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In Venezuela, A Family Blames The Police For Their Misery

Jun 10, 2013
Originally published on July 2, 2013 5:05 pm

The story of Venezuela's Eloisa Barrios is especially revealing because so many of her relatives have been killed. Revealing because of who she believes pulled the trigger.

Some weeks ago, Barrios climbed into our van for a drive to a cemetery. The burial ground is outside a village in the Venezuelan countryside. We went there to visit the Barrios family dead.

She told us nine relatives had been killed in shootings over the past 15 years. All nine were young men.

Eloisa doesn't visit their graves much. She's moved away from this village, called Guanajan. She doesn't feel safe here anymore. She doesn't rely on the police for protection, because she believes it was the police who sent most or all of her relations to these graves.

Across Latin America, some police are heroes while others are widely believed to be criminals. Venezuela's own government once estimated that police commit about 20 percent of crime. A 2006 investigation found that police killed an extraordinary number of people described as resisting arrest.

"Why do you think the police have come after your family so many times," I asked.

She answers, "My brother Benito was detained for a bar fight in the 1990s." After that, she says, he was marked as a bad man: police harassed him, beat him, and finally arrested him. He died in custody. Police were charged for the killing but never convicted.

She says other members of the family were targeted over the years.

Her brother Narciso owned a liquor store police officers frequented until he was killed after a disagreement. Again, police were charged, and two were convicted, but the killings continued. Nearly all the crimes are officially unsolved.

Eloisa Barrios admits she can't be sure all her relatives were killed by police. But she's convinced most, if not all, were.

The Barrios family did seek justice in Venezuelan courts. Frustrated by the results, they turned to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. It's part of the Organization of American States, and that court ordered the government to protect the Barrios family.

Some were moved to new homes. Yet even in their new city, more relatives were killed.

In its formal defense before the human rights court, Venezuela said there is no evidence the state is deliberately "persecuting" the Barrios family, with "a view to exterminating" them.

Venezuela also questioned the impartiality of the court, from which Venezuela's government plans to withdraw this year.

In Venezuela, the Barrios family is unusual only in that so many from a single family were killed. It is normal for police in this country to be accused of murder.

Seeking to understand what was happening, we spoke with an adviser to Venezuela's interior minister.

In a long talk, over coffee in Caracas, the adviser said the government has worked for years to reform the police. Many are poorly trained and educated. When they're given tests of their knowledge, many can't read the questions. Some are frustrated that criminals buy their way out of a corrupt justice system, so they just kill suspects. Other cops are corrupt themselves.

The government has approved new laws, new training requirements and new systems to hear civilian complaints. But so far it's hard to see much difference on the streets.

After we finished our tour of the Barrios family's village, we offered to drop off Eloisa Barrios in the distant city where she lives now. It was evening when we arrived, and she insisted we must stop over to have some cake.

It was a birthday party for her sister. The party spilled out of the house and into the courtyard, and even out into the street.

People smiled and danced — though when everyone posed for a family photo, we noticed something. The overwhelming majority of the family are women — a consequence of nine men killed so young.

And a few weeks after we left Venezuela, we heard the news. A 10th male member of the Barrios family was stabbed to death with a knife. He was 17 years old.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The woman we will meet next paid a heavy price for living in the world's most violent region. That region is Latin America, where crime rates have soared even as economies rise. Of 50 cities with the highest murder rates, 41 are in Latin America. Some of the most violent areas are in Venezuela, where Eloisa Barrios lives. She met MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep as we continue examining crime in these nations so closely tied to the U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The story of Eloisa Barrios is especially revealing. Revealing because so many of her relatives have been killed. And revealing because of who she believes pulled the trigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN DOOR SLIDING SHUT)

INSKEEP: Some weeks ago Ms. Barrios climbed into our van for a drive to a cemetery. That burial ground is outside a village in the Venezuelan countryside. We went there to visit the Barrios family dead. She slid open a steel gate and led the way inside. So we're walking into this cemetery, surrounded by concrete block walls, grave markers to all sides, crosses. She moved down a row of graves, calling out the names of brothers and nephews.

ELOISA BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish)

INSKEEP: She told us nine relatives had been killed in shootings over the past 15 years. All nine were men. All nine were young. Born on July 13, 1988, died December 15, 2012. Flowers on the grave, and a heart drawn in the simple concrete over that grave. Eloisa doesn't visit their graves much.

She's moved away from this village, called Guanajan. She doesn't feel safe here anymore. She doesn't rely on the police for protection, because she believes it was the police who sent most or all of her relations to these graves. What do you think about when you come here?

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish)

INSKEEP: I just feel sadness, she says, that so many are buried here. Since we've been standing here, a police vehicle rolled slowly by, the officers taking a look at us as they cruised past. And maybe it says something about the state of life in Venezuela, and in Latin America more broadly, that the police presence was not reassuring at all.

Across Latin America, some police are heroes - and others are widely believed to be criminals. Venezuela's own government once estimated that police commit about 20 percent of the crime here. A 2006 investigation found that police killed an extraordinary number of people described as resisting arrest.

Why do you think the police have come after your family so many times?

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish)

INSKEEP: She says: My brother Benito was detained for a bar fight in the 1990s. He went to prison for a while. After that, she says, he was marked as a bad man. Police in the village harassed him, beat him, and finally arrested him. He died in custody. Police were charged for that killing but never convicted.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish)

INSKEEP: She says other members of the family were targeted over the years. Her brother Narciso owned a liquor store police officers frequented until he was killed after a disagreement. Again police were charged and two actually convicted, but the killings continued.

Nearly all the crimes are officially unsolved. Eloisa Barrios admits she cannot be sure all her relatives were killed by police. But she is convinced that most if not all of them were. And though it makes her nervous to visit her village, she took us on a tour of the crime scenes.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish)

INSKEEP: So on this side of the street is the liquor store where one was killed. On this side of the street another was killed. Back down this way and around the corner yet another was killed.

LUIS CEDENO: What you see is what we call here a culebra.

INSKEEP: That's what we heard from Luis Cedeno, who analyzes crime for the Venezuelan group Paz Activa.

CEDENO: A culebra is the Spanish word for snake. But a culebra is something that brings other consequences.

INSKEEP: Suppose a man is killed. His family complains to the authorities. Tensions rise, and over time more people are killed.

CEDENO: Sometimes a culebra might involve police officers, and that then becomes a little more complicated because then you have police officers. You see their uniform do what now becomes a human rights violation, because it's done from the state with state resources. And...

INSKEEP: It might just be a revenge killing...

CEDENO: Right.

INSKEEP: ...of a kind that sometimes happens, but done by someone with the power of the state behind it.

CEDENO: Right, and that's where institutions have to come in and resolve them before they become also participants of that violation.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish)

INSKEEP: We're turning down yet another dirt street, just going a couple of blocks to the next site of the next murder.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish)

INSKEEP: The Barrios family did seek justice in the Venezuelan courts. Frustrated by the results, they turned to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. It's part of the Organization of American States. That court ordered the Venezuelan government to protect the Barrios family. Some were moved to new homes in the state capital. Yet even in their new city, more relatives were killed.

In its formal defense before the human rights court, Venezuela said there is no evidence the state is deliberately persecuting the Barrios family, with, quote, "a view to exterminating them." Venezuela also questioned the impartiality of the court, from which Venezuela's government plans to withdraw later this year.

So we're rolling between the fences...

BARRIOS: (Speaking Spanish)

INSKEEP: Go to the right again, she says to the driver. We're rolling between the fences of this neighborhood, past the animals on some of the lawns.

BARRIOS: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: It seems like almost every corner, she can point out someone from her family who's been killed.

In Venezuela, the Barrios family is unusual only in that so many from a single family were killed. It is considered normal for police in this country to be accused of murder. Seeking to understand what was happening, we spoke with an advisor to Venezuela's interior minister.

In a long talk, over coffee in Caracas, this advisor said the government has worked for years to reform the police. Many are poorly trained and educated. When they're given tests of their knowledge, many cannot read the questions. Some are frustrated that criminals buy their way out of a corrupt justice system, so they just kill suspects. Other cops are corrupt themselves.

The government has approved new laws, new training requirements and new systems to hear civilian complaints. But so far it's hard to see much difference on the streets.

As for the Barrios family, the official said simply, quote, "Why aren't those policemen in jail? I agree."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: After we finished our tour of the Barrios family's village, we offered to drop off Eloisa Barrios in the distant city where she lives now. It was evening when we arrived and she insisted we must stop over to have some cake. It was a birthday party for her sister.

The party spilled out of the house and into the courtyard, even out into the street. People smiled and danced, though when everyone posed for a family photo we noticed something. The overwhelming majority of the family are women, a consequence of nine men killed so young.

And a few weeks after we left, we heard more news. A tenth male member of the Barrios family was killed, stabbed to death. He was 17.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Our series on crime in Latin America continues tomorrow Steve will take us inside a prison in Venezuela. But not just any prison. The guards control the outside gates, but the inmates are in charge behind the walls. Some carry guns and others trade drugs and run other criminal activities, officials say, inside the prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.