‘Powerful Enough To Do Whatever We Want’: A Journalist’s Escape From Socialist Venezuela, Part 1
This piece is the first installment of a two-part story. These articles document a Venezuelan journalist’s struggle to flee the failing state and survive in a place where journalists are often under serious threat of bodily harm. Some names have been changed in order to protect those involved.
It all started in 2014 on a rainy night in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, a couple of months after the detention of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The nationwide protests and the violent events were a turning point in the country’s modern history.
Right before leaving the newsroom where I worked, I received a text message from a friend who knew the leader of the anti-regime resistance in the city. He gave me her “safe” phone number and said she was interested in an interview. She was apparently a high-ranking member of a group whose main goal was to end Nicolas Maduro’s socialist regime and achieve a democratic transition.
That same night, I called her to schedule a meeting. She told me she had to leave her family behind and live in secret to avoid being detained by the National Guard and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN).
We kept talking until we finally agreed on a rendezvous at a restaurant in the center of the city. We worked to make sure our text and phone conversations weren’t detected by any security force of the regime, which was already jailing and killing demonstrators all over the country.
During the interview, she explained that the SEBIN was “disappearing” members of the resistance. She claimed some of the officers were targeting girls and women of the group to rape them and sometimes put them in jail. Our meeting lasted for hours, before she asked me to take her to her safe house.
Once we arrived, she went inside to look for a tablet she said she’d stolen from a National Guard soldier during a protest that had taken place a month before our encounter.
“I was kidnapped with two other female members of the resistance. The National Guards raped the two of them,” she said. “They were recording everything to blackmail them in the future, since they were quite wealthy.”
She stated the event took place in the apartment of Mario Vega, son of a famous regime politician. She told me they didn’t do anything to her because she claimed at the time that she had AIDS. At one point in the video she took the tablet and jumped through the apartment’s second-floor window, breaking her ankle in the process.
“You have to look for a way to publish this,” she told me.
I watched the 23-second video three times and determined it was indeed Vega’s house after comparing it with some of the Christmas photos he had published to his Facebook account. I went back to my apartment and tried to determine how to properly publish the material. I refused to give it to a coworker, even when my main focus was the resistance leader and the anti-regime protests.
It took two days for me to discern my first step. But shortly before getting to the newsroom to show the video to the editor, I got in the middle of a street battle between protesters and paramilitary members, also known as “colectivos.” Some of these blocked my car, took me out of it, pointed a gun into my head and took everything I had inside, including the bag containing the tablet.
Three days later, I started to notice a grey Jeep following me every time I drove to the newsroom and when I went back home. This lasted for a month, even a couple of days after the resistance leader told me they had decided to stop following the arrest and torture of dozens of their members. (RELATED: ‘A Major Disinformation Campaign’: US Denies Involvement In Alleged Coup Attempt In Venezuela)
My contact eventually escaped to Paris. I decided to stay in Venezuela. I didn’t care about the famine, the genocides or how most of the people I knew at that time were starting to leave the country.
I was foolish enough to think that being a journalist would save me from the reality of this socialist dystopia.
A couple of months after the end of the anti-regime’s massive protests, the gay lover and former security escort of socialist lawmaker Robert Serra decided to brutally kill him.
The Venezuelan regime had always hid Serra’s sexual orientation and embarked on a censorship crusade after his killing. It didn’t stop with the arrest of a Colombian thug, framed for the crime and forced to confess to a homicide he didn’t commit. It extended to national news outlets and perhaps especially social media, where the regime arrested those who published photos of Serra’s mutilated corpse at the Caracas’ morgue.
The most outrageous act of censorship was levied against Alicia, a famous Twitter user who mocked Serra’s death and whose life was destroyed because of it.
A day after making these remarks on Twitter, members of the SEBIN got into her apartment, beat her and her mother to unconsciousness, and took her to one of the sites the intelligence agency had all over Maracaibo to hide those they detained.
I started to cover the case when Alicia had been missing for three days. My main source was Arelis, a lawyer of the famous Foro Penal group, who I knew when I was covering the massive protests because she provided legal support for the detainees.
After I published the first article about Alicia, the grey Jeep reappeared. I began to feel frightened again and asked Arelis if she knew anything about it. She said she would investigate and tell me, but we agreed that our main focus needed to be Alicia’s case.
My responsibility to this story was substantial, since I was the only journalist in the country in covering it. Arelis told me that the few reporters that were interested in it eventually decided to stay away since it was “too risky.” She also told me that “the regime is taking Serra’s case quite seriously. It is making all efforts to make people buy its narrative about his death and then forget about everything.”
While the court in charge of Alicia’s case ordered her release, the SEBIN refused to do so and instead took her to the Helicoide headquarters in Caracas, where almost every political prisoner in Venezuela is detained, tortured and killed. A source inside the intelligence agency told me she was being psychologically tortured, stating this was part of the “adaptation process,” a term used by the SEBIN to refer to mentally breaking detainees. (RELATED: Venezuela Captured Two Americans Running A Coup, Maduro’s Government Claims)
Even when I started to publish each of these details and my articles gained notoriety on social media, none of the major news outlets or radio and TV stations made any mention of it. The grey Jeep appeared regularly. I started to receive phone calls where a distorted voice asked me to stop writing about the case. Arelis told me she received the same calls and that members of the SEBIN were already spying on me.
“Apparently, the SEBIN is spying on us. However, the thing they have against you is not only because of Alicia. It has something to do with a tablet,” Arelis said.
For some reason, I ignored what Arelis told me. I knew I needed comment from Alicia’s mother in order to continue covering the case, since the story was at a dead end. She had, however, consistently refused to make any comments about the case.
Two weeks after Alicia had been moved to the Helicoide, her mother called me and said she was willing to tell me everything that happened the night of her daughter’s detention and the abuses committed by the SEBIN. She even said she had some proof that would confirm each of her claims. This phone call took place on Wednesday morning. We scheduled an interview on Friday night.
When I got to her apartment for the interview, the grey Jeep emerged from one of the garages and a blonde man exited the vehicle.
“Nice to meet you Luis, I have to say that while I’m a huge fan of your articles about Alicia, this interview is not going to happen,” he told me.
Instead of replying, I called Alicia’s mother in front of him. She screamed she wasn’t going to do any interviews with any news outlets.
Once I hung up, the man said: “You should be happy that you’re not at the bottom of the lake right now. Some people are mad at you for the tablet, but we all decided not to do anything. There’s no need of killing a journalist, but I have to say you better stop writing anything about Alicia or even posting a single world on social media ever again, or we could do some funny things.”
He then gave me his phone to watch a video of my girlfriend sleeping in her room. The man — or someone who was under his command — had managed to get inside her house and film her sleeping. The video lasted nearly five minutes.
“Me and my boys could have a lot of fun with that girl,” he said. “It’s obvious that if you don’t want this to happen, all you have to do is forget about Alicia, forget about the video on the tablet and forget about using social media. If you ever use any of your social media accounts to reveal this situation or simply criticize the government, you know we are powerful enough to do whatever we want with the people you care about.”
He then got into the grey Jeep and left.
I called Arelis to tell her what happened, and she told me “they were definitely serious.”
I then called my contact at the SEBIN and he said he had heard Mario Vega had “some kind of vendetta against you because of a tablet, but he can’t do much since he don’t have any kind of political influence.”
After that day, Alicia’s story was buried. No one made any comment about it. She spent nearly two years enduring torture, even losing some of her organs. She barely survived but eventually escaped to the United States.
I stopped using social media and eventually broke up with my girlfriend. Over the next few years, I started working for different U.S. outlets as a news and opinion writer, watching my country being devoured by a violent political ideology that had turned one of the wealthiest nations in the western hemisphere into a Latin American version of Syria.
The persecution against me stopped until 2019, the year I was forced to escape.
Luis Francisco Orozco is a Venezuelan journalist and political analyst. Find Luis on Twitter at @LForzco.