The Tomb

Inside Venezuela's secret underground torture chamber

Caracas, Venezuela

The fear gripping Venezuela's opposition is palpable in the plaza in front of the new headquarters of the country's intelligence agency, the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN), home to the country's most notorious and secretive underground prison.

Twice a week Yamile Saleh emerges from the bowels of the subterranean jail in tears after visiting her only son, 26-year-old Lorent.

"I'm scared of what might happen to Lorent. And really I don't wish this on anyone," she says, sitting a couple of blocks away from the building that was originally intended to be a subway station. "He's buried alive, practically waiting to die."

Nearby, National Guard troops monitor the area around the jail, which government officials have ominously dubbed "La Tumba" (The Tomb).

On a recent Monday, Saleh's visit lasted longer than usual. It was her first time talking to her son since his attempted suicide in jail. Hours later, she exits The Tomb visibly rattled to tell us about the conditions below ground.

"They are damaging him psychologically," she says. "How does one repair that?"

Lorent's case is complex. The Venezuelan student activist was seen speaking at an event tied to a Neo-Nazi organization in Colombia in 2013. He claims he didn’t understand the nature of the group and stressed that his family is of Palestinian descent. Colombia eventually deported him back to Venezuela for his political activities as a foreigner. In Venezuela he's charged with conspiracy to rebellion.

He was then sent to The Tomb after being prosecuted by Katherine Harrington, one of the seven Venezuelan officials sanctioned by the Obama Administration for human rights abuses.

The United Nations Commission on Torture recently criticized Colombia for not evaluating whether Saleh was at risk of being tortured if sent back.

The awful conditions inside 'La Tumba' are only recently coming to light.

Detainees there often suffer from vomiting, diarrhea, fever and hallucinations, but are denied medical care, according to the recent Senate testimony by Santiago A. Canton, executive director of the RFK Partners for Human Rights.

"They're even analyzing what they [prisoners] think, what they say, with cameras and mics," said mother Yamile. "I don't wish this on any mother. Because what's happening to me can happen to any mother in Venezuela.´

Her fear is a common sentiment among a sector of the population.

Ever since violent street demonstrations in Venezuela left 43 people dead last year, the government has been relentless in curtailing future protests by detaining opponents and subjecting them to cruel and inhumane treatments in jail. A year later, the continued incarceration of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has dampened protesters' passions.

The United Nations Human Rights Office found that 3,300 people, including minors, were detained between February and June of 2014, and there were 150 cases of ill-treatment, many of them torture. During that period, the UN Committee Against Torture said complaints included reports of beatings, electric shock, burns, asphyxiation, rape and sexual threats, presumably with the objective of destroying evidence of the actions of security forces, obtaining information, punishement, obtaining confessions and gender discrimination. This is particularly worrisome given that Venezuela was elected to sit on the United Nations Security Council until the end of 2016.

The intimidation tactics appear to be working. A year after the street protests, Venezuela's economy is rapidly worsening, violence is soaring to new heights, and currency controls, monstrous inflation and product shortages have made life a daily struggle.

In short, Venezuelans have more reason to protest than ever before. But they're not, because fear of reprisal has become debilitating.

"This government has specialized not only on physical torture, but on psychologically torturing those who don't think like them," said 26-year-old Mariana de Carrero, whose husband Gerardo was detained a year ago when government officials destroyed an Occupy-like student camp in front of the UN headquarters in Caracas. Carrero was held in "La Tumba" for six months.

Mariana says her husband got "spots on his skin, especially on his back" from his time in the underground cell. "He was covered with black spots because he couldn't see the sun," she said. "His eyes were yellow...and his skin was very white, even though my husband is dark-skinned."

Gerardo was eventually transferred to another prison in February, but his wife says the torture has continued there.

"In the headquarters of El Helicoide he was physically tortured. They hit him on the legs with wooden planks until the wood broke in half. He was hanged by his arms for 12 hours," she said.

Tales of torture are somewhat of a novelty in Venezuela. People haven't talked about torture here since the days of former dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in the 1950s.

For the first time in more than a decade, Venezuela recently had to respond before the UN Commission against Torture.

Gonzalo Himiob, of the Foro Penal Venezolano, the country's main human rights organization, says the cruel treatment of opponents has become state policy.

"Last year we received close to 350-400 complaints, not only of torture but also of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," he said. "To date, we have documented 138 clearcut cases of torture."

The UN defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering —whether physical or mental — is intentionally inflicted on a person” for the purposes of confession, coercion or punishment.

The parents of 19 year-old Marco Coello says that’s exactly what happened to their son, who was arrested during a protest and detained for seven months. He was accused of conspiring against the government with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez — an accusation the family denies.

“About 80 witnesses have been called forward and up until now they haven’t been able to present sufficient evidence to prove Marco’s guilt,” said Doris, sitting next to their son, who remained silent after his lawyer advised him not to speak.

Marco's dad, Armando, said his son is dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, and is still undergoing psychiatric treatment.

"He was wrapped and taped inside a roll of foam and beaten with fire extinguishers, bats, clubs, and had a loaded gun pointed at him. They even tried to make him sign a confession. They doused him in gasoline, threatening to light him on fire," Both parents said.

Fusion repeatedly reached out to the Venezuelan government for comment on the allegations, but both the office of the presidency and the ombudsman's office declined interview requests.

Whispers of torture and The Tomb are regular lunchtime talk at La Universidad Central, the country’s largest public university.

“The repression in Venezuela is terrible," said 21-year-old Sairam Rivas, a student leader who was detained for five months in El Helicoide for conspiracy to commit a crime and public instigation. “We couldn't see the sun for the first 55 days.”

She said she sent desperate letters from jail to anyone who might help, including Pope Francis. And adds that we was threatened with being sent to The Tomb if she continued.

Her case was finally included in a European Parliament session on human rights abuses in Venezuela. She credits that parliamentary session with her release from jail.

Now Sairam has to appear before a judge every eight days and is banned from leaving Caracas. She's also prohibited from attending any more student protests.

“They set us free, but we're not free."

Sairam says her classmates tried to hold a rally last February after the National Guard allegedly shot and killed a 14-year-old protester named Kluiver Roa.

“We only said we were marching toward a government building, but we never said which one…at 5 a.m. the university was filled with tanks, National Guard, police,” said Sairam, who was the youngest political leader detained during the protests.

Earlier this year, the Venezuelan Defense Ministry passed a resolution allowing the use the deadly weapons to curtail protests. The decree, which critics claim violates Article 68 of the Constitution, does not differentiate between violent and peaceful protests.

It's not only students or protesters getting plucked off the streets.

Ivette González says her 64-year-old father Rodolfo, a retired airline pilot, was detained in El Helicoide for 10 months. He was accused of being the logistical organizer of the protests. Rodolfo voted for Hugo Chávez but became disillusioned with the chavista project. President Maduro dubbed him "The Aviator" during a televised speech.

"He was never physically tortured, but psychologically yes because he was constantly threatened with being transported to a more dangerous prison. That was his biggest torment," said Ivette.

After a prison committee visited his cell, allegedly to evaluate him for relocation to a harsher prison, González hanged himself in his cell. He never went to trial.

Ivette said she was devastated to learn about her father's death on social media.

"When they allowed me to see my father's corpse, he was on the floor. They removed the sheet, and I threw myself at him. I hugged him, told him I loved him, and said goodbye," she said.

The prosecutor in charge of Rodolfo's case was also Katherine Harrington, the same sanctioned Venezuelan official who oversaw Lorent Saleh's case.

“No Venezuelan is exempt from being watched, persecuted or detained if you don’t agree with the government’s socialist ideas, regardless of age or social status,” said Elenis Rodriguez, Gonzalez’s lawyer and a member of Fundeci, a local NGO.

In a scenario that has become all too common, González was reported to police by a neighbor who was suspicious of his support for the students.

These secret neighborhood watch groups call themselves "patriotas cooperantes" or "cooperating patriots" and have contributed to the general climate of fear here.

55-year-old Maria Magalis was also snitched on for tweeting against the government. The SEBIN then arrested her son Leonardo on trumped up charges to lure her down to the station, where she was arrested.

“They had everything, her IP address, the internet provider. They knew where our wifi signal was coming from. The SEBIN was at our neighbor’s house days before the arrest,” says daughter, Leyda, who was with her mother at the police station.

Leyda said the SEBIN officials, who had printed her mother’s tweets and circled them in red, told her, “There are certain people on Twitter making inappropriate comments about the government.”

Her mother was arrested for over six months, despite suffering from depression and kidney failure.

“My mom’s detention was very traumatic for us. I stopped eating,” Leyda says. “I couldn’t get over the trauma, knowing that my mother was detained, not only at her age, but given her physical conditions and the state of her health.”

Maria Magalis was finally released on April 10. She’s been legally prohibited from tweeting, according to her lawer.

At the time of her arrest, her Twitter handle @marletmaga had a little over a 1,000 followers. She was one of eight people arrested between August and October for tweeting messages criticizing the government.

The persecution of human rights groups is also new in Venezuela. Rodrigo Diamanti, who is credited for starting the #SOSVENEZUELA social media campaign and heads the NGO ´A World without censorship´ was detained last year. Tamara Suyú a human rights defender from Foro Penal Venezolano is currently exiled in the Czech Republic after being accused of cooperating with the CIA.

Meanwhile, back at Plaza Venezuela on a recent Monday afternoon, Yamile sits on a bench overlooking the gray building that houses her son five stories below ground. Tears roll down her cheeks as she questions the point of civil disobedience.

"I tell Lorent, it's not worth it, because he didn't enjoy his life," she said. "It's not worth fighting for Venezuela."