FAES wrongdoing began to pour in.
- 'Instrument to instill fear' -
Bachelet, non-governmental organizations and relatives of the dead say the special forces are acting beyond the law, primarily in poor urban areas.
They stand accused of shooting young men at point-blank range, inventing gun battles to cover their tracks, hiding autopsy reports and preventing relatives from seeing any official files.
In a report published in July, Bachelet said she suspected that the Venezuelan authorities were using the FAES and other security forces "as an instrument to instill fear in the population and to maintain social control."
Carmen Arroyo's only son Cristian Charris was slain in September 2018.
"Given that the government knows it's not popular in poor areas, it's sending these assassins to intimidate people and make sure no one rises up to contest the violations of our rights," she says.
Maduro has accused Bachelet of lying in her report, and said: "Support the FAES! Long live the FAES!"
AFP repeatedly asked the interior ministry -- which oversees the FAES -- for comment, but it did not reply.
According to official data, 17,849 people died from 2016 through May 2019 in cases involving "resisting authorities."
For Bachelet, these deaths attributable to security forces -- all units -- could in many cases be considered extrajudicial killings.
- 'Examples' -
The FAES purposefully projects an image that is meant to instill fear in the locals. Members wear black tactical gear, often cover their faces, and have a skull patch stitched to their sleeves.
Nothing is known about where the agents are recruited. No one even knows how many agents are in the FAES.
They sometimes display the bodies of their victims "as examples," according to witness accounts relayed to Cofavic.
The head of the unit, Rafael Bastardo, is under US sanctions. Washington has accused him of human rights violations.
At a Caracas cemetery, Ruth Perez is mourning her 21-year-old nephew Johander, who she says was killed by the FAES a few days earlier.
His grave is next to that of her brother-in-law Wuilkerman Ruiz, who witnesses say died in the same raid in Petare, one of the greater Caracas area's biggest slums.
Neighbors say they saw Johander on his knees, blindfolded. Then they were confined to their homes. They heard gunshots. The family found his body in the road.
Relatives say the FAES accused Johander of being a thief.
Perez had already lost her brother Jesse in July 2018, and her nephew Yondris this past August -- both of them also victims of the FAES, she says.
According to Cofavic founder Liliana Ortega, 98 percent of the deaths attributable to the FAES go unpunished because "most of the time, the inquiry never gets past the preliminary stage."
Prosecutors say that since 2017, 695 members of Venezuela's security forces have been prosecuted for murder, torture, unlawful arrests and home invasions. Of those, 109 have been convicted.
AFP asked prosecutors if any of those tried or convicted were FAES members, but got no response.
- Getting justice -
In Petare, Arroyo told AFP she waited more than a year to see the file of her dead son.
Charris, 25, died of a gunshot wound as he made his way home from a birthday party thrown in his honor.
A witness told Arroyo that Cristian put his hands in the air, but FAES agents shot him anyway.
In their report, the elite unit said Cristian was a criminal. But according to police records, he had no rap sheet at all.
His family says the agents planted a gun next to Cristian's dead body. Arroyo says one expert noticed that the placement of the gun relative to the body didn't make sense.
"If I at least knew that the cop who killed my son was in prison, I would feel more at peace," she said, revealing her determination to "get justice."
© 2019 AFP