When 20-year-old Venezuelan basketball player and college student Juan Pablo Pernalete left his house to join a march on April 26, 2017, his parents José Pernalete and Elvira Llovera never thought it would be the last day they spoke to their son. A few hours later, he was killed when a member of the Bolivarian National Guard fired a tear gas canister directly into his chest. When we met with the Pernaletes last month in Caracas, there were tears in their eyes as they described their son as bright and full of kindness – as a compassionate lover of animals.
Juan Pablo was one of thousands of youths who filled the streets after the Venezuelan government stripped the democratically-elected National Assembly of its legislative powers, plunging the country further into authoritarianism. At least 123 others were killed in the context of unrest and repression during that year’s protests.
In the five years since, the Pernalete family has faced countless obstacles in their search for justice. The Venezuelan government ran a smear campaign against Juan Pablo and all the youths who died in the 2017 wave of protests, dismissing them as criminals and their families as opportunists. High level officials in the government of Nicolás Maduro fabricated alternative narratives of Juan Pablo’s death, claiming he had been killed by hooded men with a bolt gun.
The perpetrators of this and other crimes that occurred in the context of repression and violence in recent years have largely seen impunity inside Venezuela. This includes systematic extrajudicial executions of largely poor young men committed by police and security forces in working class neighborhoods, operations that amount to criminalization of poverty. Thousands have been killed in recent years by security forces in operations that lack any oversight and accountability, leaving behind families with no access to redress.
Calls for justice in all of these cases have grown louder in the international community since 2019. That year, the UN Human Rights Council created the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela (FFM), a three-person group that has carried out investigation and documentation of the human rights reality in the country. For the Pernaletes – along with countless other Venezuelan families and victims – the FFM has provided a way of showcasing the truth about their cases to the world.
The experts have forged ahead despite the fact that the Venezuelan government has so far denied them entry to the country. The FFM has carried out groundbreaking research, interviewing witnesses, gathering primary evidence, and talking to current and former members of the security forces along with other Venezuelan actors with firsthand knowledge of crimes.
What the experts found was appalling. In their first report in 2020, the FFM concluded that there are grounds to believe crimes against humanity had been committed in Venezuela, including “murder; imprisonment and other severe deprivations of physical liberty; torture; rape and other forms of sexual violence; enforced disappearance of persons […] and other inhumane acts of a similar character.” These widespread, systematic crimes were carried out in furtherance of two state policies: one of targeted repression of perceived opponents, and another to eliminate individuals perceived as criminals via extrajudicial executions.
The FMM also found that “high-level authorities had knowledge of those crimes” and that officials likely knew about these crimes – and took no action to prevent them – all along the chain of command, from rank and file members of the security and intelligence forces to the highest levels of government.
In a second report made public in 2021, the FFM documented how the Venezuelan judiciary branch has been coopted by the executive branch, and how this has created an environment in which prosecutors, judges, and police are complicit in widespread persecution and repression. The report documents how the court system in Venezuela has routinely covered for illegal arrests and other deviations from due process, and turned a blind eye to human rights violations.
These reports have provided an important record for victims, and they may eventually contribute directly to the search for justice in their cases. In November 2021 the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela committed by government officials and pro-government individuals, including arbitrary imprisonment, sexual violence, torture, and persecution on political grounds. This is a historic announcement, making Venezuela the first country in the Americas to face a formal ICC investigation. But it will be a long, slow process. The FFM, meanwhile, continues to gather evidence that contributes to the ICC investigation, and to make its findings public in the hope of disincentivizing further crimes.
This work of the FFM is vital, but its mandate is in jeopardy. In its session currently underway, the UN Human Rights Council will face a vote over whether to extend the Mission’s mandate, or to let it expire. In recent months, the Maduro government has attempted to showcase advances in certain cases to argue against the need for both the FFM and the ICC investigation, but they are actually limited and insufficient advancements.
In the Pernalete case, for instance, prosecutors initially signaled 13 members of the National Guard as responsible in 2021, but only brought formal charges of involuntary homicide against two of them – not including, according to the Pernaletes’ lawyers, the official who likely pulled the trigger. The Maduro government appears to be betting on the international community losing interest in cases like these, and generally paying less attention to human rights violations in Venezuela. Meanwhile, human rights defenders in the country regularly point to the FFM, alongside the ICC investigation, as essential in preventing even deeper repression and persecution. For this reason, it is essential that the FFM’s mandate is renewed, and that the United States and other members of the UN Human Rights Council ensure that the experts can continue their vital work.
In recent months, the US and other international stakeholders have focused efforts on advancing negotiations between the Maduro government and the political opposition in Venezuela with the hope of reestablishing democracy in the country. These efforts are important, and should continue with a view towards incorporating justice. Without justice for those found responsible for the grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity documented by the Fact-Finding Mission, there can be no meaningful solution to Venezuela’s crisis.