Forced disappearances are increasing in Venezuela -- and the coronavirus is making them last longer, rights group says

Mechanic John Jairo Gasparini went missing in March.

(CNN)John Jairo Gasparini drove his motorcycle into town on March 18 to buy gloves and face masks, required by the Venezuelan government to protect against the spread of the new coronavirus.

When his sister, Sugled Gasparini, waved him goodbye, she didn't know it was the beginning of a nightmare that has yet to reach its conclusion.
Instead of returning home to El Hatillo, a leafy neighborhood to the southeast the capital Caracas, Jairo a mechanic in the town, was detained, according to his sister, by the Venezuela Directorate for Military Counter-Intelligence (DGCIM in the Spanish acronym), one of the most feared forces in the security apparatus of embattled President Nicolas Maduro.
    His disappearance was one of many in recent months at the hands of Maduro's forces, according to a new report by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, which claims the government is using "enforced disappearances" as a tool of political repression.
      The government, via Attorney General Tarek William Saab, dismissed the report, telling CNN the organization had no competence to judge the situation in Venezuela.
      Although DGCIM is only meant to operate within the armed forces as a policing force, it is known to have detained civilians, a sign of increasing forceful repression by the Maduro government. It's not clear how much the AG Office knows about their activities or raids.
      But Sugled didn't know this: for the first 10 days after Jairo's detention, she only knew her brother was missing.
        In an interview with CNN, Sugled spoke of the anguish of not knowing what happened. She and her mother looked for Jairo in hospitals and morgues, and even among the large Venezuelan diaspora abroad. Sugled sent a picture of her brother through WhatsApp chats of migrants as far as Ecuador but heard nothing.
        Sugled and John Jairo Gaspirini. Sugled shared this image as part of a  WhatsApp-based campaign to try and find her brother when he went missing.
        Three days after his disappearance, Jairo's girlfriend officially filed a missing person report to the Venezuelan police, but the police took five days to respond. They told her boyfriend might have been detained. Jairo's girlfriend declined to speak to CNN due to her fear of security surveillance in Venezuela.
        It was only on March 28 that Sugled heard Jairo's voice again -- in a telephone call from Boleita, DGCIM's infamous detention center in Caracas. He told his sister that he was OK and they've had a few short phone conversations since, she told CNN.
        "It was exactly 10 days," she said. "Ten days without knowing about him. Ten days of looking for him in hospitals, in morgues, 10 days where a mother was anxious to see her son. It's not fair."

        'Enforced disappearances'

        Sugled's story is far from unique in Venezuela. According to the RFK report, "enforced disappearances" have become a pattern under Maduro.
        The International Criminal Court describes an enforced disappearance as the arrest, detention or abduction of persons "by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons."
        There were 524 such disappearances in 2019, up from 200 the previous year, according to Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights NGO, which gathered the data used in the RFK report. And there have been 235 in 2020, the RFK report said, and "14 of these people remain disappeared as of May 31, 2020, the date of this report's finalization."
        The rationale behind the disappearances varies: According to the report, Maduro's security forces use them to silence prominent political opponents, to set an example for the wider population, to instill fear in political opponents, or to extract valuable information.
        Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro arrives to his annual address to the nation at the National Constituent Assembly on January 14.