International News Editor
On July 10, 2019, naval captain Rafael Acosta died in the custody of Venezuelan intelligence authorities. He was buried on government land, against his wife’s wishes, surrounded by security guards. At his funeral, his body was wrapped in brown plastic, ensuring that his family could not see the signs of electrocution, blunt force trauma, and other tortures inflicted during his three-week-long imprisonment. The details of those atrocities were discovered only after his autopsy report was secretly leaked to the public.
Rafael Acosta is only the latest casualty of the Venezuelan intelligence community’s war on political opposition. Citizens across the country continue to be targeted by a regime seeking to tighten its grip over the general populace. Besides severe food shortages, hyperinflation, mass school closings, and nationwide power blackouts, civilians and military officers alike live in constant fear of arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture at the hands of Venezuelan security forces.
The New York Times reports that there are now 217 active and retired military personnel being held by security forces in Venezuelan jails, with over 205 documented incidences of torture against officers, their relatives, and opposition activists reported since 2017.
Defected Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) general Manuel Figuera told the Washington Post that many of the accused never committed the crimes the government charges them with — conspiracy, espionage, and unlawful protesting to name a few. President Nicolas Maduro and his intelligence agency “butchers” do not exhibit concern for their detainees’ proclamations of innocence. They continue to harass and abuse members of their own military as a means of suppressing dissent.
“This dictatorship is a danger to absolutely all of us,” Figuera wrote in an open letter. “No one is safe.”
Venezuelan intelligence agencies specifically target military personnel because they perceive them to be potential threats to the consolidation of Maduro’s regime.
In addition to harassing and detaining suspected dissidents, the government continues to perpetuate fear-inducing narratives amongst the general populace in the hopes of stifling resistance. According to Voice of America, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Montserrat likened United States sanctions upon Venezuela to “economic terrorism” and suggested that the Trump administration was attempting to starve out Venezuelan civilians.
“The goal is crystal clear,” Montserrat stated in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council, “to bring the Venezuelan economy to its knees and to prevent the Government from meeting the basic needs of its people.”
Ironically, the Venezuelan government itself has yet to answer for its own dealings in state-sponsored terrorism. Foreign Policy reports that Iran-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah continues to maintain “active cells” in the country, working alongside the Maduro regime to establish a vast criminal infrastructure including drug trafficking, money laundering, and illicit smuggling.
“Hezbollah performs intelligence work in Venezuela,” hemispheric security expert Joseph Humire said in an interview with the Panam Post. He further explained that Hezbollah has a huge international money laundering network and offers its services to drug cartels.
The most concrete proof that the Maduro regime is collaborating with Hezbollah may be the rise and continued power of politician Tareck El Aissami, an Arab-Venezuelan politician currently under sanctions from the U.S. Treasury Department for international narcotics trafficking. In addition to his current role as Maduro’s minister of industries and national production, El Aissami was vice-president of Venezuela from 2017 to 2018. During that time, he issued 173 passports to individuals from the Middle East, many of whom had previous ties to Hezbollah and affiliated militant organizations.
El Aissami was also the head of SEBIN, the same intelligence agency that has been arbitrarily arresting, detaining, and torturing opposition figures. Given that the timeline of his vice-presidency coincides with the illegal arrest and torture of over 200 military personnel and civilians, it is not only extremely likely that El Assaimi sanctioned the Venezuelan intelligence community’s crackdown on political opposition, but also possible that Hezbollah cells in Venezuela reported directly to Aissami in collaboration with SEBIN at this time.
Noting the actions of his intelligence service, Tareck El Aissami is personally accountable for crimes against humanity, as defined by Article 7 of the Rome Statute. This is not the thing that makes his tenure as Maduro’s right-hand man disconcerting. If El Aissami is responsible for aiding Hezbollah’s entry into Venezuela, then the Maduro regime has been effectively co-opted by a terrorist entity.
If the arbitrary arrest, torture, and murder of civilians by state security forces proves anything, it is that Venezuela has devolved into a police state. Even more disturbing, however, is the blatant impunity the Maduro regime enjoys as it continues to perpetuate state-sponsored terrorism while disregarding the sanctity of human life. Given its co-option by Hezbollah, it is now clear that the U.S. cannot in good faith continue diplomatic negotiations with the Maduro regime without also enduring the consequences of its by-proxy allegiance to Iran.
An active police state operating in the Western Hemisphere is bad enough. A terrorist state is even worse.