The Political Prisoners You've Never Heard Of

When you hear "political prisoner" you automatically think "Leopoldo López". But what about the nearly 100 regular people, like Vasco Da Costa, who ended up in Venezuela's deathtrap jails just for disagreeing with the government?

When the Supreme Tribunal overruled the Amnesty law for political prisoners, reactions aligned pretty neatly with people’s feelings about Leopoldo López: his supporters deplored the decision, the government’s supporters applauded it.

One not-entirely intended consequence to Lilian’s campaigning is that, for broad swaths of public opinion, Amnesty became about Leopoldo López. To a much lesser extent, it’s also about other recognizable political leaders like Antonio Ledezma and Manuel Rosales.

Spare a thought, though, for Vasco Da Costa. Like dozens of other ordinary people who ended up in jail -on sometimes laughably flimsy charges-, Da Costa ended up in jail for no other reason than having the wrong political opinions.

Da Costa’s ordeal started on July 24th, 2014. A CICPC commission caught him in what they would later claim was a “flagrant act of terrorism”. The CICPC must think drinking coffee at a panadería in San Bernardino is what ISIS spends its time doing, because that’s the “subversive activity” Da Costa was flagrantly engaged in when the police picked him up.

They took him to the CICPC at El Rosal where he was held for 50 days. Then he was moved to El Rodeo II and since May, 2015 he has been at Penitenciaría 26 de Julio in San Juan de Los Morros.

Vasco is 56 years old and single. He lived with his sister Ana María. He worked at his tiny, family-owned insurance brokerage firm and now their siblings have to take care of him and of the work he used to do. He has been in critical condition: isolated, without medical attention and eating whatever food is served in a Venezuelan prison. Vasco was a big guy all along, but there just isn’t enough to eat on the inside. He has lost a shocking 40 kg. in custody.

Being in prisons outside Caracas has slowed down his trial: the preliminary hearing, where a judge decided he should be processed and kept in custody during the trial, was held on November 23th, 2015. 16 months after his detention. The trial should have begun on March 1st, but twice already the initial hearing has been delayed because he hasn’t been transported from San Juan de los Morros to Caracas in order to attend.

Penitenciaría 26 de Julio is a new jail. It opened in February, 2015 and it was intended to hold prisoners who are still awaiting trial. Ana María, Vascos’s sister, tells me it’s basically just a galpón – a warehouse in very bad conditions. Cells are made of metallic bars even on the ceiling, so it feels like being in a cage and people face heat or cold, there is no shelter or ventilation system.

It has been tremendously dangerous the past year; there have been big prisoners’ mutinies asking to be transferred to better facilities. The first one occurred on December 28th; three people were killed, and a grenade went off at one point. 

When problems began, Vasco walked close to the public phone available for the inmates and was able to call his sister and tell her he was OK. She gave him a journalist’s phone number so he was able to broadcast the prisoner’s demands to the media. Then the guards’ repression began with tear-gas and rubber pellet shooting. Vasco passed out due to the gas, but he was still shot while he was unconscious. He was shot in his arm and bottom, but he never was seen by a doctor. The prisoners were the ones who treated him afterwards.

Because he talked to the media, the authorities decided he must have been the mutiny’s leader. As punishment, he was put in isolation so his family couldn’t visit him, nor could he use the phone to call them.

February 28th  saw yet another riot. This time Vasco didn’t want to talk on behalf of the prisoners’, so he was taken hostage along with a group of guards and two sports monitors. The prisoners were protesting because the improved conditions they asked for and been promised in December hadn’t been delivered two months later.

Vasco was able to call his sister from a guard’s cell phone, they thought that media will pay more attention if it’s a political prisoner who asks for help. The situation lasted less than a day, the problem was solved when the prisoners leading the riots were transferred to better facilities. But Vasco was still held in isolation after this incident and not until couple of weeks ago was his family able to visit him for the first time in 2016.

Vasco Da Costa is charged of conspiring with José Luis Santamaría, Efraín Ortega and Araminta González to perpetrate terrorist activities. Vasco knew José Luis and Efraín since Plaza Altamira in 2002, but they had never met Araminta. Ana María, Vasco’s sister, says that the only thing these three men share is their political opinions. Opinions that have become enormously dangerous to keep nowadays.

For her part, Araminta González has since said she’s been tortured in prison – an accusation that, perversely, gets her singled out for worse treatment in jail. As is the case with many other political prisoners, weak evidence obtained through patriotas cooperantes – government informers – are at the center of the case against her.

But still they have had to face our penitentiary hell alongside common offenders. These four have being waiting for justice for almost two years now.

Leopoldo López, Antonio Ledezma and Manuel Rosales have been illegally imprisoned. But they’re not mixed in willy-nilly with the sociopathic stew of casual murderers who make up the bulk of a Venezuelan prison’s population.

Vasco Da Costa’s story is only one, there are 90 others also still in jail for political reasons.

Amnesty is about more than a handful of high profile political leaders. Maybe, most of us can’t remember all their names, or know how much their families have suffered for them.

But for Vasco Da Costa and dozens more like him, Amnesty is an urgent neeed that must be met, by this government or the next.

Lissette González

Is a PhD sociologist and researcher at Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales and Sociology Professor at Escuela de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Blogger and collaborator of SIC Semanal and