CARACAS – Members of an elite National Police unit burst into Luis Alfredo Ariza’s home in the Venezuelan capital in the pre-dawn hours of March 13, 2019, and arrested him for reasons that remain unclear to this day.
Minutes later, those same officers executed him with a shot to the chest on a nearby street.
That is the version of events described to his mother, 40-year-old Miriam Gamarra, by eyewitnesses and Ariza’s widow, who was sleeping by his side when armed agents from the National Police’s Special Action Forces (FAES) arrived.
“I know that nobody here has the right to take anyone’s life, but one of the things I hold onto is that my son was no criminal,” a sobbing Gamarra told EFE.
She vividly remembers that day nearly 17 months ago, recalling that she was on her way to work when a phone call alerted her to the incident.
When Gamarra rushed back to the Macarao parish of southwestern Caracas, she found a black cap and a puddle of blood at the spot where Ariza was killed, as well as a gun that she insists did not belong to him.
She said she will never forget how her son’s blood stained the road.
According to a report released in February by the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), 2,113 people under the age of 30 died in the leftist-led South American country in 2019 after resisting authority, or nearly six per day.
And in another more recent report, that non-governmental organization said that in 2019 the police killed 802 people for every 1,000 violent deaths attributed to criminal suspects.
That figure is “extremely high,” according to the OVV’s director, Roberto Briceño Leon, who said the number of police-involved homicides in Venezuela as a proportion of the population is among the highest in the world.
“Venezuela’s police forces kill 40 times more than (United States) police do … and seven times more than Brazilian police,” Briceño Leon told EFE.
OVV’s figures also indicate that in clashes pitting law-enforcement officers and civilians the latter are 110 times more likely to die.
The expert said many police-involved killings of civilians occur after a suspect has been arrested following a warrant-less raid of a residence. In those instances, the police will report the incident as an armed clash even though the suspect was unarmed and already in custody.
That was the pattern seen in the case of Ariza, according to his family members.
Jesse Gabriel Perez was killed in a similar incident on July 11, 2018, in a poor area near Santa Lucia, a city in the central Venezuelan state of Miranda.
“The FAES burst in at 5:30 am approximately, hitting, threatening, robbing. They took several people away and later killed my brother. They executed him right here, where we live,” his sister, Ruth Perez, told EFE.
The memory remains a painful one for that 36-year-old housewife, a mother of two young women who grew up witnessing the violence that has ripped apart their family and community.
“The FAES burst in again eight months after (Jesse’s death). They hit my daughters, took off my older daughter’s clothes, killed two more local residents … An agent told me he’d kill me if he felt like it. He took out his service weapon and pointed it at my face,” she recalled.
The case file states that Jesse Gabriel resisted authority, Ruth said, though adding that her brother had never been accused of anything.
In July 2019, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, recommended that the FAES be dissolved over the alleged cases of extrajudicial executions.
And in September of that same year, Bachelet – a Chilean former president who was tortured by her country’s secret police after a 1973 military coup – said in an update on that report that her office “has continued to document cases of possible extrajudicial executions committed by (the FAES) in some areas of the country.”
She also lamented that leftist President Nicolas Maduro’s administration has not followed her recommendation to dissolve that elite unit, noting that “on the contrary, the FAES have received support from the highest level of government.”
Maduro has defended the actions of that special forces unit and said they are a “necessity for peace” in Venezuela.
“They have all my support, all the institutional, legal and constitutional support to carry out their duties,” the president said at a police academy graduation ceremony in December of last year, while also denouncing a “global campaign” to eliminate that police force.
Maduro’s support for the FAES is “unacceptable,” the co-founder of the human rights NGO Cofavic, Liliana Ortega, told EFE.
“It’s very well known from official figures from the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, from the figures of NGOs in Venezuela, that there is a serious problem of executions” related to the FAES’s operations, she added.
Between 2012 and March of this year, Cofavic identified 11,328 cases of alleged extrajudicial executions.
“71 percent of these cases occur during special security operations, more than 90 percent of them in vulnerable areas,” Ortega said.
She also called for an end to impunity so family members of the victims can have a form of closure, adding that 99 percent of cases of human right violations never make it to trial.