By Sarah Kinosian and Angus Berwick
GUARENAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Since President Nicolas Maduro founded the Special Action Force of Venezuela’s National Police two-and-a-half years ago, the squad has earned a fearsome reputation in poor neighborhoods across Venezuela.
Officers in the force have been accused of torture and summary executions by human rights groups, opposition politicians and ordinary citizens.
Last November, Reuters published an investigation into 20 killings by the force, known as the FAES, in which the official narratives of shootings as acts of self-defense were countered by eyewitness accounts, video evidence, death certificates, autopsy reports and other documentation.
The force has been linked to hundreds of deaths since its creation in 2017.
For all its notoriety, though, the FAES is highly secretive, known for signature dark masks and black uniforms bearing skull insignias but no name tags. Officers typically remain anonymous even after blood is shed.
Now, a court case involving the deaths of two men killed last March by the FAES reveals another little-known fact that Reuters is the first to publicly disclose: Some of the squad’s officers are convicted criminals.
According to hundreds of sealed documents submitted by prosecutors in the case, at least two officers accused of involvement in the killings served prison terms before they joined the FAES.
The documents – which include autopsies, ballistic reports, officer testimony and personnel files – also show that at least three other members of the same FAES precinct who aren’t being prosecuted over the deadly operation have criminal records of their own.
It is both illegal and against national police policy for criminals to belong to the FAES. A 2009 law bars Venezuelans with criminal convictions from working as police officers. FAES guidelines and recruitment documents, reviewed by Reuters, say officers should have no criminal record and be of “good moral character.”
Jose Dominguez, national commissioner of the FAES, in a brief exchange by text message told Reuters that members of the force go through “select processes” and “special training.” He didn’t respond to questions about the criminal records of some FAES officers or a request to discuss Reuters’ findings in person or by telephone.
Venezuela’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, and the Information Ministry, responsible for government communications, didn’t return calls and emails by Reuters detailing its findings.
The presence of convicts within the ranks of the FAES sheds new light on a security force widely considered by Venezuelans to be a mechanism of social control for Maduro, whose government is beleaguered by economic decline, widespread hunger and insecurity, and international sanctions and isolation.
Hailed by the president as a new means to fight surging crime and violence, the FAES has become as feared as the criminals it was meant to target, especially in poor districts where hardship fans political instability.
People familiar with the FAES say its leaders are more concerned with projecting force and fear than with rectitude.
“They hire people who aren’t afraid to commit crimes, to enter a home without a warrant and kill,” said Nora Echavez, a former chief prosecutor in Miranda, the state where the homicide court case will be heard. “A criminal does these things easily because they’ve already done them before.”
Reuters couldn’t determine how many ex-convicts are working within FAES ranks nationwide. Personnel records aren’t disclosed by the government. Even the size of the FAES, estimated by fellow police officials to number about 1,500 officers, is held close by the administration.
The mystery surrounding the force is part of its playbook, professionals familiar with it say. “The FAES prefer the anonymity,” said Javier Gorrino, a criminologist and municipal police commissioner in El Hatillo, a district of Caracas, who has interacted with the force. “A mask causes more terror when you don’t know who’s behind it.”
The case in Guarenas, a gritty commuter city 39 kilometers from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, is one of few instances in which the identity and backgrounds of FAES officers has come to light.
The two men killed there had law-enforcement backgrounds themselves. One was a municipal policeman from Caracas and the other was a former member of the same local force in the capital. Neither was affiliated with the FAES or any of its officers.
The victims’ ties to law enforcement, people familiar with the case say, are likely the only reason that their deaths have prompted further investigation. The cases of thousands of other Venezuelans who have died at the hands of police, allegedly after resisting arrest, routinely go unexamined.
Alexis Lira, a onetime policeman turned lawyer whose brother was one of the victims in Guarenas, says most families of people killed by cops lack resources and wherewithal to challenge the FAES’ accounts of its operations.
“Most people just have to accept it,” said Lira, who says he now spends much of his days working with prosecutors to seek accountability for his brother’s death. “I don’t.”
His brother was Fernando Lira, a 39-year-old former policeman who had become a graphic designer. Also killed was Lira’s friend, Eligio Duarte, a 41-year-old municipal officer in Caracas. Neither man had a criminal record.
They died March 6, 2019, when a group of FAES officers shot them after a brief car chase. In a statement to police investigators, the FAES supervisor who ran the operation said the men had fired upon his officers first. The police response was “proportionate,” the supervisor said in his statement.
Soon, evidence emerged to the contrary.
Forensic tests showed that neither Lira nor Duarte, who had gone to Guarenas to collect money owed to Lira’s longtime girlfriend, fired a weapon at all. Both men were shot from above, according to autopsy reports, undermining the FAES claim that they were hit in a shootout.
In a court filing that led to charges of homicide against the FAES supervisor and six officers, a state prosecutor wrote: “The events did not happen in the way the police officers claimed.”
“NO PLACE ON ANY POLICE FORCE”
Guarenas is the kind of violent place that could have benefited from a new national crime-fighting force. A community of about 200,000 people in Miranda state, east of the capital, it has crime rates that historically have exceeded the average for Venezuela.
Some gangs, chased out of Caracas in recent years, have moved into hills that surround Guarenas and stretch along the nearby Caribbean coast. Police forces here and elsewhere in Miranda have long been considered corrupt.
After oil prices plunged in 2014, sending Venezuela into recession, Maduro pursued economic policies that deepened the country’s woes. Nearly 5 million people have migrated, about 15% of the country’s populace.
Among the exodus were soldiers, police officers and other public security workers. With wages equal to just a few dollars a month in Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economy, few incentives remained to attract qualified candidates to replace them.
In Miranda, police ranks thinned so quickly that police bosses began lowering standards for recruits, six former officers familiar with the area told Reuters.
Some hires had criminal records. Area police earned even more of a reputation for bribery, extortion, kidnapping and other crimes with tactics like shaking down citizens for their personal belongings or stopping trucks and looting their cargo.
“There were officers who should have had no place on any police force,” said Luis Martinez, a retired senior police official who worked in the area.
Crime soared. The homicide rate, rising across Venezuela, climbed particularly fast in Miranda.
From 100 murders per 100,000 residents earlier in the decade, the rate in the state by 2017 had soared to 153, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a research group based in Caracas. The figure was the second-highest in Venezuela and about 30 times the rate at the time in the United States.
When Maduro launched the FAES in July 2017, his government tasked local police administrators with recruiting officers for the new force. Priorities included loyalty to the ruling Socialist party and a willingness to use aggressive tactics in crime-ridden neighborhoods nationwide, more than a dozen people familiar with those efforts said.
In April 2018, the National Police launched the area FAES unit, administered from Zamora, a nearby municipality. The force set up headquarters behind a local hospital, next to the morgue. A crudely drawn skull graces a whitewashed plaster wall by the entrance.
A former Zamora police operations chief, Oliver Alvarez, took command. He built a unit of 120 officers, many of whom came from local and nearby forces, according to employment contracts for the squad reviewed by Reuters. Alvarez couldn’t be reached for comment.
Among the new FAES officers was Richard Sanchez, one of those charged in the Guarenas shootings. Sanchez, now 34, was indicted in 2004 for robbery and assault, according to court records. Reuters couldn’t determine whether he was convicted of those charges.
In 2014, he was convicted of robbery and served two-and-a-half years in prison, the court documents show. Reuters was unable to reach Sanchez.
His attorney, Miguel Pena, also represents all but one of the six other officers charged in the shootings. Pena told Reuters the accused are detained at a FAES barracks in Caracas, but are still officially part of the force.
He confirmed Sanchez’s prior conviction, but said his clients in this case acted in self-defense. “I’m not saying they’re angels,” Pena told Reuters in an interview. “But there was a shootout and they were defending themselves.”
Another recruit for the local FAES was Jose Oliveros, an officer who had risen through police ranks in Miranda despite a prior conviction as an accessory to murder. According to court records, Oliveros, now 37, had accompanied two other men when one of them shot a man to death after a 2009 altercation.
After serving one year of a five-year prison sentence, Oliveros was named deputy director of a small police force near Guarenas in 2017, government documents announcing his appointment to the post show. He became chief of that precinct in 2018 and then chief of another last year, even after joining the ranks of the FAES.
Oliveros, reached by telephone, said he would seek permission from superiors to speak with Reuters. He didn’t respond to further efforts to reach him. Julio Ortega, Oliveros’ attorney, declined to speak with Reuters for this story.
“WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”
The Guarenas shootings followed a failed foreign currency transaction, according to transcripts of testimony by those involved to prosecutors and police investigators. It isn’t clear why FAES officers got involved or why the episode turned violent.
Early on March 2, Maria Gonzalez received a text message at the Caracas apartment she shared with Lira, the former police officer. The couple had been together for 10 years and ran a t-shirt printing business.
The text offered a basic transaction that many Venezuelans pursue to keep their income from being eroded by hyperinflation. By converting their local currency into dollars, they preserve the long-term value of their earnings.
Jhonathan Coraspe, a former colleague of Gonzalez from Guarenas, told Gonzalez a friend had $500 in U.S. currency he wanted to exchange for bolivars, Venezuela’s currency. In the texts, reviewed by Reuters and corroborated by Gonzalez in interviews, she accepted the transaction.
That same day, she transferred 1.68 million bolivars, roughly the equivalent value to $500 dollars at the time, to an account Coraspe said belonged to the friend, Ruben Alarcon. Gonzalez then drove the half hour to Guarenas to collect the dollars.
Reuters was unable to reach Coraspe. After the shootings, he testified to police investigators and prosecutors but has since gone into hiding, according to attorneys involved in the case. Alarcon, the friend, didn’t return phone calls or texts from Reuters to discuss the incident.
In Guarenas, Alarcon didn’t appear at a pharmacy where Coraspe said he would meet Gonzalez to hand over the dollars. “I trusted you,” she wrote Coraspe. “I feel truly terrible,” Coraspe replied, and agreed to see her later.
That evening, Coraspe drove to Gonzalez’s Caracas apartment.
He promised to secure the $500.
Lira, the former police officer, and Duarte, the municipal police officer and friend who would also be shot when the transaction unraveled, were at the apartment, according to testimony by Coraspe and Gonzalez.
Coraspe told investigators the two men forced him to leave his car as collateral in case he never came up with the $500. Gonzalez said Coraspe volunteered the silver 1997 Honda Civic himself.
Neither Duarte nor Lira had a criminal record, according to a document Caracas police sent to prosecutors for the case. Five former colleagues told Reuters both men had been upstanding citizens and policemen.
On the morning of March 4, Coraspe called Hugo Martinez, a FAES officer he knew from his neighborhood, according to Coraspe’s testimony to prosecutors. He told Martinez that two men had stolen his car and were trying to extort $500 from him.
A day later, Martinez told Coraspe to tell Gonzalez he had the $500 but no way to get to Caracas, Coraspe testified. Coraspe texted Gonzalez and said he could meet in Guarenas the following day.
The next morning, March 6, Gonzalez sent Lira, who left with Duarte to retrieve the money, Gonzalez told investigators. In text messages, Coraspe testified, Lira agreed to meet him at a gas station.
With Lira bound for Guarenas, Martinez called his FAES supervisor, Alexander Uzcategui, and told him about the alleged extortion, transcripts of testimony by Uzcategui show. Martinez told Uzcategui that Coraspe would soon meet the two men from Caracas at the gas station. The supervisor said they and a small group of FAES colleagues would “await” them there.
Reuters was unable to reach Martinez, Uzcategui or any of the other officers charged in the operation.
At 1 p.m., Coraspe waited at the gas station. Lira and Duarte arrived in a blue Toyota Hilux pickup. Nearby, in two vehicles, FAES officers watched.
According to Uzcategui’s testimony to police investigators, the men in the pickup pulled a gun and forced Coraspe into their vehicle “under the threat of death.” They sped off, he said. His squad gave chase.
Coraspe, in his own comments to investigators, said he entered the truck voluntarily. Neither Duarte nor Lira brandished a weapon, he said. Unprompted, FAES officers shot at the moving Toyota, he added.
Frightened, Coraspe pulled the handbrake. The pickup crashed into the roadside. “We’re all going to die,” Coraspe recalled telling the other men.
According to the transcript of his testimony, Coraspe emerged from the crash, ran toward a FAES vehicle and got in. Officers, meanwhile, approached the pickup.
Duarte and Lira, Coraspe testified, exited with their hands up. They followed FAES orders to lie down. With the men prone, Coraspe said, he could no longer see them.
He heard gunshots.
Five minutes later, FAES officers pulled Coraspe from their car and ordered him to lie on the ground, he testified. He saw Lira and Duarte “lying motionless,” Coraspe told prosecutors.
Uzcategui told investigators that Lira and Duarte had fired upon his squad. His officers fired back, shooting both. After the gunfight, he said, officers took the men to a hospital, where a doctor declared them dead.
“WHAT REALLY HAPPENED”
At 2.30 p.m., Marlon Brito, a detective with the Corps for Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation received an order from supervisors to go to the morgue, according to his written report for the case. The corps, known as the CICPC, conducts forensic work for the National Police.
Reuters was unable to reach Brito for comment.
At the morgue, next to the hospital, Brito saw two bodies.
With a national identity card that had been on Duarte, Brito identified the Caracas officer’s corpse. Lira’s corpse would later be identified by the English words “FREEDOM” and “History” tattooed on his left forearm.
Duarte suffered two bullet wounds to the chest, Brito wrote in his report. Lira had two chest wounds and a gunshot to the stomach. Autopsies confirmed the wounds Brito reported.
From the morgue, Brito drove to the site of the crash and shootings. Uzcategui, the supervisor, stood guard with about 15 other FAES officers, according to Brito’s report.
The Hilux was riddled with bullets, Brito wrote. Photos of the scene reviewed by Reuters also show the pierced pickup. Spent shells littered the area and two pistols lay on the ground.
Officers told Brito the guns belonged to suspects who had fired upon them.
Within days, autopsy and forensic reports contradicted the FAES account.
Autopsy results, prepared by a separate government agency, on March 19 concluded that both men had been shot from above. The reports, reviewed by Reuters and also contained in the court documents, say bullets pierced Duarte “from above down.” Lira was shot “from above downward.”
Duarte Nuno Vieira, a professor of forensic medicine and medical law at the University of Coimbra, in Portugal, reviewed the autopsy results at Reuters’ request. “The autopsy reports,” he said, “are more in line with a context of summary execution.”
In its forensics report, the CICPC concluded that Lira and Duarte’s hands had no trace of antimony, barium or lead, telltale chemicals expelled by most guns.
A forensics specialist in Spain, who reviewed the findings for Reuters, said the report was conclusive. “They didn’t fire a single shot,” said Francisco Gallego, director of the Technical Institute of Ballistic Studies in Madrid.
The CICPC report said that forensic evidence and testimony put the seven officers charged at the scene.
Uzcategui, the supervisor, fired the 9 mm pistol rounds that killed Duarte, the report said. The specificity was possible because the bullets, traced by forensics to Uzcategui’s gun, remained in Duarte’s body, according to the autopsy.
Although the rounds that killed Lira left through exit wounds, ballistics in the report indicated that three of the six other officers charged had fired weapons.
Meyfer Diaz, a 23-year-old recruit who joined the force just two months before the shootings, fired a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun. A month before the operation, Diaz posted a Facebook photo of himself in FAES gear. “Suck it,” he wrote, “nothing gets to me.”
Sanchez, the officer who served prison time for robbery, fired his Tanfoglio pistol four times. Investigators traced fourteen other rounds at the scene to Oliveros, the officer who served time as an accomplice to murder.
Ballistic reports and a FAES document contained in the prosecutors’ case file, both reviewed by Reuters, show the rounds came from a Heckler & Koch MP5 assigned to Oliveros. At a July hearing, Ortega, Oliveros’ lawyer, argued that his client didn’t have the gun on the day of the killings.
In his testimony to prosecutors, Coraspe, whose phone call set off the episode, said FAES officers after the shootings told him to tell investigators “it was a confrontation.” Instead, he said, “I told the officers what really happened.”
The defendants are scheduled to appear in court in March; the trial is expected to take months. Attorneys leading the prosecution for the state didn’t respond to requests from Reuters to discuss the case.
Alexis Lira, the graphic designer’s brother, visits the courthouse and prosecutors weekly to make sure the case is progressing.
Gonzalez, Fernando Lira’s girlfriend and intended beneficiary of the missing $500, after Lira’s death gradually grew weaker from a longstanding struggle with pulmonary hypertension. Reuters interviewed her multiple times in late 2019.
On January 3, Gonzalez died of heart failure.
“She was our companion in this battle,” said Jeanette Padron, a physician, friend and the longtime partner of Duarte, the other man killed. “Fernando’s death broke her down.”
(Editing by Paulo Prada.)