MARACAY, Venezuela — A week after Venezuela’s intelligence forces detained a retired navy captain, he appeared in a military tribunal a broken man, in a wheelchair and showing signs of torture.
“Help me,” he mouthed to his lawyer.
The captain, Rafael Acosta, died that day. He was buried three weeks later, on July 10, against his wife’s wishes, surrounded by security guards, in a plot assigned by the government. The five family members allowed to attend could not see him: The body was wrapped in brown plastic.
Captain Acosta suffered blunt force trauma and electrocution, according to leaked portions of his autopsy report, and the government admits excessive force was used against him. His death is an indication of how President Nicolás Maduro’s embattled government has turned a brutal apparatus of repression against its own military, in a no-holds-barred effort to retain control of the armed forces — and through them, the state.
Top military leaders have repeatedly declared their allegiance to the Maduro administration. But over the past two years, as the oil-rich economy crumbled and a majority of Venezuelans were left without sufficient food and medicine, factions within the security forces have staged at least five attempts to overthrow or assassinate the president.
The government claims to have foiled at least a dozen more plots in that period, including a scheme in which Captain Acosta and five others under arrest were accused of participating.
The Venezuelan state media calls the stream of real and imagined threats “a continuous coup.” Mr. Maduro’s Socialist Party is resorting to this siege mentality to justify ubiquitous surveillance, arbitrary detentions and the torture of perceived enemies, including those inside Venezuela’s 160,000-strong armed forces, according to the United Nations, human rights advocates and victims’ families.
“The abuse of military officers has grown because they represent a real threat for Maduro’s government,” said Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera, Venezuela’s former head of intelligence, who defected in April and spoke from the United States.
There are now 217 active and retired officers being held in Venezuelan jails, including 12 generals, according to the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy, a Caracas-based nonprofit that represents several of the men.
The coalition has documented 250 cases of torture committed by Venezuelan security forces against military officers, their relatives and opposition activists since 2017. Many of the victims have spent years in jail without trial. Few have been convicted of crimes and most have not even been charged, according to the organization.
The weaker the government is, “the stronger is the torture against the people they consider dangerous,” said Ana Leonor Acosta, a lawyer with the coalition. Ms. Acosta is not related to Captain Acosta.
These abuses were brought to international attention last month, when Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights commissioner, published a scathing report that said the Venezuelan government subjected prisoners seen as political opponents to “electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, water boarding, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures.”
Since Mr. Maduro took office, Venezuela has lost two-thirds of its gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund. Conditions worsened after the Trump administration, angered over Mr. Maduro’s rhetoric and repressive tactics, backed the opposition and imposed sanctions that crippled the oil industry.
The United Nations estimates four million Venezuelans have fled the deteriorating conditions. While Mr. Maduro has sought to ensure the loyalty of the military’s top brass with promotions and lucrative contracts, middle- and lower-ranking officers and their families are increasingly affected by the crisis. That makes them restless.
“The hunger came to the barracks and the military ranks became infested with dissidence,” said Ms. Acosta, the lawyer. “The armed forces are gripped by paranoia, suspicion and division between those that support this government and those who don’t.”
Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to detailed questions about torture allegations sent by The New York Times for this article. The attorney general’s office, which handles criminal and human rights investigations, declined to comment. In the past, the government has denied accusations of systematic torture, blaming specific cases on isolated excesses committed by rank-and-file agents.
In Captain Acosta’s case, the government detained the two low-ranking soldiers who signed his detention order. Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela’s governing party, said a government investigation found that the two soldiers had used excessive force when the captain resisted arrest.
“These are those responsible, but this is not a state policy,” Mr. Cabello said.
Critics of Mr. Maduro’s government believe the two soldiers are scapegoats for decisions made in the presidential palace.
“This has been Maduro’s decision,” said General Figuera, the former head of Venezuelan intelligence. “He’s the one giving orders there.”
Captain Acosta’s family also believes what happened to him falls within a pattern of abuse by the state.
“It’s all a smoke screen,” said Captain Acosta’s wife, Waleswka Pérez, in an interview. “What happened to my husband has been happening for quite a while and there’s a lot of fear, because they are capable of doing anything.”
Mr. Maduro’s growing reliance on torture is a remarkable about-face for a Socialist government that came to power two decades ago promising to eliminate the human rights abuses of its predecessors. Mr. Maduro signed an anti-torture law in 2013, shortly after assuming the presidency following the death of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez.
“The Socialist government has to be a humanist government, it can’t torture anyone,” Mr. Chávez said in 2006, during the inauguration of a school named after the leftist politician Jorge Rodríguez, who was tortured and killed by Venezuelan security forces in 1976.
Mr. Rodríguez’s children, Jorge and Delcy, have become top advisers to Mr. Maduro, and have taken a leading role in justifying the president’s political repression. In a televised address, Jorge Rodríguez claimed Captain Acosta and the other men detained on the same day planned to assassinate government leaders. He also shared a video he said showed Capt. Acosta discussing plans for a coup.
To keep the security forces in check, Mr. Maduro has resorted to increasingly brutal tactics, said Ms. Acosta, the lawyer.
Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a National Guard captain who led a failed assault on a military base in 2017, suffered testicle injuries during beatings in jail, according to his family and lawyers. He told his lawyers he was glad it happened because the heavy bleeding that ensued gave him a respite from interrogations.
Óscar Pérez, a police officer who led a small antigovernment guerrilla unit, was shot at least 15 times at close range by security officers in January 2018 after repeatedly offering to surrender in a shootout he broadcast live on social media.
Andrik Carrizales, a major with the Venezuelan Air Force, was shot in the head by security officers for joining a failed attempt to take over a weapons factory in Maracay on April 30. His lawyer said that after surrendering, Maj. Carrizales was handcuffed, forced to kneel and shot at close range.
He survived — only to be detained in a military hospital, despite having gone blind and facing life-threatening injuries.
“He’s being tried for rebellion, but no one is persecuting his abusers,” said his lawyer, Martín Ríos. “The major is being systematically tortured to criminalize protests, infuse terror and scare people from denouncing or seeking justice.”
The climate of fear is most palpable here in Maracay, Venezuela’s military capital, home to the nation’s main air bases and military academies.
The city’s military pedigree has long made it a hotbed of conspiracies. It was from here that Mr. Chávez, a paratrooper commander, staged a coup against Venezuela’s democratic government in 1992. He failed, but became president seven years later. In 2002, Maracay’s paratroopers rose again, this time in a countercoup to return Mr. Chávez, who had been deposed, to power.
Today, Maracay is the epicenter of Mr. Maduro’s barracks purges. Its residents included at least four of the five active and retired security officials detained along with Captain Acosta.
Captain Acosta’s cousin, Carmen Acosta, one of the few members of the close-knit family who was allowed to attend his funeral, says they believe he is innocent.
“They didn’t even charge him,” she said. “He died, helpless, innocent and alone.”
Human rights lawyers say it’s increasingly difficult to document and denounce torture cases in Venezuela. The government’s fear campaign spreads far beyond the accused officers, terrorizing family members, legal representatives, associates and entire communities.
In Maracay, Captain Acosta’s family says they live in fear. His octogenarian mother has retreated into a terrified seclusion, refusing to see even close relatives out of fear that it could endanger them.
Ms. Acosta, his cousin, said she decided to speak to the press after weeks of anguish.
“If we stay silent, they win,” she said, holding back tears. “This is what they want: to make everyone live in fear.”
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