On July 14th, the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales (FAES) of the National Police (PNB) turns five years old. From the beginning, several organizations and institutional representatives have pointed out that this division is responsible for committing serious human rights violations in the country. What’s the balance of their performance? What’s happened to the hundreds of casualties in which it’s been involved?
These are the conclusions drawn by the investigation “Las FAES no dependen de nadie. La muerte como divisa,” which I published a few weeks ago, in an attempt to answer these and other questions linked to the “FAES phenomenon.”
The existence of FAES has a triple reasoning: they’re a sign of the aggressive rationale that operates both in national politics as well as the alleged public safety policies. At the same time, they’re a clear example of the counter-reform and police hypertrophy process that came about at the same time as the well-publicized police reform that began in 2006. And, finally, they’re also the result of the long process of institutional precariousness, of the unlimited exercise of power, the permanent state of emergency, and the necropolitics of today’s Venezuela.
Evidence and Indicators
The number of cases that have been documented and analyzed, are a lot fewer than the ones that have actually happened and show the dimension of institutional violence that has a lethal outcome in Venezuela. Out of the 8,734 victims of law enforcement deaths registered between 2017 and 2020, 2,260 (26%) were caused by FAES (1).
When you analyze the specific circumstances of these cases, you notice an increase in the executions that took place in the own victims’ homes.
The victims’ profile is the traditional one, in these cases: young, poor, and dark-skinned. Most of them (75%) didn’t have a prison or police record or there wasn’t any information about it. Only 7% had an actual warrant for their arrest. At least 29% of them were unarmed at the time of the event.
This contradicts the official version of the story, amplified by the media, according to which these deaths were the result of showdowns with dangerous criminals, and they would look to validate, in the eyes of society, what’s nothing more than mass human rights violations. In Venezuela, there isn’t one negative reaction to these events on social media, the way it does when this institutional violence is applied—to a lesser degree and reach—against other social sectors, such as political dissidents or protesters who have a larger power when it comes to social complaints, as well as important solidarity and relationship networks.
It so happens that even if all of the people they’ve killed had police records or a criminal background, it doesn’t justify or legitimize their deaths, so the media debate about the “innocence” or not of the deceased should be eradicated. Rights must be for everyone, no exceptions.
Indicators of abuse of force, already very high in law enforcement in the country, are even worse in the case of the FAES. One of these indicators, with which we’ve been working on comparing the perspective from the Monitor of Use of Lethal Force in Latin America and the Caribbean, is the relationship between dead civilians and law enforcement agents. Specialized literature has established that the death of over ten or fifteen civilians per agent “suggests the use of lethal force to other ends besides the preserving life in emergency situations,” (Chevigny, 1991) a clear indicator of excessive lethal force.
Our research showed that for every deceased FAES agent, 251 civilians die. This number doubles the imbalance in the use of force of all the other law enforcement agencies in the country. And it surpasses the maximum indicators in the use of deadly force by at least 17 times.
The FAES death index (the proportion between dead civilians and civilians wounded by law enforcement), is also alarming: for every wounded civilian by the FAES, 126 die. That’s triple the death index of all the other law enforcement agencies in the country. These are serious numbers, because even in wartime contexts, it’s expected that the number of deaths won’t surpass the injured by too much, or even it being higher. This index should always be below one; when the number is higher, and more people are dead than injured, you’re facing excessive use of force. Another disproportion that can be seen, is that in these events, for every person detained by the FAES, six die.
These indicators show that there’s a disproportionate use of deadly force by the State’s security agencies, and it’s worse when we talk about FAES. When you compare the scarce existing data from research in the past decades, which tried to do similar estimations, you clearly see an increase in police and military fatalities in the last few years in Venezuela. The FAES performance reproduces in a more brutal and broader way the patterns shown since the beginning of democracy in our country, which worsens the damage in society and institutions, as well as positioning Venezuela among the countries with the highest levels in the region.
The data and analyzed cases prove that, given the number of victims with the same profiles, and since these deaths at the hands of agents happen all across the country, these are generalized attacks against an important sector of the population: young, poor, and dark skinned.
These actions hold in time. They have repetitive patterns, so they’re not accidental, spontaneous, casual, or isolated. They come from institutional organic spaces, with financial and logistic support, as well as promoted and protected by the highest political levels in the country, who express and recognize it clearly and publicly. And to top things off, the impunity enjoyed by the agents involved in these deaths. When you add all of this up, it’s clear that there’s a deadly violence system, as a matter of State policy, FAES being one of its most visible instruments.
In a way, this means that we’re dealing with an authoritarian, organized, homogenous, central, monolithic, and efficient State, that has everything under control and is safe from fractures, factions, or contradictions. It’s a more complicated, dangerous, and violent issue. An authoritarian State can also be chaotic, institutionally precarious, and promote the creation of small fiefs, of which law enforcement are part of. In exchange for keeping any element that could challenge the government for power or stability under wraps, they’re offered power quotas without institutional or legal contentions. It’s thanks to these characteristics that the State can practice more violence, because they have fewer limits and controls.
This authoritarian, chaotic, and hybrid State leaves many gray areas that allow the free reign of these agents. The promotion policy for this agency also alternates with the tolerance for the excesses committed, it also ranges from the circumstances between action and omission: the way it encourages and rouses them, guarantees impunity in their actions.
It’s well known that security forces also have their independent and corporate agendas, which can on occasion go against the interests of the State (extortion, kidnapping, and other petty criminal activities for personal profit of low-ranking agents). However, even in these cases, those agents continue to be state officers and an instrument of those who carry the political and economic power.
This research once again shows that lethal police violence in Venezuela is not, or at least not exclusively, a mere answer to the criminal phenomenon. Institutional violence serves the regime for many things that go beyond their symbolic policies in crime control, especially in moments of economic, political, and legitimacy crisis. This has been explained in a detailed manner and with evidence in other opportunities, and it’s ratified in this study.
Financial and Political Functionalities
For the higher ranks, being in the FAES means having public resources and influence; in the mid and lower ranks—thanks to the power obtained when you’re able to decide on the life or death of others at will—opens wide possibilities for the control of illegal markets. It has a political function, too: they can exert state terrorism, to discourage people from any resistance or dissident action.
These squads are formed in secret and there’s no information on how they operate and fund themselves. They don’t report to anyone and they don’t take responsibility for their actions. This increases the opportunities for individual interests to rule above public interest, which in turn increases petty crimes, plundering, extortion, and kidnapping by this agency.
The death toll can be in and of itself an instrument of power. They are presented as “results” to be shown to the political leaders, with institutional deaths as the “product” of the force’s ability. Therefore, larger budgets, supplies, and growth are justified, until you have small personal armies. This way, the FAES gain terrain inside the State’s armed machinery and its coalitions.
This is just a working hypothesis, but it shouldn’t be ruled out when trying to understand why these policies exist, and whose objective transcends the contention of criminal groups or repressing the dissidents.
Impunity and Institutional Response
The available information, which goes from official data all the way through the UN reports, to the testimonies from the victims’ families, proves the level of impunity in the cases of homicides committed by security forces is all but absolute. The tolerance by the justice system’s operators is so blatant that, sometimes, prosecutors tell the victims’ families that they’ve been instructed not to proceed in cases where the FAES is involved.
The information given by the government to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2020) is very clear: between 2017 and the first trimester of 2020, 4,890 cases of murders by agents were registered. Of these, only 13 went to trial (0.3%) and only one (0.02%) was convicted. Impunity is almost total. And that’s how it probably is in the over 16,000 cases that happened in that same period. The action policy is mirrored by an omission policy.
The Acronym’s Transient, the Policy Remains
Regarding the changes made in this agency and the debate on whether it should be dissolved, as the result of its lack of control which has even clashed with the interests of some government supporters, several versions have been circling around, compatible among themselves. The main one being that members of FAES are being reassigned to other PNB agencies, the so-called “officer recycling” which helps lower the pressure, both national and international, while the same logic and practices of the FAES extend to the rest of the PNB. Besides these attempts to absorb the FAES and changing the acronym to lower public pressure, the extermination policy continues.
Some officers have maintained that FAES would remain only in the country’s political center, in Caracas, and operate in a more controlled manner. That’s why they sent several agents to the Dirección de Delincuencia Organizada (DCDO). Inland, they present as the Brigadas Territoriales de Inteligencia (BTI), whose functions are still not clear, but it all points to them being residual groups that follow orders at their chief’s discretion. In traditional special groups of the PNB, the OUTE and Orden Público, there was some resistance in receiving FAES agents, because of their lack of professionalism, training, and discipline, but particularly because of their involvement in human rights violations.
Other PNB spaces receiving them are the Dirección de Inteligencia y Estrategia (DIE) and the Dirección de Investigación Penal (DIP), although FAES’ actions, more than intelligence or research, have been mostly based on deadly force. Even in this area, their institutional performance has been highly questioned, so they really don’t qualify as a tactical or elite group. In order for a security agency to be assigned intelligence tasks or become specialized in the use of high-intensity force, they have to go through some rigorous selection processes and training, as well as discipline and controls which aren’t applicable to FAES agents.
In its five years, FAES hasn’t performed any of the formal police service areas, nor the special ones described in the laws.
The rest of the agents describe it as a law enforcement agency in its own right, working in parallel to the PNB that it officially belongs to, which handles itself in an arbitrary and autonomous way, and doesn’t answer to the natural higher authorities, but only to the “higher ranks”.
As a particular army, they have performed tasks for individuals and groups, in legal and illegal ways, with a high death toll and strong damages to an institution that should serve everyone. But in spite of its duality, they have never stopped representing and being a part of the State.
It’s important that we look further. FAES will change names in the future or they will continue to infiltrate the PNB, but the killings won’t stop. We used to have the Policía Metropolitana in the metropolitan area of Caracas, now it’s the PNB all over the country: we also had the OLP, but in democracy they were known as the Plan Unión or the Operación Vanguardia. The FAES are merely the tip of the iceberg; in this dripping massacre all security forces play a part.
Only focusing on this agency distorts and reduces the real volume of what is going on with the deadly institutional violence in the country.
Dissolving FAES isn’t enough if the rest of the institutional system that promotes, protects, and tolerates this type of policies remains intact. There must be justice and reparations for the families of thousands of victims. They have to strengthen institutions like the Ombudsman’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the justice system, but they have to be independent and autonomous. The Prosecutor General and the courts have to really limit the Executive and its security forces. Otherwise, the government will only limit itself to eliminating police forces and creating other ones, with the same or even more power, and more out of control than its predecessors, just like it’s happened before.
(1): Requests for information were sent to the Ministerio de Interior, Justicia y Paz, the Vice Minister of the Sistema Integrado de Policía, the Observatorio Venezolano de Seguridad Cuidadana, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the Ombudsman’s Office. None were answered.
For the particular analysis of law enforcement and the FAES, in the face of such scarce information, news sources on the cases of deaths at the hands of law agencies were used for reference, the daily follow up of news between 2017 and 2020 in the MIJ and Ombudsman’s Office websites, as well as 36 newspapers (16 national and 20 local). When it was necessary to complement information, websites and social media of local police where the event took place were also reviewed. When official data was available, it was used before any other source.
This database was cross-referenced and complemented with the monitoring by Provea until 2019—nationwide—and the Monitor de Víctimas, which tracks cases in the Caracas Metropolitan area, since mid-2017 until 2019. The last two databases provided 15% of the total cases to be analyzed.
To systematize the information, the same matrix as in previous studies was used (in 2020, 2019, 2018 and 2016), which has been revised and completed subsequently. In this study, we tried to use as much information as possible for each case. The registry unit were the people (victims), to avoid event duplication. Furthermore, variables of time and place were noticed which helped to have better control of the information. Analysis and systemization of approximately 12,573 news pieces. The cases registered on media outlets were recorded, all over the country, to reach a total of 8,734 victims at the hands of all law enforcement agencies during this period of time. The cases that have been documented with this method barely make up 30% of those registered officially, the maximum level verified by previous works (in 2016 and 2019), ratified in this investigation. More details on the methodology section of this publication that summarizes this article.
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