Meet FAES: The Bolivarian Police Death Squads Leading Repression Against Protesters

In past protest cycles —2014 and 2017— the government relied on civilian paramilitary groups to terrorize dissidents. This time, they’re not outsourcing the job. Meet the hyper-violent National Police division leading repression in 2019.

Photo: CBC, retrieved.

They arrive at night. They break down doors and windows, they sweep residential areas with gunfire and deploy snipers on the roofs. “The commandos are coming!” “It’s FAES! It’s FAES!”, while jackboots run up the barrio stairs. Long, heavy weapons, black tactical camouflage, always masked, because death is faceless.

They break into your room and drag you from your house. If you resist, they murder you in your own living room. They don’t care that your family’s right there watching, they don’t care that the neighbors can hear when they beat you senseless with steel tubes filled with cement. Silent and deadly, the FAES —the Spanish acronym for the Bolivarian National Police’s Special Action Forces— are police Death Squads in all but name.

“According to official figures, 4,998 died in 2017 at the hands of state security forces, approximately 14 people per day. What the country’s suffering is a slow massacre, and the PNB’s special forces are a key piece in it. If we use these figures, we could estimate that the PNB may have killed 1,500, a figure that represents 30% of murders in the country,” explains Keymer Ávila, researcher for the Central University’s Institute of Criminal Sciences and PROVEA advisor.

By January 26, 2019, after the protests that ensued from January 23, the death toll is estimated in at least 30 people and there have been some 700 arbitrary detentions. Time and again, witnesses point fingers at FAES in the complaints about excessive police brutality. Images and videos of “the men in black” spreading through Caracas’ low-income areas such as Pinto Salinas, Petare and Cotiza circulate all over social media.

“This division doesn’t have among its functions the control of demonstrations or protests,” says Keymer Ávila. “The PNB has a special brigade with specific training for that and they have non-lethal weapons to contain these events. It’s very delicate that FAES is being used for control of demonstrations because they have neither the training nor the equipment for that, and the consequences are fatal, because they aren’t trained to contain, but to kill.”

The use of FAES in repression seeks to have been deliberate from the start. The FAES were created on July 14, 2017, by Nicolás Maduro, who announced them with a clearly warlike speech: “to fight crime and terrorism.” By 2016, the PNB was responsible for 22% of deaths in the country; the following year, after just six months in existence, the FAES increased that by 10%.

Their modus operandi is essentially military. They take control of an area as if they were an occupation army and they generally “hunt down” a specific target. “It’s not under the logic of citizen security, where a criminal must be detained within the law: they just understand that they must ‘take down elements’ that aren’t people but enemies,” Prof. Ávila proceeds.

“The FAES don’t respond to the law, but to a logic of war, or worse, extermination, because wars usually happen between two sides with a relatively equivalent firepower: this is completely asymmetric. When we study the deaths caused by state security forces in these operations, the death rate between policemen and civilians is 1:122, in other words, 122 civilians die for every police officer killed.”

There are no studies about the profile of its officers nor any public information or accountability; the only thing citizens know about FAES is how they operate, a pattern that appears consistently in hundreds of testimonies.

The regime describes FAES as an elite group, “the nightmare of criminals,” but in practice, they’re the worst nightmare of low-income areas after the OLP (Operations for People’s Liberation,) whose militarized police incursions in highly vulnerable areas may be the origin of the FAES’s model.

Victims’ relatives regularly visit the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor’s Office to denounce the abuses of these security bodies. However, their hopes for justice are almost always frustrated. Officers almost invariably walk free.

“These people are triply victimized: first by the political and economic system that excludes them and condemns them to poverty; second, by crime and social violence; and third, by the very judicial system that only murders their children, but also stigmatizes them after death.”

The last link in the chain of fear that the FAES represents, lies in the absence of media outlets and the dread of discussing them in poor communities.

“The FAES’s methods are a consequence of their carte blanche to exercise limitless power, with impunity, never paying a lasting price,” says Ávila, and adds an idea repeated by the entire Venezuelan human rights community and studies on security: it’s not about impunity anymore, this is a policy of extermination.

“In Venezuela, we’ve lived for years in a state of emergency that has become the new normal, that’s the perfect context for the politics of death, where the powerful arbitrarily and blithely decree who lives and who dies.”

The FAES arrive at night and they’re seemingly unstoppable. Until now.