A man holds a sign that reads "Freedom for the political prisoners" during a demonstration to demand their release in Caracas on November 1, 2023.

Guillermo Zárraga’s life at a standstill in Venezuela

By Clara del Campo, South America Campaigner for Amnesty International

Three years ago, at 3 a.m. on 14 November 2020, agents of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence entered Guillermo Zárraga’s home and arbitrarily detained him, viewing him as a threat to the interests of Nicolás Maduro’s government. Who is Guillermo, and why are we calling for his release?

Guillermo Zárraga is a 59-year-old engineer who worked as a technician operator of Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), the nation’s state oil company, in the Cardón del Complejo de Catalítica Refinery located in Coro, in the state of Falcón. He was also a leader of the company’s labor union. Today he sits in the Yare II Prison in the state of Miranda awaiting un unfair trial lacking all guarantees of due process, while his extremely precarious health endangers his life.

As so many other victims of the Venezuelan government’s policy of repression, Guillermo’s life came to a standstill due to an accusation that is baseless in terms of the facts and has no corroborating evidence. According to the charge brought by the public prosecutor’s office – an organ closely aligned with Venezuela’s executive branch – Guillermo is accused of having committed “treason to the country” and “association to commit crime,” in an incoherent version of events linked to an American citizen, who was supposedly a US intelligence agent. Nonetheless, it appears the main ‘evidence’ of Guillermo’s alleged guilt is a photograph with the prominent leader of the opposition at that time, Juan Guaidó. While the alleged foreign intelligence agent was released, Guillermo inexplicably remains behind bars.

Since being detained three years ago, Guillermo has suffered a dramatic weight loss of 20 kilos, cardiac arrest, several fainting spells due to malnutrition, and repeated denials of medical care. As with a significant portion of the Venezuelan populace that has been imprisoned, his relatives are the ones who must provide him with food, potable water, and any other essential goods, despite the fact that they themselves do not have the financial resources to deal with these needs due to the complex humanitarian emergency experienced by millions of people in the country. In fact, more than 25% of Venezuela’s entire population has fled the country as a result of the massive violations of economic and social rights, as well as widespread systematic violations of civil and political rights.

There is no judicial independence in Venezuela. The judicial and security authorities are under Nicolás Maduro’s control. He is in charge of the policy of repression that maintains hundreds of people unjustly detained, and he is the one who must immediately and unconditionally release Guillermo Zárraga. As long as he continues to be illegally detained, the Minister for Penitentiary Affairs, Celsa Bautista, must guarantee Guillermo’s health, physical integrity, and life, ensuring that he receives immediate medical care. His situation is not unique. Amnesty International issued a worldwide urgent action calling on the minister to protect the health and lives of Guillermo and Emirlendris Benítez, whose health is also in a critical state after being unjustly detained in Venezuela, in part as a result of the torture she suffered while detained.

The states in the international community who have said they follow the human rights situation in the country with interest – such as Spain, Argentina, and Chile – cannot be unaware of cases like those of Guillermo Zárraga, Emirlendris Benítez, the human rights defender Javier Tarazona, or the university student John Álvarez, among the hundreds of people whose lives have been unjustly brought to a standstill as a result of the Venezuelan government’s policy of repression. Nor can they ignore the unceasing denunciations by Venezuelan civil society; alarming reports by UN bodies; the investigation of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court regarding crimes against humanity in Venezuela, the first conducted on a country in the Americas; or the open investigation being conducted in Argentina under the principle of universal jurisdiction, also for crimes against humanity.

The international community must maintain international scrutiny and the fight for justice regarding the grave current human rights violations that are ongoing in Venezuela. Hundreds of people continue to be unjustly imprisoned due to the government’s political interests. We call on the international community to join forces to ensure their immediate and unconditional release and the definitive end to Venezuela’s policy of repression.