Sometimes they wear Halloween-style masks. Sometimes they show their faces. But when the men dressed in black uniforms come, Venezuelans flee.
On March 18, the men came for Roney Muñoz.
The 27-year-old worked as an engineer in Medellin, Colombia. But the men caught him in Petare, a poor neighborhood of Caracas, where he was visiting with his wife Yarleidys Dias, 23, and their three children.
They plucked Muñoz’s 11-month-old daughter out of his arms, and then dragged him away, leaving the child behind, says Yarleidys.
“It was horrible, they had no compassion for our little girl, nothing. They just took him as they struck him. They put him on the van and they hit him, and they hit him, and they hit him,” she says, wiping away tears.
The men never identified themselves; they just shoved Muñoz into an unmarked car and drove away. Yarleidys never saw her husband alive again.
More than 8,200 people died in extrajudicial killings in Venezuela between 2015 and 2017, estimates Amnesty International. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused state-aligned groups of targeting Venezuelan civilians for murder and kidnapping for years.
“The authorities always say it is some kind of standoff. They call these boys delinquents,” says Aracelis Sanchez, 51. She believes that most are innocent victims of a broad intimidation campaign.
Her son Darwilson was 20 years old when he was shot just outside their home in Caracas in 2013. Sanchez believes the men who executed him were members of Venezuela’s police forces. So far, no one has been prosecuted for the killing.
Her humble house is perched on a hillside. In her living room, on a makeshift shelf, she keeps a small shrine to her son: his sunglasses and his cellphone. There are photos of Darwilson smiling with friends, and of his school science project. “I really miss him,” she says.
When Sanchez went to a government office to file a complaint about her son’s death, she met another woman whose son had been similarly killed. She decided to speak out, and a group of more than 100 bereaved mothers and wives has since coalesced around her.
Although they aren’t officially registered as an NGO, they call themselves Orfavideh, the Organization of Relatives of Victims of Human Rights Violation. All of its members are women.
“We have to denounce [the killings], we have to document it,”Sanchez says. “We know we are not in a time of justice, but it has to be done because if we stay quiet, we allow the same thing that happened to us, to happen to others.”
She keeps a large wicker basket full of press reports and testimonials of believed extrajudicial killings. Each tells of a lost husband or a lost son.
While many women are afraid to speak out, and Sanchez herself has received death threats for her activism, she says there is power in numbers. The group meets regularly to support each other through the grieving process. They also help each other in their lawsuits against the state. But no convictions have been made in any of the Orfavideh women’s cases.
Since 2015, the Venezuelan authorities have described raids in some areas of Caracas as “OLPs” or Operations for the Liberation of the People. They are supposed to stop crime. However, many now believe the OLP mission has evolved to focus on deterring opposition to the government of embattled president Nicolas Maduro.
After receiving numerous reports of violations and abuses by security forces and state-sponsored groups, earlier this year the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) assigned a five-person team in Venezuela to investigate the killings.
The team pointed at the feared Special Action Force, or FAES, a recently formed special forces group, linking them to more than 200 alleged killings.
“It appears that some of these killings have followed a similar pattern. They take place during illegal house raids carried out by the FAES, which subsequently reports the death as resulting from an armed confrontation – although witnesses report the victims were unarmed,” said Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner.
Venezuela’s Ministry of Communication did not respond to a CNN request for comment. However, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza has repeatedly criticized OHCHR as “biased.”
On their official Instagram account, FAES has posted repeated denials of news stories alleging abuse by the officers. The account also posts footage of their officers carrying out arrests and “community services” such as food distribution.
In February, the US announced sanctions on FAES commander Rafael Bastardo, citing accusations of extrajudicial killings by the group. Bastardo is one of the long list of Venezuelan officials who have been sanctioned by the US this year.
Crime fighters or political enforcers?
The FAES base at the foot of the Petare barrio is an intimidating structure of grey concrete and steel. “Traitors never, loyal always,” is written on the walls.
A guard pointed his rifle at this group of journalists during a recent drive by.
The barrios of Caracas have always been dependably chavista. Their support for the leftist regime of the late former president Hugo Chavez—and his chosen successor Maduro—was once thought to be ironclad. But that support is weakening as poor neighborhoods, like much of the country, suffer through food and medicine shortages, and weeks of no electricity or water.
“I think that this is terrorism, that (the government) inflicts on the people of the barrios so that the people do not come out and protest,” says Carmen Elena Arroyo, an Orfavideh member who believes FAES members killed her son in 2018.
She says her son Cristian wasn’t particularly political. “Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him,” she adds.
A successful barber in Petare, Cristian was returning home from celebrating his 25th birthday when he ran into FAES members running an operation in the neighborhood, says Arroyo. What happened next is unclear. But he ended up dead.
“Soon the barrios won’t have any young men left,” she says.
Arroyo, 51, is now studying law to better educate herself on how to help other victims and find justice for her son.
Dumped into the trash
As the women of Orfavideh search for answers, one question looms above the rest: Why were their husbands or sons targeted?
Like the others, Yarleidys says her husband wasn’t interested in politics. She still has no idea why or where the men took him.
“I went searching that same night. I looked everywhere,” she says. The police told her they didn’t have him in custody. FAES also said they didn’t take him, although she believes the men’s uniforms resembled those of the FAES.
“Each dawn and then every morning we looked,” she says.
Her husband’s body had actually been found on March 19, just one day after his kidnapping. He had been dumped next to a pile of trash and burned beyond recognition. Both hands were missing. It took two weeks for a positive identification to be made.
“His children are asking for dad, asking for their dad, “says Yarleidys. “I have no more words to explain things to my children.”