Their faces have not appeared in any public manifestation portrayed in any banner, or brochures, or in social media. Their names were sentenced by someone with "revolutionary authority" that involved them in a case without conclusive evidence, even with assumptions that even though they were dismantled, that was worth little or nothing to reverse the aim, i.e. to criminalize the protest, frighten the protesters, leave someone behind bars. The official discourse that is determined to ensure that there are only political prisoners in Venezuela does not fit to them. These are ordinary Venezuelans who have ended up as political prisoners, particularly as forgotten political prisoners.
He was identified as alias "El Zeta", leader of the "terrorist cell KMKZ", alleged activist of one of the most important parties of the Venezuelan opposition (Primero Justicia) and one of the main attackers of the Francisco de Miranda air base, in Caracas, in one of the days of protests against the Nicolás Maduro regime from April to July 2017. "He is attracted to explosives. He used pyrotechnic devices to attack officials of the security forces and the armed forces. When captured, he was seized 5 nipples, 20 rockets and a pound of gunpowder," said the police file.
Everything was summed up in a 45-second presentation, as powerful as its presenter, broadcasted on the state channel Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), in the program "Con el mazo dando" run by the number two of Chavismo, Diosdado Cabello Rondón. Alexander Sierra, the young labeled, was sentenced in that transmission, despite the irregularities that according to his lawyers, surrounded the case.
Sierra was arrested on Saturday, June 24, 2017 at 5:30 PM, when he was leaving a restaurant in Altamira, east of Caracas, with several friends, where they were celebrating the birthday of a friend. A few meters from the premises, they were intercepted by four SUVs. Several armed men, dressed in civilian clothes and without identification get off the SUVs. One of them pointed at Alexander Sierra in the chest. He dropped his bag on the floor, where he kept his chef's shirt, his cell phone, headphones and personal items, and held his hands up.
He was not carrying pipe bombs, rockets or gunpowder, his lawyers say. He was not arrested during a "Tun Tun Operation," as suggested in the televised video, a raid-type operation named like that by Cabello, carried out during anti-government protests in order to "search for terrorists" at their own homes.
Sierra was missing for 46 hours until he was found on Monday, June 26, in the afternoon, at the Helicoide, one of the headquarters of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin), the Venezuelan political police. On the eve, the officials at the entrance of the tenebrous building always denied that he was there. That is another reason why its defenders and relatives say that Sierra’s case follows the pattern of other famous cases of political prisoners: an arbitrary detention, which did not follow judicial procedures. A clear example of forced disappearance, considered a crime under international law.
In those hours of uncertainty, Alexander Sierra was repeatedly beaten to force him to give names and give false testimony. The result of those beatings and others that followed is a dislocated shoulder and a fracture in one hand for remaining three days hanging from a tube.
"My son was not killed because he is an artist and many people know him. The news that the Sebin had taken him and was missing spread in the social media," says his mother, Nancy Sierra. She always refers to Alexander as "Líryko," his actual nickname, derived from his role as a rapper, which he combines with his profession as a chef and theater actor. The 23-year-old also has an associate’s degree in Graphic Design and was studying English when he was arrested.
"Líryko" was presented on June 27 before the military courts for allegedly attacking a military base, owning military garments in his backpack along with pipe bombs, rockets and gunpowder, being a terrorist, a "financier of the guarimbas" (street barricades) and a “Primero Justicia” activist. "All that was completely false, none of us is a member of any political party. He did not cause such damage, and that day, he was not marching. He was wearing his 'I am a Liberator' t-shirt and had gone to several marches. We do not agree with the regime that they want to impose, and we did not only go to the marches this year, we also went to the marches before," says his mother.
His attorney, Elenis Rodríguez, took the case as part of the non-governmental organization Fundeci and managed to prove that he could not be charged for those accusations. On the day of the preliminary hearing in military courts (scheduled for August 9), Alexander Sierra's file only included disturbing peace and resisting arrest charges, but that day, his attorney could not represent him. Elenis Rodríguez was sworn on July 21, together with 32 other lawyers as judge of the Supreme Court of Justice, by the National Assembly, in one of the last actions of the Venezuelan parliament to try to stop the election of the so-called National Constituent Assembly. Eight days after, Rodríguez asked for asylum from the Chilean embassy in Caracas to avoid being judged for "treason against the fatherland and usurpation."
Lawyer Alejandra Tosta took over the case of Alexander Sierra since Rodríguez was nominated as a judge. On August 9, she managed to get the military judge to agree to send the file to an ordinary court. But since then, the case seems to be in lethargy. The file took three months to reach civil jurisdiction. Nancy's insistence materialized only on November 8. She could not expedite a simple transfer of a folder from Fuerte Tiuna to the Palace of Justice, a 12-kilometer journey that can take no more than 30 minutes on a motorcycle. "A court official told me that the Plan República (Republic Plan) had not been able to take the file. What does Plan República have to do with a file?" Nancy asks herself about what seems to be nonsense. Was the military operation that protects the elections in Venezuela, according to that employee, responsible for the judicial delay?
Alexander Sierra is one of those political prisoners who fell into oblivion. They are just one more name in a list that gets shorter and longer based on the needs of the Bolivarian regime. They do not capture the attention of the media and as time passes, no one remembers them.
A few weeks after his arrest, another young man who looks alike was taken to Helicoide for the same reason (attack on La Carlota military air base). Alexander Sierra’s mother and attorneys agree that he was arbitrarily detained because he looks like someone suspected of attacking a military installation and is dark, with curly Afro-type hair, and has one of his arms tattooed almost completely. He has been in the Sebin for six months. It is said that the other young man, with similar characteristics for his hair and tattoos, who was the person the authorities were looking for, was sent the El Dorado prison, in the state of Bolívar, in the south of the country. Alexander’s arrest was a mistake, the mother suspects.
The opportunity to be free before Christmas vanished the week of December 15. On Tuesday 12, they informed Alexander that he would be transferred to the Palace of Justice for his second hearing. It never happened. A senior official informed detainees that Sebin had suspended transfers to courts until February.
From the protests of 2014 to December 15, 2017, the Venezuelan Penal Forum organization has counted 12,007 political prisoners, 4,609 of which have received full freedom while the other 61.6% remain criminalized —274 are incarcerated and 7,124 have been released with precautionary measures.
This list of people who continue behind bars includes all those who meet the criteria that classifies a detainee as a political prisoner —based on parameters and definitions internationally validated by the OAS, the European Parliament and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights— whether they are defended by Criminal Forum lawyers or not, says its director, Gonzalo Himiob.
to this organization, there are three categories to identify a political
(a) when it is a political or social leader who is arrested or convicted for individually representing a political threat to the Government; (b) when the person is part of a social group target of intimidation (human rights defenders, communicators, judges, military, social and political activists, students); and (c) people who are used by the government to sustain a campaign or a specific political narrative of power, with respect to certain situations of national importance (they are not political or social leaders, nor do they represent a key group). The most forgotten would be in this last category, those who end up abandoned by the attorneys, the system, their family or the society.
Himiob clarifies that when the Criminal Forum does not take the defense of a political prisoner it can happen that they cannot handle the information on that particular case, and therefore, do not include it in the list they manage. "Not because we do not want to, but because we do not have information at hand," he adds.
Therefore, there may be more detainees for political reasons than those indicated by this organization, several of them unknown or relegated, and in some cases, identified by human rights organizations. The cases of Magaly, Leybis, Héctor, Yeison and Alexander are an example.
Magaly Izarra is the only pediatrician in the town of Santo Domingo, in the state of Mérida (Venezuelan Andes, west of the country). Leybis Uzcátegui is a teacher with a postgraduate degree in Educational Management and coordinator of the only high school in that town. Both were held for 60 days in the dungeons of the scientific police (Cicpc) of the state, and another 30 days in the Penitentiary Center of Los Andes without having the preliminary hearing that they are entitled to by law, without having gone to trial and without receiving any sentence.
Both were arrested after a complaint filed by the mayor of Santo Domingo, Idania Quintero, of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for participating in a protest in the town against the National Constituent Assembly (ANC). They were charged with seven crimes: obstruction of public road, association to commit a crime, instigation of hatred, slight injuries to people in the community, injuries and robbery to the sentry (military officer), and terrorist financing.
On July 21, the doctor and the teacher participated, along with several people, in a peaceful protest that even had police protection. For minutes, they stood in the middle of the road with placards against the elections of the ANC, and then returned to the sidewalk.
There were no more than 20 people; there were no confrontations until Mayor Quintero appeared with about 50 people. The witnesses say that they took away their banners and whistles with a hostile attitude, threw stones at them and ran them out of the place. At least two of the members of the official delegation were armed. They even asked the police who were in charge of the protest to take everyone into custody, but the official did not comply with the order, recalls Omar Cardona, a relative of the doctor and the teacher.
In the midst of the struggles, one of the mayor's companions wounded a 21-year-old young man in the lower back with a knife. Magaly Izarra helped him while they waited to transfer him to the hospital. The rest of the protesters ran to a nearby house to take refuge from the attacks. Once inside, the people accompanying the mayor, who are part of the colectivos, the clash forces of the chavista regime, began to throw stones at the house and detonate mortars.
What happened next was almost an uprising of the people of Santo Domingo. When the information of what was happening spread, around 200 people came out to defend the demonstrators and managed to get the group led by the mayor to retreat to the mayor's office. Hence, the people who were inside the house were able to leave, including Leybis, who went home.
People gathered in front of the mayor's office to protest for what had happened. Someone called the National Guard to help them. Suddenly, several officers appeared on the scene, aggressive, but not very well equipped, according to witnesses. As soon as the repression began, they ran out of ammunition and vehicles. The crowd chased the guard and captured one of them and beat him hard, stripped him and let him go. The confrontation ceased. Neither Magaly (56 years old) nor Leybis (52 years old) were in the events that took place in front of the Mayor's office or in the beating of the guard. Magaly accompanied the young man to the hospital in Mérida, 2 hours from Santo Domingo, because he was badly injured.
A month after these events, the Corp for Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations (CICPC), raided the homes of some of the protesters and served notices. Magaly and Leybis were in the group and traveled to Mérida to complete the process. They have been arrested since then.
In mid-October, they were transferred to the Penitentiary Center of Los Andes. They were received at the prison with blows and savage aggressions, to the point that they asked their daughters and relatives not to visit them. Both were identified by the mayor of Santo Domingo as aggressors of the National Guard, along with the other men arrested, even though the victim herself declared that they did not participate in his beating.
The families of Leybis and de Magaly chose a private lawyer to defend them. At the end of November, they left the penitentiary center but with precautionary measures; release on monthly recognizance and prohibition to leave the state of Mérida. They are still waiting for the trial because it was postponed until April 20, 2018. Meanwhile, the doctor tries to resume her activities after the town of Santo Domingo had no pediatrician for four months.
In February 2014, when the first protests against President Nicolás Maduro occurred, there were two deaths in the state of Lara (center-west of Venezuela). Héctor Cusati Martínez was identified as responsible for the death of Alexis Martínez (58 years old), brother of the then Psuv Deputy to the National Assembly, Francisco Martínez.
Alexis Martínez died on Hernán Garmendia Avenue in Barquisimeto, capital of the province, when he was shot in the chest while removing debris and barricades that were placed on the road by demonstrators. I was not alone. Alexis Martinez arrived to that avenue along with other people that the protesters identified as colectivos, just after some tanks of the National Guard came to end the protest of the neighbors.
"As the man who died was from the Government, they came looking for a culprit," says Amada Martínez, mother of Héctor Cusati, three years after the event.
Héctor Cusati was a private escort and had a legal firearm bearing. Based on the investigations of the scientific police, the bullet that killed Martinez matched the shells of Cusati’s gun. Saved for that coincidence, it could not be proved in the course of the investigations that Héctor Cusati fired his gun against Martínez. His file is flawed, reiterates his mother. "One person, a cooperating patriot, incriminated him," she adds. That figure of informer -not provided for in the Venezuelan laws- began to be used by the Government in 2014. It is an unidentified person who denounces someone and does not have to appear in court to give statement.
The expert examination in the apartment of Héctor Cusati, who lived on an 11th floor with his wife, his 8-year-old daughter and his 61-year-old mother, turned out negative. No gunpowder was found in the apartment, which dismantled the version he had fired from the balcony of his home, a fact that was also ruled out by the distance between the apartment on an 11th floor and the place where the brother of the Psuv deputy fell. The police finally determined that the shot came from 80 centimeters away from Martínez. Héctor Cusati was not on the street when that happened, but on the fifteenth floor of his building looking for his daughter in a neighbor's apartment. Her grandmother had left her there to protect her from the tear gas that the National Guard was throwing.
Thirty-six people testified against Héctor Cusati. There were contradictions in most of the testimonies, his mother says. It could not be verified that Héctor Cusati was firing near where the brother of the deputy of the government party was shot. At the trial, the possibility that Cusati lend his weapon to another person arose, but that version could not be proven.
This case was taken from the beginning by a private lawyer who recommended the family not to give statements to the media. He even suggested his client to plead guilty and admit the facts so that his sentence would be reduced. Héctor Cusati did not accept. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison and has been held in the Uribana prison for three years. In order to pay the attorney's fees, the family had to sell the apartment where they lived.
Several human rights defenders identify a pattern that connects the cases of people prosecuted for the protests that took place in 2014 and 2017. "There are private lawyers who neglect legal defense. There is no continuity, or they convince their representatives to plead guilty so that they receive an express sentence to be released from the responsibility of a litigation that could extend for 4 or 5 years," explains Andrés Colmenares, Funpaz (Strength, Union, Justice, Solidarity and Peace civil association) general coordinator.
Gonzalo Himiob recalls the case of Víctor Ugas, who pleaded guilty to be free of the pressure quickly. They gave him a release card, but they have not released him yet. "When a court forces you to plead guilty is to show that nobody is in prison for political events. However, the side effect is that the authority does not honor its word and does not release you."
Héctor's case is in the appeal phase, now without the assistance of private lawyers. Amada does not know if her son is on the list of political prisoners managed by the Criminal Forum, but wants them to include him. On March 6, 2014, when Héctor was arrested, hours later, President Nicolás Maduro referred to him on national television. "This boy, Héctor Doménico, why did he become a homicide at 20 years old? Oh, because of the hate speech." Maduro not only made a mistake when calculating Héctor Cusati's age. He also said that he had confessed a crime. It was a lie.
There are several political prisoners in Sebin who are indigent. Little is known about them. There are also cases like that of Yeison Rodríguez, a 20-year-old boy who was selling water in the protests that took place in Caracas between April and July, who was arrested for knowing a group of protesters who used to face the National Guard with shields and helmets, known as "The Resistance".
His detention occurred on June 10 in Guarenas, after leaving the funeral of Neomar Lander, the 17-year-old teenager who died by the impact of a tear gas bomb on his chest. Four men got out of an Aveo (car model), approached him and forced him into the car under threat. They took him to the Helicoide. The director of the Sebin, Gustavo González López, was in charge of spreading information about Yeison’s detention through his account on Twitter. He was marked as one of the "organizers and executors of terrorist actions in Caracas."
González López showed alleged evidence incriminating Yeison, consisting of audio and text messages obtained from his cell phone. In one of them, another young man tells him about some shields that he would take to one of the marches, and a conversation he had with an official from the government of Miranda who was helping him to get a job as a rescuer. Sebin argues that this conversation is proof that the state government -run until October by the member of the opposition Henrique Capriles Radonski- financed Yeison for him to organize "terrorist actions".
In the first presentation hearing, days after his arrest, the young man only had a public defender. After six months in Sebin, he has not attended his first preliminary hearing, has no assigned prosecutor or date of his next presentation before the military justice, which accuses him with charges of treason, rebellion and theft of military equipment. The assistance of lawyers has been intermittent, and even those who have tried to assume his defense have been denied access to the file.
Yeison comes from a humble family. He does not have parents, his grandmother was his main support and since he was taken to the Helicoide, she was paying attention to his case, looking for lawyers, going to court, but months later, she fell ill. On one of her trips to Caracas to visit her grandson, she had an accident boarding the railroad that connects the capital with Valles del Tuy. Both her legs were broken and she has not been able to walk again.
Gonzalo Himiob affirms that every political case must be considered and approached from three variables: legal, media and political. The first variable is to analyze all the legal elements of the case to be able to hold that the case is about an arbitrary detention for political reasons. The second variable has to do with "raising the media profile" of a case, because sometimes it is very important to do so, but sometimes it is better to lower it, says Himiob, and gives as an example the group of indigents who are political prisoners, detained because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. "It is not that we neglect them, but we do not raise their profile because it is more difficult. They do not have any relatives to speak for them. And in general, we never raise the profile of a case if the lawyer or the family does not agree. We respect that."
The political variable has to do with how it is tried, inside and outside the country, to raise the political cost of these cases to the Government. "Political prison is not only a legal issue; it is a cost-benefit issue for the Government. Sometimes they accuse us of using the power of media, but insofar as the profile of a case is raised and thus the political cost to the Government, that person has more possibilities of being released. You will not succeed if you do not handle these three variables," adds Himiob.
But not all political prisoners and their families want to be assisted by the Criminal Forum, and the arrests for political reasons have not stopped. In December 2016, the political police arrested the executives of company Credicard for allegedly being responsible for a computer attack that collapsed the point of sale network in the country, and for being accused by the Government of "treason to motherland." Five executives of the company are being tried by the military justice.
More recently, the escape of metropolitan mayor Antonio Ledezma, arrested in February 2015, who was under house arrest, caused the arrest of more than 20 people, including the janitor of the building where Ledezma lived, the president of the condominium board, a representative of the private company in charge of providing the security cameras service to the building, and workers of the Metropolitan Mayor’s Office of Caracas. Most of them were released a few days after being detained by Sebin, but Carmen Andarcia, 61, director of Mayor’s Office Administration, was left behind bars (in the Helicoide).
It is not necessary for a protest to be held for arbitrary detentions for political reasons to occur. The revolving door is still active, and a message from Gonzalo Himiob in his media illustrates it. "As of August 11, 2017, we registered 676 political prisoners in Venezuela. From August 11 to November 19, the liberation of 476 has been achieved, but in parallel 167 people have been arrested," he wrote on November 25. Meanwhile, the forgotten ones remain in the cells.
Adrián Perdomo Mata has just entered the list of sanctioned entities of the US Department of the Treasury, as president of Minerven, the state company in charge of exploring, exporting and processing precious metals, particularly gold from the Guayana mines. His arrival in office coincided with the boom in exports of Venezuelan gold to new destinations, like Turkey, to finance food imports. Behind these secretive operations is the shadow of Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido, the main beneficiaries of the sales of food for the Local Supply and Production Committee (Clap). Perdomo worked with them before Nicolás Maduro placed him in charge of the Venezuelan gold.
Gassan Salama, a Palestinian-cause activist, born in Colombia and naturalized Panamanian, frequently posts messages supporting the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions on his social media accounts. But that leaning is not the main sign to doubt his impartiality as an observer of the elections in Venezuela, a role he played in the contested elections whereby Nicolás Maduro ratified himself as president. In fact, Salama, an entrepreneur and politician who has carried out controversial searches for submarine wrecks in Caribbean waters, found his true treasure in the main social aid and control program of Chavismo, the Clap, for which he receives millions of euros.
While the key role of Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas in the import scheme of Nicolás Maduro’s Government program has come to light, almost nothing has been said about the participation of the traders who act as suppliers from Mexico. These are economic groups that, even before doing business with Venezuela, were not alien to public controversy.
Even though there are new brands, a new physical-chemical analysis requested by Armando.Info to UCV researchers shows that the milk powder currently distributed through the Venezuelan Government's food aid program, still has poor nutritional performance that jeopardizes the health of those who consume it. In the meantime, a mysterious supplier manages to monopolize the increasing imports and sales from Mexico to Venezuela.
Turkey and the coastal emirates of the Arabian Peninsula are now the homes of companies that supply the main social -and clientelist- program of the Government of Venezuela. Although the move from Mexico and Hong Kong, seems geographically epic, the companies has not changed hands. They are still owned by Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Nain Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas, who control since 2016 a good part of the Import of food financed with public funds. Around the world for a business.
Since the borders to Colombia and Brazil are packed and there is minimal access to foreign currency to reach other desirable destinations, crossing to Trinidad and Tobago is one of the most accessible routes for those in distress seeking to flee Venezuela. Relocating them is the business of the 'coyotes' who are based in the states of Sucre or Delta Amacuro, while cheating them is that of the boatmen, fishermen, smugglers and security forces that haunt them.
When Vice President Delcy Rodríguez turned to a group of Mexican friends and partners to lessen the new electricity emergency in Venezuela, she laid the foundation stone of a shortcut through which Chavismo and its commercial allies have dodged the sanctions imposed by Washington on PDVSA’s exports of crude oil. Since then, with Alex Saab, Joaquín Leal and Alessandro Bazzoni as key figures, the circuit has spread to some thirty countries to trade other Venezuelan commodities. This is part of the revelations of this joint investigative series between the newspaper El País and Armando.info, developed from a leak of thousands of documents.
Leaked documents on Libre Abordo and the rest of the shady network that Joaquín Leal managed from Mexico, with tentacles reaching 30 countries, ―aimed to trade PDVSA crude oil and other raw materials that the Caracas regime needed to place in international markets in spite of the sanctions― show that the businessman claimed to have the approval of the Mexican government and supplies from Segalmex, an official entity. Beyond this smoking gun, there is evidence that Leal had privileged access to the vice foreign minister for Latin America and the Caribbean, Maximiliano Reyes.
The business structure that Alex Saab had registered in Turkey—revealed in 2018 in an article by Armando.info—was merely a false start for his plans to export Venezuelan coal. Almost simultaneously, the Colombian merchant made contact with his Mexican counterpart, Joaquín Leal, to plot a network that would not only market crude oil from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, as part of a maneuver to bypass the sanctions imposed by Washington, but would also take charge of a scheme to export coal from the mines of Zulia, in western Venezuela. The dirty play allowed that thousands of tons, valued in millions of dollars, ended up in ports in Mexico and Central America.
As part of their business network based in Mexico, with one foot in Dubai, the two traders devised a way to replace the operation of the large international credit card franchises if they were to abandon the Venezuelan market because of Washington’s sanctions. The developed electronic payment system, “Paquete Alcance,” aimed to get hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances sent by expatriates and use them to finance purchases at CLAP stores.
Scions of different lineages of tycoons in Venezuela, Francisco D’Agostino and Eduardo Cisneros are non-blood relatives. They were also partners for a short time in Elemento Oil & Gas Ltd, a Malta-based company, over which the young Cisneros eventually took full ownership. Elemento was a protagonist in the secret network of Venezuelan crude oil marketing that Joaquín Leal activated from Mexico. However, when it came to imposing sanctions, Washington penalized D’Agostino only… Why?
Through a company registered in Mexico – Consorcio Panamericano de Exportación – with no known trajectory or experience, Joaquín Leal made a daring proposal to the Venezuelan Guyana Corporation to “reactivate” the aluminum industry, paralyzed after March 2019 blackout. The business proposed to pay the power supply of state-owned companies in exchange for payment-in-kind with the metal.