Venezuela: International Criminal Court Prosecutor must include new mass extrajudicial executions in preliminary examination
In a new open-source investigation, Venezuela: Impunity in the face of lethal policy of social control, that collected evidence verified by its Crisis Evidence Lab, Amnesty International considers the deaths of at least 14 men in the La Vega area of Caracas, between 6 and 9 January 2021, as probable extrajudicial executions and calls for the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to include these facts in its preliminary examination of the crimes against humanity that have and are being committed by state agents in Venezuela.
Although neighbours denounced police presence since 6 January, two days later, as many as 650 agents of Venezuelan security forces were deployed in La Vega parish, southwestern Caracas, due to alleged clashes between gangs and police. Officers deployed included the Special Action Forces (FAES) and other members of the Bolivarian National Police, who have been criticized in the past for the systematic extrajudicial executions of young men living in poverty.
“There are solid reasons to believe that at least 14 of the deaths in La Vega between January 6 and 9 were likely extrajudicial executions, a crime under international law that might constitute crimes against humanity. Despite repeated condemnation by international organizations and the courageous Venezuelan civil society, these crimes continue year after year, hand in hand with utter impunity,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
Amnesty International verified nine videos filmed between 8 and 9 January showing police activity in the area of La Vega. Videos filmed on the morning of 8 January show a convoy of police vehicles driving south down Avenida O'Higgins in Caracas toward the La Vega area. Another video shows police and their vehicles by Av. Guzmán Blanco, at the border of La Vega parish. A video posted by local media also on 8 January shows a heavy police presence near the Gimnasio Vertical in the La Vega parish. Police vehicles, weapons, armour and UOTE (Special Tactics Operational Unit by its acronym in Spanish) badges are also visible in the video. Another video filmed on 8 January shows the scene at Calle los Bloques near the centre of La Vega in which gunshots can be heard. A photograph taken from the same vantage point reveals that the vehicles shown in the video are police trucks and that there is a heavy police presence in the area.
Another uploaded video of the incidents in La Vega is filmed around Calle 1 de Mayo, deep in La Vega. At about the 20-second mark, a gunshot can be heard and a police officer ducks. At about the 30-second mark, the same officer can be seen aiming his gun while seeking cover where other police are waiting. CPNB (Bolivarian National Police Corps, in Spanish) and Bolivarian National Police insignia can be clearly seen on some of the uniforms. Other videos show the same street as gunshots ring out, with one showing armed police patrol the area. A final video, filmed from above the street, shows a police pick-up truck driving westward along Calle Zulia out of La Vega parish with what appears to be bodies in the back.
At least 14 people died during the operation, which lasted four days, until 9 January, with reports of an additional 10 fatal victims of the police’s actions. Two of the victims reportedly were 17-year-old adolescents.
There are solid reasons to believe that at least 14 of the deaths in La Vega between January 6 and 9 were likely extrajudicial executions, a crime under international law that might constitute crimes against humanity
Human rights organizations and residents of La Vega denied that the deaths were the result of the confrontation and claimed that they were mostly extrajudicial executions. Other deaths could be due to "stray bullets." There have been no reports of the death or injury of any members of the security forces involved.
Amnesty International obtained images that apparently show 14 of the deceased bodies in La Vega. An external forensic pathologist independently verified the details of the injuries sustained and confirmed that seven bodies had gunshot wounds over the heart and a further two bodies had single gunshot wounds immediately above the heart. Two bodies had single gunshot wounds to the head.
“The location and number of gunshot wounds on the bodies of the victims in La Vega make the official version that these deaths occurred in a confrontation with crossfire even less credible. Instead, they support Amnesty International’s findings on a policy of systematic extrajudicial executions and other crimes under international law in Venezuela. With no sign of any impartial and independent investigation into these events, the examination of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court becomes more necessary than ever,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
As of the conclusion of Amnesty International’s investigation, there had been no public statements by the Attorney General’s Office, nor the Ombudsman's Office, on the opening of an independent, prompt and impartial investigation to clarify the truth and individual criminal responsibilities regarding these events. And even if such a step was taken, its credibility would be in question after years of complaints about the lack of impartiality and independence of the Venezuelan judicial system by international organizations, including Amnesty International.
“The alleged extrajudicial executions that we have investigated in La Vega could constitute crimes against humanity, which involve the authorities at the highest level, including Nicolás Maduro. The policies of repression and social control are based on impunity promoted and enabled by the same authorities that have committed massive violations of human rights in Venezuela,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
Local organizations with whom Amnesty International had contact collected the testimonies of the victims' families and many of the accounts corroborate the modus operandi that Amnesty International has repeatedly documented in the past. Security forces enter houses without an arrest or search warrant, immobilize the young person inside the house, without any confrontation, and upon leaving – or even still inside the property – they execute them with one or two shots to a highly vulnerable area of the body, such as the thorax or the head. Subsequently, the officials alter the crime scene, simulate a clash, or transfer the body to avoid a crime scene investigation, and classify the death as "resistance to authority."
The alleged extrajudicial executions that we have investigated in La Vega could constitute crimes against humanity, which involve the authorities at the highest level, including Nicolás Maduro.
This pattern of extrajudicial executions carried out by state security forces that Amnesty International has been able to verify has been widely denounced by international organizations and human rights organizations for several years. In particular, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has recommended the dissolution of the FAES due to the numerous reports of extrajudicial executions since its creation. The United Nations' Fact-Finding Mission for Venezuela determined in its first report that: “the extrajudicial executions [carried out by the FAES and the Scientific, Criminal and Criminal Investigations Corps] have not [been] isolated acts, committed by individuals acting alone. There is information about an agreed practice to kill individuals with criminal records even if they offered no resistance during detention, including in order to demonstrate “results” in the fight against criminality." This Mission determined that between 2014 and 2020, in Venezuela there existed “a policy to combat crime, including by eliminating individuals perceived as ‘criminals’ through extrajudicial execution.”
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