RIGHT TO LIFE
312. One of the fundamental problems considered by the IACHR on its last on-site visit to Venezuela concerned violations of the right to life. The right to life is essential for the exercise of all other human rights. Therefore, in light of its importance and of the exceptional circumstances affecting the rule of law in Venezuela, the IACHR has reason and justification to conduct a separate analysis of observance of this right in that country.
A. Legal framework
313. In the Venezuelan legal system the right to life is recognized in the following domestic and international legal provisions:
314. The American Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to life at Article 4, in the following terms:
315. At the domestic level Article 43 of the Venezuelan Constitution enshrines the right to life in terms transcribed below:
The right to life is inviolable. No law shall provide for the death penalty and no authority shall apply it. The State shall protect the life of persons who are deprived of liberty, serving in the armed forces or civilian services, or otherwise subject to its authority.
316. The 1999 Constitution also recognizes for the first time the prohibition of forced disappearance. On that basis, the Venezuelan Criminal Code was reformed to include this category of crime. The Commission considers the introduction of this prohibition to be a crucial step in the protection of the right to life in Venezuela.
B. Situation of the right to life in Venezuela
317. These legal guarantees notwithstanding, the Commission had occasion to observe that in practice the situation of the right to life has worsened considerably due to an increase in impunity and in violence. Reiterates complaints to that effect have alerted the IACHR to the need for the competent authorities to adopt appropriate and effective measures to combat this problem. The problem is especially prevalent in certain states in Venezuela, in particular, the States of Portuguesa, Anzoátegui, Falcón, Yaracuy, Caracas, Bolívar, Aragua, and Miranda, among others. In its visit to Venezuela in May 2002, the IACHR received copious amounts of information regarding the activities of these groups in different regions of the country, particularly in the State of Portuguesa. Furthermore, at its 117th regular session in October 2002, the IACHR held a hearing on the activities of paramilitary groups in Venezuela, during which it was brought to the attention of the Commission that these organizations continued to operate with impunity in several States and that the families of victims and witnesses were constantly threatened.
318. More than 300 cases have been publicly reviewed of persons extrajudicially executed by paramilitary groups in more than seven states in the country; approximately 14 of the persons murdered were witnesses to such executions. Furthermore, the escalation of violence has resulted in the murders of 55 persons in incidents of street violence and more than 500 people have been killed in alleged confrontations; however, none of these events has been sufficiently clarified.
319. Based on the foregoing, one of the issues that has most troubled the Commission in connection with the right to life in the framework of a progressive deterioration of the country’s democratic institutions, are murders in the context of political unrest, which activates the duty of the State to prevent such incidents, conduct an investigation, and punish those responsible; as well as problem of so-called death squads or paramilitary groups.
320. The following analysis concerns the activities of paramilitary groups as a particularly reproachable violation of the right to life in Venezuela.
C. Death squads and the phenomenon of social cleansing
321. One of the most serious situations to have affected the right to life in recent years is the phenomenon of social cleansing. In a country where the cities are experiencing an upsurge in crime and impunity for crimes, part of society is beginning to tolerate crime and to accept the activities of self-defense or “social cleansing” groups as they are inaptly named. There is a significant correlation between this form of violence and aggression and the harsh living conditions found in the most impoverished areas, given that such incidents occur with greater frequency in deprived areas. Furthermore, the failure of the justice system to provide an effective response has the effect of transmitting the message to the public that "popular justice" is an acceptable alternative to the rule of law and due process. This issue is a most serious concern for the entire population because the characteristics and persistence of these attacks constitute a challenge to the rule of law.
322. Furthermore citizen security continues to be one of the most pressing issues for the population. There is deep popular dissatisfaction with the vulnerability that most Venezuelans feel, and this is coupled with the perception that the institutions responsible for the administration of justice are not equal to their tasks. The upshot of the shortcomings in the administration of justice is that the legitimate demands of the people in terms of protection and accountability are not met. The Commission considers that in a system that does not ensure that investigations, prosecutions, and punishment are carried out immediately and in an effective manner, there can be no proper respect and protection for the rights either of victims or of suspects. Therefore, as the Commission has reiterated in this report, priority must be given to ensuring that the state meets its undertaking to strengthen the administration of justice and eradicate impunity.
323. In its analysis of this problem, the Commission feels that it is important to reiterate what it has mentioned on other occasions, to the effect that a state is not only responsible for human rights violations committed by its agents and for similar conduct by paramilitary groups acting with its acquiescence or consent, but also that failure to adopt sufficient measures to prevent, investigate, and punish the criminal acts of private individuals or groups gives rise to its international responsibility.
324. On this matter, the Inter-American Court has ruled:
...the duty of the States Parties to organize the governmental apparatus and, in general, all the structures through which public power is exercised, so that they are capable of juridically ensuring the free and full enjoyment of human rights. As a consequence of this obligation, the States must prevent, investigate and punish any violation of the rights recognized by the Convention and, moreover, if possible attempt to restore the right violated and provide compensation as warranted for damages resulting from the violation.
325. For the Inter-American Court, the duty of States under the Convention to prevent violations includes all those means of a legal, political, administrative and cultural nature that promote the protection of human rights and ensure that any violations are considered and treated as illegal acts.
326. For its part, the IACHR held:
Notwithstanding the above, and although the Mexican State cannot be held responsible for all the problems affecting its citizens, it is responsible for human rights violations committed by State agents in the performance of their duties, even when they are acting outside the limits of their authority. This is also true when violations are committed by individuals, and the State has tolerated or consented to those acts. According to what has been said in earlier chapters of this report, the Commission reiterates that the State may also incur international responsibility in the event that it fails to adopt the measures required to prevent violative acts. It may also incur responsibility for failure to comply with its obligation to investigate and provide for adequate punishment of the persons responsible for those violations, and for its failure to comply with its duty to provide for compensation or reparations to the victims.
327. In that connection, the Commission finds that prevention of human rights violations or, as appropriate, their effective investigation and resulting punishment of those responsible is the state’s duty, and failure to fulfill it engages its international responsibility. Furthermore, performance of this duty is a necessary condition for eradicating situations of impunity that lead to an escalation of violence, to the obvious detriment of the rule of law.
1. Nature of the phenomenon
328. The Venezuelan Ombudsman has acknowledged the existence of so-called paramilitary groups in seven states in the country. In Portuguesa, some 400 kilometers from Caracas, the murders have been reported of more than 100 people by a so-called “grupo de exterminio”. This group is reportedly composed of off-duty members of the State Police and the National Guard. The situation is similar in the States of Falcón, Aragua, Yaracuy, Miranda, Anzóategui, Bolívar and Caracas, among others, where almost 100 people have also been murdered by these groups, which apparently act with the acquiescence of the state police forces.
329. It is important to mention that these groups have been in existence for a considerable time. Similar incidents have occurred in the past in different states in the country. One can mention, for instance, the case of the killings by “Los Pantaneros” of the Metropolitan Police in the Parish of Vega in Caracas in 1993, or the “Escuadrones de la Muerte” and “Vengador Anónimo”, which operated in the State of Zulia between 1995 and 1996. While the existence of these groups in Venezuela is neither new nor recent, their number and activities have risen alarmingly in recent years.
330. On examining this phenomenon, the Commission considers it important to make a preliminary clarification prior to analyzing the persons involved in and the peculiarities of this issue. It is necessary to make a distinction between two phenomena: on one hand, extrajudicial executions carried out by the police and, on the other, the activities of paramilitary groups, regardless of whether or not members of the police may be involved in both.
331. According to the information received, murders are perpetrated by paramilitary groups in which members of different state police forces and of the National Guard are involved. Also, there are certain patterns to these murders determined by the nature of the victim and the modus operandi of the execution. As regards the first point, as a rule the murder victims are young people with a criminal record and of very limited means, who are blackmailed and ordered to pay large sums of money and are killed when they are unable to make the payments demanded from them. The Commission observes with grave concern that the death squads are not only an illegal means of social control, but that they are part of a criminal organization that operates for monetary gain within the state police force.
332. It is also common for victims to be attributed bogus criminal records in advance to justify the attack. Furthermore, relatives and witnesses are also often harassed and intimidated so as not to report the attackers. The same is true of judges and public prosecutors.
333. The patterns of the killings vary depending on the region where they take place; however, in broad terms two modus operandi have been identified:
- Execution by persons wearing civilian clothing, usually with their faces covered, who go at night to the home of the victim to perpetrate the killing. This modality, which is typical of death squads, has predominated in the State of Portuguesa. By way of an example one can mention what happened to Carlos Núñez Jiménez, who, according to the complaint filed by his brother, Mr. Javier Jiménez, was arrested by four operatives in civilian clothes on Saturday, September 21, 2002, and appeared dead early on Sunday morning. Mr. Jiménez says that his brother’s body was covered with beating marks; there were also swellings on his head and five bullet wounds that he allegedly sustained in a confrontation with the Falcón State Police that morning.
- Execution in feigned confrontations, which is the most common modality. In these cases the killing is carried out by alleged police officers in the course of routine procedures, such as arrests or raids. In such instances, the victim is murdered at the scene of the procedure under the allegation by the police of a confrontation with the criminal. In other circumstances the victim is arrested, taken to the police jail, and several days later, during which time his whereabouts are unknown, he appears dead without any plausible explanation.
334. One can cite the example of the youth Robert Johan Brito Primera, who was allegedly killed by the Grupo Lince, a death squad linked to the Falcón State Police, which says that the incident was the result of a confrontation. The relatives say that the youth was murdered at his home during a violent raid carried out by the police. A similar situation occurred in the case of Pedro Rafael Silveira Campos, who, according to his family, was arrested in the street by Anzóategui State police officers, who allegedly shot him in the region of his ear. According to witnesses to the incident, after killing him the police officers put him in the patrol car and drove him around the area, shouting out, “Enfrentamiento [Confrontation]”.
335. Based on the foregoing, the Commission considers that there are four aspects worth highlighting that characterize the activities of these death squads in the country:
- Specific sectors of the community, such as suspected criminals, are the target of these groups.
- Involvement of police officers in alleged confrontations
- A crime-fighting campaign;
336. The Commission also considers it relevant to mention that the persecution and extermination of individuals who belong to specific groups, such as alleged criminals, is a particularly reproachable violation of the right to life and of the right to humane treatment, which has repeatedly been condemned by this Commission. The fact that security officers belong to such groups also represents a radical departure from due process and the rule of law.
337. A core aspect in the analysis of this issue is the impunity that typically surrounds these killings, since it allows these groups to operate. There is a clear connection between the impunity of these cases and the progressive increase in these acts of criminal violence.
338. The Commission has received information indicating that in spite of solid evidence against senior police officials in these cases, the persons responsible have not been convicted. In the majority of cases, law enforcement neither arrested nor brought charges against those responsible for murders attributed to the police, and in the cases where criminal proceedings were instituted, the trials were unreasonably delayed, which gives the impression of a blatant denial of justice. The human rights organization, COFAVIC, has reported that 64% of the complaints received in the first half of 2002 concern cases of human rights violations by these groups linked to the state police forces, or to unidentified armed groups. COFAVIC also mentioned in its last report that this percentage was maintained in the second half of that year, inasmuch as 54% of the complaints received in that period concerned killings carried out by these groups. The Venezuelan state, for its part, said, in connection with the incidents reported in the State of Portuguesa, that for the period from March 2000 until January 2003, 119 cases were at the investigation stage, 127 were under examination, and only in eight had a judicial decision been reached.
339. Amnesty International has said the following on this matter:
There were continued reports of scores of extrajudicial executions of perceived criminal suspects by police, or groups linked to the police, in a number of states including Portuguesa, Falcón, Aragua, Anzoategui and Bolivar. Witnesses or relatives who reported these crimes were often themselves threatened or attacked. Despite the existence of clear evidence in many cases, police forces routinely presented these killings as acts of self-defence or suspects resisting arrest. No officials were prosecuted.
340. In its latest report, the human rights organization, COFAVIC, systematizes the mechanisms of impunity as follows:
- Stigmatization: the victim is presented as an unsalvageable being despised by his community; his record is made public; the death is made to appear to have occurred during a confrontation as something expected by the community, for which reason, any complaint about the matter is unacceptable. Given that some of the victims of these groups come from the most underprivileged sectors of society and, very often, from dysfunctional family groups (with criminal records and a history of drug use, family strife, and domestic violence,) the stigma also extends to the relatives and close associates of the victim, who are presented by the police to the regional media as people completely lacking in moral fiber and credibility.
- Lack of diligence in investigation efforts: even though modern criminalistics make it possible to determine the circumstances in which a person died (distance from which he was shot, number of shots fired at the scene), technical tests are not carried out and since there is no evidence as a result, cases do not progress beyond the preliminary investigation stage. In perpetration of the crime there is little evidence that makes it possible to single out the killer; that is, it is easy to know which state security body he belongs to, but not the actual identity of the agent involved. This normally happens due to lack of cooperation between forces when it comes to the identification of the alleged culprits.
- Threats and coercion: in many cases witnesses and relatives, and even judges and public prosecutors, are threatened to dissuade them, as appropriate, from testifying or from carrying out the pertinent procedures, which guarantees the silence necessary to ensure impunity. With respect to the activities of these groups, the Inter-American Commission granted precautionary measures in favor of Mr. Luis Uzcátegui on October 18, 2002. Mr. Uzcátegui, the brother of Néstor Uzcátegui, who was allegedly murdered at his home on New Year's Day 2001 by a Falcón State police squad, reported these facts to the regional press and has organized the relatives of other victims killed in similar circumstances. As a result he has been the object of ongoing intimidation and threats since he started to denounce the circumstances in which his brother and other persons were killed during alleged confrontations with Falcón State police forces. The Commission subsequently requested the Inter-American Court to order provisional measures, which were granted on November 22, 2002. Uzcátegui has also had to contest a complaint of aggravated defamation lodged against him with the Criminal Court of the State of Falcón. In this case, the Venezuelan state did not provide any protection to Mr. Uzcátegui and the criminal investigation into the murder of his brother has made no significant headway. Furthermore, the Commission has received complaints that relatives of victims have not had access to court records and that they are constantly threatened and intimidated.
341. Also worth mentioning is the situation of Mr. Luis Aguilera, Secretary General of the Human Rights and Peace Commission of Aragua, who has received many death threats and has been the target of intimidation and harassment as a result of the follow-up that the Commission carries out on the cases of extrajudicial killings that have occurred in the State of Aragua since 1999.
342. In respect of this issue Human Rights Watch has said:
In most cases the judiciary either failed to detain and charge those responsible for killings attributed to the police, or trials were subject to excessive delays. Victims' family members and lawyers suffered death threats. Miguel Ángel Zambrano, a former inspector of the Portuguesa police who had carried out investigations into the activities of the death squads, kept receiving anonymous death threats by telephone, and was beaten and threatened by police officers who confronted him in person. Unidentified individuals he believed to be linked to the police shot at him twice, leading him to go into hiding. In Falcón, the state police commander lodged criminal complaints against people who denounced killings for "insulting the police.".
- The link between the Scientific, Criminal, and Criminalistic Investigations Force (CICPC) and the executive branch (Ministry of the Interior and Justice) has been a structural impunity mechanism that has undermined the independence and impartiality with which it operates. Therefore, it is difficult to guarantee their independence and impartiality when officials of the state or of other police forces are involved because, in practice, this agency functions as an auxiliary body of the judiciary. Under the Code of Criminal Procedures, the Attorney General’s Office investigates crimes with the support of the Criminal Investigations Police. However, the CICPC continues to be under the administrative supervision of the executive branch, which compromises the integrity and transparency of the process.
343. Therefore, the Commission notes that the impunity that typically envelopes the activities of these groups magnifies the risks and fear of victims, relatives and witnesses, and is a cause of the constant repetition of these murders by paramilitary groups, which violate the rule of law and weaken the institutional framework of the justice system.
344. Based on the foregoing, the Commission concludes that as an extreme crime-fighting practice, the violent activities of these groups can only result in greater citizen insecurity. The lack of due diligence in terms of investigating, prosecuting, and punishing the members of the so-called death squads is fundamental in allowing them to operate.
345. In sum, the Commission considers that this serious issue reveals a police force lacking in professionalism, growing impunity, and mounting corruption as underlying causes of the phenomenon, which impacts directly on human rights. Furthermore, the acts highlight the absence of government policies aimed at resolving this reality, and, therefore, a spiral of impunity is generated whose correlation is the periodic outbreak of violent incidents.
346. Finally, the Commission recalls what it said in its press release at the conclusion of its on-site visit in, 2002, in which it mentioned that “the lack of due diligence in terms of investigating, prosecuting, and punishing the members of the so-called grupos de exterminio is fundamental in allowing them to operate”. Therefore, the Commission reiterates to the State its obligation to adopt urgent measures to dismantle these groups and to investigate and punish those responsible, and draws attention to the responsibility of the states of the Venezuelan interior in these cases pursuant to Article 28 of the American Convention in conjunction with 1(1) of the aforesaid international instrument.
347. In light of the seriousness of the situation entailed by the existence and activities of death squads, the Commission recommends that the Venezuelan State:
1. In accordance with seriousness of these cases, take immediate, urgent and effective steps to dismantle and eliminate the death squads that are active in the States mentioned in this report.
2. Conduct meaningful, thorough, conclusive and impartial investigations into all cases of extrajudicial execution.
3. Provide adequate reparations to relatives of victims of violations of the right to life attributable to agents of the State or to groups that have acted with its consent.
4. Provide effective protection measures for witnesses and relatives of victims.
5. Increase the human, technical and logistical resources allocated to the investigation of these “death squads” and to discharge immediately any security services personnel who may be involved.
6. Impart to members of the police and military training courses on observance of human rights in the exercise of public security duties.
 Article 45 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela provides that: “All public authorities, whether military or civilian, are prohibited, even during a state of emergency, exception or restriction or guarantees, from effecting, permitting or tolerating the forced disappearance of persons. An official receiving an order or instruction to carry it out, has the obligation not to obey, and to report the order or instruction to the competent authorities. Any person that plans, commits, is complicit in, or conceals the crime of forced disappearance of a person shall be punished in accordance to law”.
 IACHR, Press Release N° 23/02, Inter-American Commission Concludes its Visit to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, May 2002.
 In this connection, it is important first to mention that in Venezuela the organizations known as paramilitary groups are death squads implicated in the phenomenon of social cleansing.
 The Ministry of the Interior and Justice of Venezuela announced publicly that in 2000 alone there were 7,000 violent deaths in the country; of those 2,000 resulted from presumed confrontations between criminals and state security agencies. COFAVIC/Venezuela, Democracia y Derechos Humanos, Informe Semestral: enero-agosto 2002 [Democracy and Human Rights, Semi-Annual Report, January-August 2002].
According to the Scientific, Criminal, and Criminalistic Investigations Force of Venezuela, on average 100 persons have been violently murdered every weekend since 2002.
 Inter-Am. Ct. H.R, Velásquez Rodríguez Case, Judgment of July 29, 1988, para. 166.
 IACHR, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Mexico, 1998, para. 675.
 According to the Preliminary Report of the Ombudsman on Executions [Informe Preliminar sobre ajusticiamientos de la Defensoría del Pueblo] of October 2001, paramilitary groups operate in the States of Anzoátegui, Aragua, Bolívar, Caracas, Miranda, Portuguesa and Yaracuy. It is thought that the right to life of 392 people has been violated as a result of execution by the police, together with 10 forced disappearances. The above-mentioned states have more than 20 complaints.
 Human Rights Watch, 2003 Annual Report, “Social cleansing-type killings by police forces continued to be a grave problem”.
 Amnesty International, 2003 Annual Report, Extrajudicial killings, Country/Section: Venezuela.
 COFAVIC, Press Release, October 4, 2002.
 Ombudsman of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Derechos Humanos en Venezuela, Anuario 2001 [Human Rights in Venezuela, 2001 Yearbook], pp. 355-371.
 See also the newspaper El Nacional, Sucesos: Encapuchados en Portuguesa extorsionaban a los Delincuentes antes de Ejecutarlos [Events: Hooded Men in Portuguesa Extorted Money from Criminals before Executing Them], May 24, 2001.
 Newspaper La Mañana, Muerte en Jubilana el Fin de Semana, Familiar Denuncia que su Hermano fue Ajusticiado por la Policía [Death in Jubiana at the Weekend, Brother Executed by Police Claims Relative], September 24, 2002, p.23.
 COFAVIC, COFAVIC/Venezuela, Democracia y Derechos Humanos, Informe Semestral: enero-agosto 2002. See also, Provea, Annual Report N° 14, Caracas, Venezuela.
 Human Rights Watch, 2003 Annual Report, “Social cleansing-type killings by police forces continued to be a grave problem”.
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, State Representative on Human Rights to the Inter-American System and the International Community, January 21, 2002.
 Amnesty International, 2003 Annual Report, Extrajudicial killings, Country/Section: Venezuela.
 Commission on Human Rights of Justice and Peace of Aragua, Public Communiqué, July 27, 2003, Venezuela.
 Human Rights Watch, Annual Report 2003, Social cleansing-type killings, Venezuela.