Venezuelans despair at smears, stigmatization and arbitrary arrests


Juan Carlos Marrufo Capozzi, an electrician and former soldier from Valencia, Venezuela, and his wife María Auxiliadora Delgado Tabosky, were at home when agents from the South American country’s military intelligence unit barged in.

Soldiers with rifles sifted through their paperwork and hard drives, before taking the couple away, leaving Marrufo’s distraught teenage daughter from a previous marriage behind. That was in March 2019, and they haven’t tasted freedom since.

“They are completely innocent, they don’t even have any political affiliation,” said one of their family members on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Now they are trapped in an underground jail cell, and we don’t know when they will be free.”

The couple were released in October and dropped off on a highway, only to be recaptured on the way home, and accused of terrorism and treason, amid a host of other offenses. News of their arrest appeared in the media, as often happens when people are detained on spurious charges in Venezuela.

A report released on Thursday by Amnesty International found that politically motivated arrests were often preceded by stigmatization and smear campaigns launched by pro-government media in Venezuela.

“Our research shows that there are instances where there is an extremely high correlation between public stigmatization and politically motivated arbitrary arrests,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, in a statement.

“This correlation is a new indicator of a systematic policy of repression and points to the crime against humanity of persecution, which must be investigated by the international justice system.”

For Marrufo and Delgado – who respectively also hold Italian and Spanish citizenship – the media attention was only part of the ordeal.

“Their detention makes no sense, and they are in a very bad way psychologically,” said the family member, who has been in contact with the couple. “Juan Carlos is having suicidal thoughts because he’s been falsely accused of the worst crimes that there are. He needs help.”

Hundreds of other people remain detained without trial in Venezuela, a country mired in social, political and economic ruin, and run by the authoritarian and isolated government of Nicolás Maduro.

Venezuela boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but runaway hyperinflation has rendered the local currency practically worthless, leading to the tacit dollarization of a so-called socialist country. Shortages in food, medicines and fuel are a daily reality.

The UN working group on arbitrary detentions said in January that the couple’s detention was part of a “systemic practice of depriving people of their liberty without respect for the rights enshrined by international law”, and that such a practice “could constitute crimes against humanity”.

Delgado’s brother, Osman Delgado Tabosky, was accused of financing an assault on the Fort Paramacay military base in August 2017, which was raided by soldiers loyal to the opposition for weapons. The Miami-based businessman was later accused of plotting a brazen assassination attempt on Maduro with explosive-laden drones in 2018 and labelled a terrorist by the government.

President Nicolás Maduro speaks earlier this month. Photograph: Javier Campos/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

Lawyers working on the couple’s case say their ordeal is the result of petty retribution from the regime.

“It’s clear that there’s no guilt there, it’s just vengeance against María’s brother,” said Alfredo Romero, a lawyer with Foro Penal, a Venezuelan rights watchdog that is working on the couple’s case. “They are political prisoners, and of the 240 political prisoners currently in Venezuela, 91 have been detained for more than three years without even a trial.”

In the face of growing discontent, the Maduro government has clamped down on enemies perceived and real, as he continues to resist a challenge to his legitimacy from the US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

Mass protests in 2017 were met with brutal repression, with thousands of demonstrators injured and hundreds arrested. Arbitrary detentions and cases of torture abound, leading the international criminal court to announce an investigation into the government for possible crimes against humanity in November last year.

“We can only hope that the investigation follows through to the end,” said Melania Leal Rosales, whose sister, Emirlendris Benítez Rosales, has been jailed since August 2018, also accused, without evidence, of being part of the plot to assassinate Maduro. “My sister is innocent and she can’t take much more.”

Benítez, who was three weeks pregnant when arrested, lost her unborn child while jailed. She has also been beaten and tortured behind bars, according to the UN’s working group on arbitrary detention. She now struggles to walk and uses a wheelchair.

“The papers said they found drugs in her car and some parts of the drones that were supposedly used to kill Maduro, and that she was trying to flee the country, but that’s all a lie,” her sister said. “They were looking for blame where there is none.”

Meanwhile, the Maduro government’s tightening vice on society is causing some to lose faith in the ability of international mechanisms, such as the ICC investigation, to bring about justice.

“People have been and gone before and the regime is still in power,” the family member of Marrufo and Delgado said. “It’s hard to keep the faith when reports get written but nothing ever changes.”