Amidst the protests that took place in El Limón, in the state of Aragua, the Special Actions Forces (FAES) detained 11 teenagers, on January 24, 2019. A judge ordered their detention, and eight days later, in a special court hearing – ordered by no law-, they were released under precautionary measures. This is the story of one of them.
He is so thin, that if you hug him, you fear you can break his bones. He still has that childish face that now conceals under a cap, trying to hide the incipient hair that is barely growing after he was shaved during his detention.
He arrives at the interview with his mother. He is only 16 years old and, although he has other siblings, he lives alone with her. He has worked many times to help with household expenses. They are very close, in scarcity and in joys.
He prefers not to talk about his father.
“He has never been part of my life,” he says.
He seems distrustful. He admits that fear still overcomes him.
“What do you fear?” I ask.
“I’m afraid that they will come after me and imprison me again.”
It is the same terror he felt on January 24, 2019, when officers of the Special Actions Forces (FAES) of the Bolivarian National Police detained him with 10 other teenagers, including three young girls, among whom was his best girlfriend.
Minutes before, they had gathered at the emblematic Torreón El Limón, at the entrance of the Mario Briceño Iragorry municipality of Aragua state, to join the protests summoned by the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, who the day before had sworn as interim president of Venezuela.
A commission of police of the Aragua state had already approached the rally to warn the boys that, if they obstructed the road, they would be detained.
“They were nice and told us to take care of ourselves,” he said.
But unexpectedly, two or three young boys arrived -until today he believes they were undercover government agents-, and decided to block the road with tree branches.
“We ran away to avoid being capture by the police. In fact, one of the officers did nothing to stop me and told me to leave the premises.”
But his best friend was left behind and without thinking it through, he decided to go in her rescue. It was useless, the FAES officers were there ready to apprehend them.
“They threw us in the back of two unmarked vans and ordered us to lower our heads. One of my friends ignored the order and an officer hit him with the gun.”
His mother believed him safe, at his friend house. Until, hours later, a neighbor told her about the arrest. And her heart was racing.
The quest for the 11 minors began. Their parents thought that they were in the El Limón police station, but they had actually been taken to the General Command of the Aragua Police. Throughout several country’s states other parents were also searching for their children. According to Foro Penal, an NGO devoted to legal assistance, 137 adolescents had been detained during the last 10 days of January.
“They took us to a storage room where the policemen keep their things. Occasionally someone would come in and treat us with respect and tell us: ‘It’s sad what you are going through, but you must be strong.’ But others insulted us. ‘Stupid, Mongol!’” They shouted at us.
The three girls’ treatment worse. He looks at his mother, as expecting for her permission to repeat the awful things they told to the girls, but after a pause he decides not to, and quotes the most inoffensive phrase.
“I’m not your husband, not your father to take care of you,” he says the guard shouted to the girls.
Meanwhile, in the outskirts of the police headquarters, fathers, mothers and lawyers waited in anguish without news. They were not allowed to see them. The night became exhausting. The teenagers had to sleep on the floor, they were hungry. It was the next morning when they were allowed to eat and go to the bathroom.
“The good cops told us that we will have to do community work as punishment and that then they would let us go.”
But he and his cell mates were in for long hours of misfortune. And for their parents, days of anguish.
“I thought he could be raped, beat,” the mother intervenes.
“If they have beaten me, I would have defended myself. I was not going to let them rape me,” he says.
It was at 10:00 o’clock in the morning of Friday, January 25, when they were finally transferred to the headquarters of the Scientific and Criminal Investigation Unit (CICPC) to be booked, and they ordered them to remove their shoelaces. They shouted at them and threatened to kick them. Demanded their personal information, addresses and fingerprints while they hung on their chest a sign with a number for the police record photo. Then they handcuffed them by couples.
“My hands turned purple because they were so tight,” he says, while he massaged his wrists.
Handcuffed they were taken to a public health center (CDI) for medical evaluation, mandatory for presentation in court.
And at noon, they arrived at the Palace of Justice in Maracay.
The arraignment was scheduled for 2:00 pm. Alani Castillo and Nunziatina Prodoveccio Tovar, 1st and 2nd supervisory judges regarding adolescents of Aragua state, kept them waiting and the 11 youngsters were taken to the basement by a national guard officer who refer to them as “guarimberos”, the term used by the government for those who protest placing barricades on public roads.
The three girls were locked up with other minors accused of several crimes and the eight boys were ordered to wait in a dungeon with other teenagers detained in different police procedures.
“Of all the places where they confined me, that was the ugliest,” he said.
He describes a small room with walls cover with words and phrases written with excrement. He felt claustrophobic. He imagined himself locked there for life, with ordinary criminals. They were confined in that place an hour and a half, until they were taken to an upper floor where they had to wait two more hours, sitting on the floor, without air conditioning and without toilets.
Although the court clerks secretly encouraged them and asked them to be calm in the face of what was coming, the uncertainty increased. In an adjacent area, their parents, who had not been able to see or contact them, were waiting hot and thirsty.
Finally, the hearing began, and according to the lawyers of the Foro Penal in the region, the teenagers were treated as enemies to be prosecuted, instead of defendants.
The arguments of the defense were useless.
It seemed to him and his mother that Judge Nunziatina Prodoveccio Tovar showed an arrogant and mocking attitude.
“She was rude, despot,” says the mother.
Although according to the police records nothing incriminating was found on them during detention, but the decision had been already made: two bailsmen, appearance every 30 days before the courts and their confinement in the Autonomous Service for the Protection of Children and Adolescents from the state of Aragua.
“I saw my mom crying and I knew they would not release us.
And indeed, that was exactly what happened. By means of an unprecedent judicial verdict, the 11 teenagers were sent, almost at midnight, to the headquarters of the protection service in Turmero, half an hour from Maracay. The girls would go to the Andrés Bello headquarters. But the detention centers were crowded, so the boys were driven in two pick-ups patrols to another center located in San Carlos, one of the most violent and where minors convicted of serious crimes are secluded.
“They took us to a cell just for us and I remembered the words of a police officer who recommended us to stay together while we were inside. They ordered us to undress. And we were left only with our underwear, while they read the fact sheet: No visitations, no noises, go to sleep when you are told and wake up to the cry of the guards.”
They had no choice but to obey.
Each one was assigned a number with which they would be called on. That first night they could not sleep. Two slept in a bed made of cement. The night seemed very long. They were placed in the last cell, because the others were already full. When they crossed the corridor, the other detainees encouraged them not to give up.
At 5:00 in the morning the guard wake them up. It was time for the first shower.
“There were four pipes stuck to the wall and the water slide through it, so I had to put my hands against it to take some. Instead of using toilet, we had to use plastic bags inside the cell and then throw them into a vacant lot. We urinated in a small bucket that had to through out a hole in the wall.”
After the early morning shower, they were led to the patio. They had to carry out a military drill, which entailed exercises and military movements to achieve a united and cohesive formation.
But previously, they shaved their heads. It was performed by one of the detainees who, despite his three years of imprisonment for homicide, earned that privilege for his good behavior.
On the fourth day of confinement, they learned that the morning bath was not mandatory. He laughs remembering it. He used those morning hours to sleep longer.
He tried to adapt. But his claustrophobia and his desperate desire to leave, did not help. He knew that his mother would do the unspeakable to get him out, although sometimes he was assailed by doubt and banged his head against the wall to avoid thinking. He was comforted to note that the precinct authorities did not really treat them like other prisoners. He thinks they just pretend and also thinks, for his comfort, that for both the guards and the other detainees they were heroes.
They shared their food with the other inmates and even with the custodians. During the days of confinement, there were many gestures of solidarity, even among parents.
“I could not sleep. I just thought about leaving that place and the country. I do not want to live here anymore in Venezuela.”
When he learned that he would be released, he gave his clothes to those who remained there.
He and his prison mates were taken back to the Palace of Justice, for a “special hearing” not included in any law. Before entering the court, they were forced to change their uniform white T-shirts, perhaps to hide the subtle mistreatment they were subjected to. In addition, they were recorded and photographed, without authorization from their parents and despite the neglected claim of the lawyers.
At the hearing they had to listen to the sermon of a judge who now tried to look more like a mother than an executioner.
“They just wanted to come clean before the world trying to hide the aberration they did until the end,” says the mother.
And on January 31, eight days after that protest in El Torreón that put them behind bars, they were released, as they did with others detainees in four other states of the country and with the same strategy: released, but under the scheme of court presentation.
He looks tired. And he says he is. Of the confinement and of the country he is living. To see his mother queuing for hours to buy flour, not being able to walk in peace through the streets.
“Sometimes I feel that I’m still in prison…”
“What do you make out of this experience?” I ask.
“Appreciate much more my mom and my friends. I understood that I can lose my freedom in minutes.”
He says he is afraid. Afraid to be, even, at home. He fears walking the street, he feels he could be detained again.
“This struggle is out of my hands. Young people like me can’t do anything anymore. And although I think the country is going to change, I know that very bad things will come and I do not want to be here when that happens.”
He is determined to leave the country. In July he will finish high school and he is debating studying social communication or design. He is not clear yet where he wants to go.
“Do you think that I will be imprisoned again when I go to court?” He whispers in my ear at the moment of farewell.
He answers himself
“That terrifies me.”
The name of the protagonist of this story was omitted to protect his identity.
Translation: Josefina Blanco
This story is part of the series Crecer en represión (Growing up in Represion), developed in partnership with the NGO Cecodap.
No me imagino ejerciendo otro oficio. Menos mal que soy periodista. Corresponsal de Crónica Uno y del Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, en Aragua. Defensora activa de derechos humanos.