CARACAS–Before daybreak on January 8, several dozen police officers swept through the streets of Barrio Kennedy, a hillside slum outside Venezuela’s capital.
Some of the officers came under fire from assailants, unprompted. They shot back, hitting five young men. The five were then taken to a hospital, where they died of their wounds.
That, at least, is the official account, detailed in a statement the next day by the elite unit that conducted the operation – the Special Action Force of the Venezuelan National Police.
The force’s version of events is contradicted by five eyewitness accounts gathered by Reuters. These people say the police killed one of the victims not in a street shootout, but in his home. The official story is also contradicted by video of that victim, reviewed by Reuters and reported here for the first time, that was obtained by investigators at Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.
The 82-second clip shows the young man sitting shirtless and unarmed in a storage room inside his home, under police interrogation about a nearby car theft, begging officers to spare his life.
“Brother,” says José Arévalo, a 29-year-old shop worker who had been convicted of robbery earlier this decade but avoided legal trouble since. “Don’t kill me.”
LAST MOMENTS: An excerpt from the video of the interrogation of José Arévalo just before his death. At his family’s request, Reuters has muted the audio, in which he is heard pleading for his life. REUTERS
“If you collaborate, you’ll go free,” responds an unidentified officer, wearing black fatigues and a balaclava. “Otherwise, you’re going to die.”
The footage was recorded in the final minutes of Arévalo’s life, his girlfriend told Reuters. The couple was at home with her two children, she said, when about 15 uniformed officers and an unidentified person in civilian clothes barged in. They ejected her and the kids from the house. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the girlfriend said she believes the video was shot by one of those people, all unknown to her, once she was outside.
From the street, she said, she heard the sound of Arévalo being beaten. A few minutes later, she heard gunshots. Next, she saw officers carry Arévalo out of the house, apparently dead and now fully dressed. The police then riddled the walls of the house with bullets, making it appear that a gunfight had taken place. Just before leaving, she said, they stole a carton of eggs and her kids’ bicycle.
“If my son had committed a crime, they should have charged him and taken him to court,” said Zuleica Pérez, Arévalo’s mother, who later identified his body at the morgue. “Instead, they decided to execute him.”
The girlfriend’s account was corroborated by four other eyewitnesses who were near the scene. It is one of 20 cases Reuters has documented across Venezuela in which witnesses have described extrajudicial killings by the Special Action Force, or FAES, as the unit is known by its Spanish acronym.
José Domínguez, the chief commissioner of the FAES, declined to discuss Arévalo’s death or the other cases recounted in this story. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Information Ministry responded to requests for comment on detailed descriptions of this article’s findings.
The FAES has been accused by the political opposition, the United Nations and many poor Venezuelans of conducting extralegal killings on behalf of the government of President Nicolás Maduro. In July, a U.N. report denounced FAES “executions” and called on Maduro to dissolve the force. The report didn’t detail specific cases of abuse or identify any of the individuals killed.
Maduro called the report “biased” and in a nationally televised speech shouted defiantly: “Long live the FAES!”
For months, Reuters, other media, international agencies and human rights groups have reported on allegations surrounding the FAES. Now, after a four-month investigation, Reuters contrasts the accounts of dozens of eyewitnesses, family members of the deceased, and official documents related to their deaths with FAES assertions that its officers killed only after being attacked.
The new reporting provides the deepest insight yet into the methods used by the force to snuff out perceived threats to Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule. This portrait of the FAES, a force of some 1,500 officers, complements earlier reports in which Reuters examined other blunt instruments used by the leftist leader to control his hungry and impoverished populace – from a multitudinous and loyal cadre of senior military officers to a special intelligence service created with the help of imported security advisors from Cuba.
The FAES is a tool of Maduro’s own devising. He established the force in July 2017 as he faced a surge in violent crime that followed the collapse of Venezuela’s oil-based economy. The force was touted as a means to stem the crime wave.
Instead, according to opposition politicians and former Maduro supporters, the FAES became a means of social control in the country’s poor neighborhoods, wracked by hunger and joblessness, where criminal networks might stir upheaval and threaten government hegemony. The aim, says one senior former member of the Maduro government, was to spread fear and keep Venezuela’s mean streets from spawning a new political opposition.
“Maduro uses the FAES whenever he needs a unit that is completely under his control, to carry out whatever attack, whatever atrocity,” said Zair Mundaray, a former deputy chief prosecutor, who left Venezuela after falling out with Maduro two years ago.