Tyrannical regimes generally employ repressive domestic intelligence directorates to keep the opposition at bay. In Venezuela, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional — SEBIN), under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Popular Power for the Interior, Justice and Peace, is President Nicolás Maduro’s preferred tool of repression.
Established in 1969 and known until 2009 as the National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, the SEBIN, technically, is to Venezuela what the FBI is to the United States. Its mandate is to detect, predict and combat external and internal threats that may affect Venezuela’s national security. Unlike the FBI, however, the SEBIN, with extensive guidance from skillful Cuban intelligence officers, persecutes, threatens, arrests, tortures and eliminates political dissidents.
Latin America’s dictatorial regimes have been notorious for adopting lethal methodologies. The Dominican Republic’s former Intelligence Military Service — SIM — under dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, assassinated political opponents on and off Dominican soil; it tortured, kidnapped, threatened and incarcerated those not aligned with Trujillo’s directives. Under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, secret police — the National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA) — was responsible for more than 3,000 assassinations during that era.
Similarly, SEBIN takes on matters that the Venezuelan government sees as threats to its stability. It eavesdrops on anti-government groups, infiltrate and divides them and, sometimes, eliminates them. More than 100 people have died in Venezuela since April 2017, protesting Maduro’s dictatorship.
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At El Helicoide, SEBIN’s headquarters, there are hundreds of political prisoners held without medical treatment or access to visitations. Its cells are the sites of cruel treatment, torture, corruption, poor ventilation, overpopulation and lack of food and water. The SEBIN does not need a warrant to hold people at El Helicoide; it has the authority to keep people there even if a judge rules against it. Hence, arrests without warrants and prosecutions of peaceful activists, flouting Venezuela’s constitution, is a habit.
The arrests of opposition leaders Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo Lopez in August 2017 are examples. They were removed from their homes and thrown in jail by the SEBIN, based on accusations of spreading anti-government propaganda.
Yon Goicoechea, a member of Voluntad Popular, was arrested in August 2016 by unidentified individuals. Goicoechea’s arrest was later confirmed by a senior government official, who accused him of carrying explosives. In October 2016, José García, a member of the opposition, was detained by members of the SEBIN. His wife later revealed that the SEBIN had planted grenades and military uniforms in his car during his arrest. In August 2017, violinist Wuilly Arteaga was imprisoned after a protest. He was brutally beaten and tortured.
Political assassinations remain part of Venezuela’s status quo. In February 2014, Bassil Da Costa, a university student, and Juan Montoya, coordinator of the Revolutionary Secretariat of Venezuela, were killed by a SEBIN official. In January 2017, Nadis Orozco died in hands of the SEBIN after extreme torture. In September 2017, opposition member Carlos García died because of the lack of medical attention while being held by the SEBIN at El Helicoide.
Since the death of former president Hugo Chávez in 2013, corruption-stricken Venezuela has rapidly descended into anarchy. Venezuela possesses the largest oil reserves on the planet — 300 billion barrels — however, it is one the most poverty-stricken nations in the Western Hemisphere. Chavismo continues to be the catalyst for the tyrannical narco-state that Venezuela has become.
Former CIA operations officer Scott Uehlinger blames socialism for Venezuela’s critical situation. The political environment indicates that the nation is on the brink of a barbaric civil war. Based on the human rights abuses perpetrated by the SEBIN, if the political disagreements escalate between the government and the opposition, the Western world could see one of the bloodiest civil wars of our time.
It is imperative that the international community unite in efforts to reestablish democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela. The first step, however, is to generate consensus on the departure of dictator Nicolás Maduro.
Ramon Collado is a New York University Center for Global Affairs alumnus.