— PROVEA (@_Provea) May 9, 2017
On the night of May 8th, human rights activists Nelson Freitez and Yonaide Sánchez got home, just outside Barquisimeto, only to realize that their house had been broken into. Again. For the third time in just six months. But this time, it was different. Nothing of value was taken.
Instead, the culprits left a big mess behind and two objects in the front entrance –a pickaxe and a wooden chopping board.
For Mr. Freitez, this was clearly a message of intimidation for the work he’s currently doing. But right after his initial concern for him and his life partner, he says that this event won’t deter him. “For those behind this (the break-in), the act of denouncing is an aggression.” He says that he’ll keep on doing what he does.
He’s the head of Lisandro Alvarado University’s human rights group (where both himself and Sánchez are professors), and works with other related NGOs like PROVEA and Centro Gumilla. Ms. Sánchez also coordinates the local chapter of Transparencia Venezuela.
Mr. Freitez told me he sees this incident is part of a much larger strategy to harass human rights defenders in the region. It didn’t take him too long to actually prove his point.
Two days after Fretiez’s experience, Criminal Investigation Police (CICPC) officers visited fellow activist Ehisler Vasquez’s home, who works for the local NGO Funpaz. They showed a search warrant and took him for interrogation; then released him hours later. The following week, the CICPC paid him another visit.
Another member of Funpaz, Andrés Colmenárez, explained that the entire process against Vásquez is filled with irregularities. To start with, there are reasons to doubt over the validity of that search warrant. Besides, the accusation came from two members of Consejos Comunales. Amnesty International has been tracking his case.
“Never before in Venezuelan history,” he told me, “had so many civilians been put on trial in military courts.”
Mr. Colmenárez also admitted that he personally had been victim of verbal harassment a couple of weeks –ago by an unidentified woman, who called him a “terrorist” and threatened him, publicly. Other members of Funpaz, and other local human rights NGOs, have suffered similar attacks via social media.
Since the protests began, Lara state has paid a heavy price for the State’s repression. And that price goes far beyond the five people killed so far. The government is now using a three-part strategy to suppress the protests: military courts against civilians, paramilitary groups acting freely and brutal attacks from the security forces against neighborhoods in Barquisimeto and Cabudare.
Recently, the government decided to bypass the regular judicial system and use military courts to try those detained in protests all over the country. And, once again, one of the first known cases is from Lara State –eight people were arrested nearby the headquarters of the National Guard’s Regional Command Four, in West Barquisimeto, and put in front of a military court. Six of them were sent to Ramo Verde.
Even though they were formally charged for trespassing a security zone (in fact, they all live in a housing complex located right in front of the GNB base), some believe this was in retaliation for a video showing pro-government “colectivos” leaving the CORE-4 on the afternoon of April 11th. Shortly after that, brutal repression took place in Barquisimeto and Cabudare, while the two cities faced a several-hour-lasting blackout with no apparent logical explanation.
According to Foro Penal, the well-known legal defense NGO, 13 people in Lara have faced military justice so far, and it seems like the use of the local military court has been extended to people from other states in the region: Mérida student leader Carlos “Pancho” Ramírez was transferred here after his arrest on May 15th under charges of terrorism. His father publicly accused Mérida state Governor Alexis Ramírez of “kidnapping” his son, and held him responsible for his wellbeing.
At least 60 different areas in both cities have been targeted by either the National Guard, paramilitary groups.
For Colmenárez, this unconstitutional trend is simply unprecedented. “Never before in Venezuelan history,” he told me, “had so many civilians been put on trial in military courts.” In relation to that, Funpaz confirmed that at least three cases of torture inside local military premises.
Evidence of cooperation between the National Guard and paramilitary groups is another highly worrying issue. On April 12th, the head of the Lara Defense Zone (ZODI), General José Rafael Torrealba, admitted publicly after the violence of the previous day that the so-called colectivos helped the GNB with the removal of debris, which was supposed to be work of municipal workers.
One month later, those groups feel confident enough to keep acting like it is all normal –during the nationwide Sit-in of May 15th, they went harassing local businesses downtown and then launching an organized attack against the Centro Metropolitano Javier, a housing complex located in Western Barquismeto. Two days earlier, motorizados attacked Villa Roca complex in surburban Cabudare, leaving two people wounded and material damages.
Freitez is really worried about the spike in paramilitary attacks in the state in recent weeks, and he asks Governor Henri Falcón and the Lara state police to be more forceful against those groups.
Those recent attacks on specific neighborhoods are part of a larger trend in Lara. From Las Trinitarias and Urbanización Sucre in Barquisimeto to La Hacienda and Valle Hondo in Cabudare, at least 60 different areas in both cities have been targeted by either the National Guard, paramilitary groups or both since the protests began, according to Funpaz’s own account.