They patrol on motorcycles. Wearing masks, with a skull embroidered on their uniforms and with bullet-proof vests and assault rifles, the members of the Bolivarian National Police’s Special Actions Force (FAES, in Spanish) are frequently seen in Venezuela’s poor neighborhoods. Their presence is ominous.
FAES has been accused of carrying out thousands of extrajudicial executions since their activation in July 2017. The vast majority of its victims, according to several local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), are young people who do not support the Nicolás Maduro regime.
“The FAES’ average victim is a dark-skinned male between 19 and 31 years old who lives in a low-income, popular area […] and leaves behind orphans,” Edwin Gil, a lawyer for the human rights NGO Proiuris, told Diálogo.
Standing next to a white board with dozens of names of FAES victims, Gil shares his routine in Caracas. He spends very little time in court, he says, but a lot of time at the morgue. He goes there three times a week, and that is how he has managed to take the initial steps to provide legal support for 28 cases of extrajudicial executions involving FAES.
While the organization records executions at the national level (it registered 130 just in October 2019), up to now their legal activities are centered in Caracas and “only on FAES,” says Gil. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, security forces execute some 20 people a day in the country — the majority at the hands of FAES.
At the morgue, Gil seeks to make contact with the families of the deceased and provide legal support to the bereaved who accept his offer. The majority, however, prefer to “let things be,” says the lawyer.
“Each day that we go to the morgue we see two possible cases, maybe three,” says Gil. “The rest [of the family members] don’t want to make a report out of fear”.
The situation with FAES is so problematic that on July 4, 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for its dissolution. One day later, Maduro included agents of the force in the military parade to celebrate independence day. On July 17, he reiterated his support in a public act, declaring, “Long live FAES!”
Very little is known about the police corps, how they’re recruited or trained, or how many members it has. Its agents are anonymous and move about with their faces covered. In August 2019, the United States sanctioned its commander, Bolivarian National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Rafael Enrique Bastardo Mendoza, for human rights violations.
What is certain, according to activists, is that FAES shoots to kill.
“FAES is an extermination group created by the dictatorial regime to kill or make anyone who gets in their way disappear,” Carlos Nieto, a lawyer who heads Venezuelan NGO Una Ventana Hacia la Libertad (A Window to Freedom, in Spanish), told Diálogo. “Not just people tied to politics, it also includes delinquents and anyone who makes their job hard. It was created to kill people, to murder citizens.”
Bullets to the chest, shots through the heart or in the head are characteristic of the way FAES operates, says Proiuris. The majority of death certificates reviewed by the organization indicate hypovolemic shock — a massive loss of blood — as the cause of death.
“The official version is always that it’s a confrontation,” says Gil. “But it’s strange; the victims almost always die of hypovolemic shock. This corresponds more to an execution.”
Proiuris’ investigation revealed that when the victims don’t die immediately, FAES agents abstain from providing first aid and take them to a hospital far from where the shooting took place. “The goal of police agents is not to leave any survivors,” says the organization on its website.
Planting fire arms, drugs, and even stealing from family members are other tactics used by FAES, said Luis Ezequiel, Criminology professor at the University of Central Venezuela, during a mid-October forum organized by Proiuris.
There are few known cases of FAES members brought to justice. At the end of October, six FAES agents were charged and will be prosecuted — thanks to Proiuris’ legal support — for the March 2019 homicide of two officers of the Municipal Police of Chacao, a subdivision of Caracas. The organization points out that four others are detained for the murder of a 24-year-old nursing student in a poor neighborhood of Caracas in July 2017.
“They were captured in December 2018 and haven’t even been tried,” says Gil, adding that they could be set free at any time.
According to Venezuelan NGO Cofavic (Committee of Family Members of Victims of Violence, in Spanish), 98 percent of cases are exempt from charges.