Photo: Kaoru Yonekura

Powerful Mothers Fight Extrajudicial Executions in Venezuela

This grieving group of women organized to force the Venezuelan State to answer for the extrajudicial executions of their sons, husbands, and brothers—and, hopefully, put a stop to this horrific practice

“Tell me,” said the prosecutor to Carmen Arroyo once more, and she, again, replied: “No! You tell me!”

Carmen is still waiting for someone to tell her that there’s at least a warrant for the arrest of any of the twenty officers involved in the murder of her son, Christian Charris. Yexemary Medina went to the Prosecutor’s Office hoping to at least hear that “tell me” from the new prosecutor assigned to the murder case of her son, Douglas Escalante; but the prosecutor didn’t see her. Ivonne Parra went to the Prosecutor’s Office to leave a written testimony saying that the man accused of killing her son, Guillermo Rueda, was still free. Miyanllela Fernández went too, believing she would be told when the events of La Vega massacre, where her son Richard Briceño was murdered, would be reconstructed. Maritza Molina went in to see if, after a ten-year investigation, she would at least hear a rumor about who killed her son, Billi Mascobedo.

Lina Rivera went to the Prosecutor’s Office to waste another day: “If they go back and forth with one case, just imagine… I lost five people: my son, Jesús Rivera; my brother, Daniel Rivera; two nephews, Jordan and Josué Rivera; and my son-in-law, Kevin Figueroa.” 

These mothers came together last year and formed the Madres Poderosas (Powerful Mothers) committee of victims.

“There’s also Rosa Pérez, Genyill Chacón’s mother, who’s abroad; Sharon Duque, Jesús and Pablo’s poderosa sister; and Samuel González, the poderoso father of José Enrique González, who’s in Barrancas del Orinoco,” Ivonne explains. “There’s only a few of us, but ever since we got together, we’re stronger, because we understand and support each other.” 

They’re also becoming more visible because of a periodic protest they hold every Monday, or twice a week, or every two weeks, in front of the Prosecutor’s Office in downtown Caracas.

“Because we’re all united!” says Ivonne. “If we have to go to the courthouse, we also go together. We look for a way to go in together as well. We tell each other what we’re doing and what needs to be done while we walk from one prosecutor’s office to the other, or on the Parque Carabobo and La Candelaria Square…if one can’t afford the bus fare, someone will pay for them…”

Maritza adds: “We help each other sharing our experience, and we prepare, we learn about the laws, how the justice system works here and how to put together a well written request justifying what we’re asking and how to file it… One needs legal preparation, because people get killed here like mosquitoes.” 

Most importantly, they make sure none of them is alone.

Or at least they try, because they do feel alone since their sons are no longer with them, and they have become statistics on the extrajudicial execution list: Cristian, Guillermo, Jesús, Daniel, Jordan, Josué, and Kevin were murdered by the special operations corps FAES. Douglas, by detective unit CICPC. Richard by the National Police, and Billi, no one knows. Those boys weren’t even criminals, and they weren’t involved in weird stuff, nor were they killed in shootouts with security forces. Carmen says: “On top of them being killed, they criminalize them: they make up these ugly police files, when they didn’t even have a record in SIPOL (the Police Investigation and Information System) or the courthouse.”

These men’s deaths aren’t isolated murders. According to lawyer Rafael Gordon, of NGO Defiende Venezuela, “when you connect them, you’ll see that these people were murdered by the Venezuelan State with a modus operandi in which, for example, the law enforcement unit came in, shot them, altered the scene, and then they obstructed justice. These cases have patterns, and in the almost two thousand documented cases the systematic aspect has become very clear. In other words, it becomes clear that there was an organized plan, an order, and executions. Executions performed by State police agencies. So these events can be considered as a murder crime according to the Rome Statute.” 

In other words, if these homicides are looked at as isolated cases, they are subject to the statute of limitations. But if they’re understood as systematic murders, per the relevant process, they could be considered crimes against humanity that do not prescribe. 

“This is why we must act legally!” Lina says emphatically. “It’s the first thing we have to do. Fear doesn’t cut it, denouncing does… Ever since I filed the request for an investigation, things have calmed down where I live… This can’t happen again, because we have small children who will grow up. I know the risk of them killing my other son, but if the mothers don’t speak up, how is this going to stop?”

We already know about the string of dead men the institutional violence from the police and army in Venezuela left behind.

According to the Lupa por la Vida project by NGOs Provea and Centro Gumilla, between January 2015 and June 2021, 7,810 people were murdered by law enforcement agents, most of them young men in poor neighborhoods.

Not a spontaneous practice, by the way, as it is the evolution of Venezuelan police culture from years before. Raúl Cubas, co-founder and Provea activist explains:

“In the ‘80s, extrajudicial executions were still the result of the police culture of the Gómez and Pérez Jiménez years, and also the Ley de Vagos y Maleantes (Vagrancy Law) was still in force. Executions were police violence, a form of social control. It was a generalized practice, but it wasn’t systematic, meaning that there were many cases, but there was no evidence of them being part of a policy to curb crime. This changed after Chávez’s death and Maduro’z arrival to power. What happened? Maduro quashed all planning and the changes done by the Comisión Nacional para la Reforma Policial (National Commission for Police Reform; CONAREPOL) to modify the police’s performance profile.” 

In 2013, the CICPC murdered the son of Aracelys Sánchez, Darwilson Sequera. She recalls that “so many people were being killed for no reason, that when I went to the Prosecutor’s Office, the prosecutor laughed at me and didn’t even give me a protection order for my family.” 

According to Aracelys, a mother and a grandmother were also there that day, and they were going through the same situation and proposed to Aracelys to join them and do something: “And so we did. We went looking for the boys in the news, in the morgue… and we were together in the funerals and burials.” This is how the Organización de Familiares Víctimas de Violaciones de Derechos Humanos (Organization of Families of Victims of Human Rights Violations; ORFAVIDEH) was created—of which Aracelys is the coordinator.

Ever since then, the mothers of ORFAVIDEH protest and denounce: “Often times the mothers, the women, take the reins because we know that men are at a higher risk, both sons and husbands, because police take harsher action, mostly, against the household’s male figure,” says Aracelys. 

In 2014, this change in police action was evidenced with the increase of extrajudicial executions all over Venezuela, especially in low-income neighborhoods. It was also shown, furthermore, that these crimes are a state policy that is still being enforced today.

In 2017, Guillermo was murdered inside his home, in a disproportionate action, with a coup de grace and a couple of shots on the wall to simulate a shootout, without any evidence of him being involved in a crime, with no defense, without even letting him scream out that he was innocent and, as if these violations to the police rules and Guillermo’s human rights weren’t enough, they planted a gun in his hand. His mother, Ivonne, was dragged out of her house, in a cruel, inhumane, and degrading manner. But Ivonne saw and heard everything.

In the first six months of 2019, according to Provea, at least 300 alleged extrajudicial executions were registered in Venezuela. Lara was the state with the highest number of executions; 164 in the first semester, and in August of that same year, it climbed up to 217. The families of four of those murdered belong to the Alianza de Familiares de Víctimas de Venezuela (Victims’ Families Alliance of Venezuela; Alfavic Venezuela): Fanny Castillo, the grandmother of Luis Alejandro Pérez; Evangelina Suárez, mother of Luis Enrique Ramos; Lidia Torbello, mother of Eduardo Luis Ramos; and Naymar Escalona, cousin of Cristian Ramos.

Elvira Llovera de Pernalete, mother of Juan Pablo Pernalete and president of Alfavic, explains: “Now we’re Alfavic Venezuela and not Alfavic 2017, because we’re not only the parents of youngsters killed during the 2017 protests. We’re joining and organizing with families of young men from other years and victims of extrajudicial executions which are still happening with impunity, especially outside the capital.” 

“Here in Barquisimeto, Carora, El Tocuyo, it isn’t like the capital,” adds Fanny. There aren’t a lot of people interested in what’s going on, even when a whole bunch of young men are being killed. I’m the only grandmother in Alfavic, and I tell you, here in Venezuela, only old people remain, because if the boys don’t leave, they get killed.”

In 2021, Lupa por la Vida documented 1414 alleged extrajudicial executions committed by police and the army in Venezuela.

One of the mothers asks for her name to be left out of this comment: “It’s like what a neighbor told me, whose husband is a guy from the FAES: the order is that if they don’t have a prisoner, they have to leave two dead behind, so they can say that they did something. That’s why I think any mother could go through what we’re going through.”

Any mother, as long as she’s poor.

As Ivonne says: “In the barrios, it’s like the boys already committed the crime of being black, poor, and living here… and that’s a type of discrimination that kills. See how very strange it would be for the FAES to go into eastern Caracas neighborhoods to drag out a young man from his house to kill him or do so inside his home.”

Psychologist and researcher Francisco Javier Sánchez explains: “The deaths in the poorest families don’t elicit an approach from the State nor from the political or social actors. Those dead from the OLP (Operación de Liberación del Pueblo, in practice a war on the poor) and FAES are the result of a social stigma in law enforcement bodies which has been developing for decades: it’s the belief that there are second-rate citizens, which are ‘killable’ because ‘they must’ve done something,’ as if the death of a criminal is always justified.”

In other words, the sons of Carmen, Yexemary, Ivonne, Miyanllela, Maritza, Lina, Aracelys, Evangelina, Fanny’s grandson, and Naymar’s cousin, at first glance are guilty in the eyes of society, therefore, “they deserved to be killed.” So, these mothers have had to face the Venezuelan justice system to defend their sons, but they’ve also had to fight against some neighbor’s opinions or media outlets, which have forgotten that even criminals have the right to life and due process, and so did their sons, who were innocent.

These mothers have had to deal with politicians as well: “More than support, we feel that, sometimes, we’ve been used as political tokens,” Elvira says. “But what bothers us the most is being told that our sons were ‘cannon fodder’; ‘terrorists’; ‘delinquents’; ‘criminals’ or ‘guarimberos’. That’s disrespectful to us and to them. It hurts.”

This support for repressive actions that “only happen in the barrios” because “barrios promote crime” or during protests “because they were burning tires,” is one of our many social and citizen safety issues that, as Cubas says, “it’s there, and it bears weight, but we have to neutralize it.” 

Meanwhile, most of the killer officers share the same socio-economic vulnerabilities as their victims.

For Cubas, other paradoxes aren’t as visible: “Let’s not forget that the OLPs are also the initials for Palestine liberation, so for most people it meant a progressive cause, but here it was used to oppress the popular areas. My take is that the repression by the military and by the police, complements that of the 2014, 2015, and 2017 protests. In other words, that chavismo represses its own social base, because they understand it’s a way to prevent new social explosions.” 

“What I do know,” Yexemary says “is that there’s no death penalty in our laws, but as a matter of fact, there is: law enforcement does it all the time.” 

“Unfortunately, for the victims, the only expectation of justice they have is through the International Criminal Court,” says Ezequiel Monsalve, lawyer for Defiende Venezuela, “because it lays criminal responsibility on those who allegedly commit crimes against humanity. Although the context of the investigation on Venezuela are the protests, it doesn’t mean that the OLP’s can’t be included. ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan can broaden the context, because he’s formally investigating. I’m convinced that these cases can be considered crimes against humanity.” 

But could the victims’ committees achieve the acknowledgement of their cases by the ICC?

“Not by themselves,” according to Carlos Lusverti, lawyer and researcher of CDH-UCAB. “Committees need backing from organizations. They need to support themselves in documentation, because the Court needs more than just the complaint files and protests. They need arguments, technical elements, and strong evidence in order to build the rationale that will allow the analysis of the whole situation, at a large scale, including the systemic perpetration as well as the impunity of the events.” 

Documents abound and information is still being compiled through the human rights organizations that operate in Venezuela.

The mothers are getting ready to take the mistreatment, abuse of power, and the national justice system’s deficiency in stride, while international justice arrives, which seems to be closer.

Fanny is about to give a picture of her grandson to the prosecutor who told her that he only remembers her case when he sees her in his office, while Carmen doesn’t cry in front of the officers anymore, not even when she sees her son’s killer.

But the majority of the civil society is still mostly indifferent to all these efforts. The complex humanitarian crisis is still in place, mass migration, the discouragement from those who stay behind, the change of plans because of the pandemic, the apathy, the destruction of social, professional, union, political, and even environmental movements. Above all, the fear of massive repression is still alive. So the demands by these mothers aren’t a topic to be discussed in the many negotiations, although they manage to get their stories to counter the official discourse of the criminal actions and pressure the government to agree on deals and changes for the country.

It’s all about a perpetual and useful fight, explained by Albornoz: “They think in processes, not immediacy. Those who think on a day to day basis, think ‘What’s the use of a memory?’ But they know that truth and memory serve so that human rights violators reveal what they did, how they did it, and why they did it, and so, in five or ten years, the kids who are now in school know what happened breaking a cycle of violence.” 

Lusverti adds: “The struggle of these mothers has an individual dimension, but it also has a collective one: when they seek justice, truth and reparations, and they get them, they also do it for society, because they accomplish measures that benefit all of us. As long as they stay organized in their search, they also have a pedagogical and symbolic value, since they allow for other structures or patterns which have contributed to the violations occurring, to be seen, and once they become visible, they can start changing.” 

So, as Sánchez warns, these mothers’ healing will, one day, help repair Venezuela’s social fabric. But, until that day comes, Ivonne wants all the killer officers to go to prison with the maximum sentence, so that she can mourn her son in peace. Lina just wants all of her grandchildren to outlive her.

Kaoru Yonekura

Venezuelan writer and the winner of the Gabo Foundation Journalism for Solutions scholarship.