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U.N. Report Reveals 'Shockingly High' Number Of Extrajudicial Killings In Venezuela


The United Nations, in a new report, paints a picture of just how violent Venezuela has become. The U.N. human rights chief says security forces have killed nearly 7,000 people over the past year and a half. She says, quote, "a shockingly high number of these were extrajudicial killings at the hands of what interviewees called death squads." All as President Nicolas Maduro has vowed to stay in power.

NPR's Philip Reeves joins us now with more on that report. Philip, can you give us a little more detail on what the U.N. team found in Venezuela?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Yeah. This takes a very broad look at the crisis in Venezuela over the last year up to this May. But a couple of things really leap out at you. One is the treatment of men and women in detention. The report says people are frequently arbitrarily detained and cites evidence of a variety of forms of torture - routinely used, it says - against prisoners by the intelligence or security services, others a form of punishment or to get them to talk. And that includes electric shocks, suffocation by plastic bags, waterboarding and sexual violence.

And the other striking section concerns those extrajudicial killings you mentioned. The Maduro government says, since the beginning of last year, some 7,000 people were killed in security operations, as you mentioned. And it says this was for resisting authority, as it puts it. But the U.N. rights team believes many of these may be extrajudicial killings.

They interviewed relatives of 20 young men killed by a special police unit known as FAES. And these witnesses all described similar events - heavily armed cops in masks arriving in unmarked trucks, breaking into their houses, subjecting women to violence, including making them strip naked, separating the men from the family and shooting them almost always in the chest. In every case, the witnesses said the cops would plant drugs and arms and fire bullets into the walls to make it seem as if the victim resisted arrest.

CORNISH: What does the report say in terms of recommendations on what can be done?

REEVES: There are 20 - more than 20 of these, almost all directed at the Maduro government, including dissolving that police unit, the FAES, also releasing everyone who's been arbitrarily detained and dismantling the armed civilian militias in Venezuela known as colectivos, which are used by the government to spread fear, and conducting an investigation into their crimes.

It's worth noting the report does talk about the effect of sanctions, especially U.S. sanctions on oil, which have had a devastating effect. It says the crisis began before the sanctions, but the sanctions are exacerbating it.

CORNISH: I want to talk about government response, first from President Nicolas Maduro, but also from Venezuela's opposition leader, Juan Guaido.

REEVES: Well, Maduro's representative in Geneva has called it biased and incomprehensible, this report. But at the same time, the U.N.'s saying the Maduro government yesterday agreed to release 22 prisoners, including two pretty high-profile detainees at the request of Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who's the author of this report. Bachelet does seem to hold out hope of working with the Maduro government because it's allowed her organization for the first time in years to open an office in Venezuela, though we really don't know whether that will lead to anything.

As for the opposition, there've been demonstrations today in Venezuela which were originally about the death in custody of a naval captain. But the U.N. report is very much also a theme. And Juan Guaido, leader of the opposition, has been talking to a crowd in Caracas, saying that the U.N. has laid out what he's been saying for a long time now, which is that the Maduro government is a dictatorship.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves speaking from his base in Rio de Janeiro. Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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