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Venezuela Is Jailing Mystics Who Make 'Predictions' on Twitter

Lessi Marcano went as 'La Negra' on Twitter and warned of candles and mourning before congressman Robert Serra was found stabbed 42 times. He is among eight Twitter users jailed since last year by Maduro's government.
August 7, 2015, 7:10pm
Imagen por Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

Lessi Marcano, a 48-year-old architect in Venezuela, took a turn in his life after an accident that he claims left him with the ability to have visions. He became a feng shui coach, and one of the primary platforms for his business was on Twitter, as user @hiipolita.

Ginette Hernandez, Marcano's niece, served as "community manager" for the account, which he titled "La Negra" and shows an elegant black woman in profile with Venezuela's red, blue, and yellow national flag flapping behind her.

Marcano tweeted his predictions, sent out "good energies," and contacted customers. His lawyer says his client never had much interest in politics. However, Marcano's Twitter timeline also shows he sympathized with the Venezuelan opposition.

On September 24, 2014, "La Negra" posted something that sounded like a prediction: "The national congress will be in MOURNING," were the words Marcano sent out into the world.

A minute earlier, he tweeted: "Look for white candles! There are state ceremonies."

La Asamblea Nacional estará de LUTO!

— #LaNegra (@Hiipolita)September 25, 2014

A week later, a Chavista lawmaker named Robert Serra was found stabbed 42 times with his throat slashed in his Caracas house. Serra practiced Santería, the Afro-Cuban syncretic religion that is common to the region and became increasingly popular in Venezuela during the government of the late former President Hugo Chavez.

According to accounts, Serra's assistant answered his door to a group of six men, two of whom were dressed all in white, a Santero custom, before she was tied up and also stabbed to death.

The case generated theories of a "dark side" political assassination in current President Nicolas Maduro's socialist legislative coalition. But for government investigators, it looked like Lessi Marcano's tweets were a threat of violence that came true. Marcano was arrested, and he's been jailed ever since.

Related: Ecuador Going After 'Ink Assassin' Over Controversial Political Cartoon

A protest against censorship in Venezuela in February 2014. (Photo by Alejandro Cegarra/AP)

Lessi Marcano is one of eight Twitter users who were detained by Venezuela's government from August to October of 2014, in a crackdown against users of the social-media platform that critics say is another sign of eroding civil liberties under Chavez and now Maduro.

Two weeks after the lawmaker's death, Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, talked about the Twitter account on his national television weekly show.

"She's very good predicting things, but [...] she did not foresee she was going to be a prisoner," Cabello said on October 16, two days after Marcano was detained.

'Freedom of expression here ended a long time ago.'

Serra's passing proved to be a sore point for Maduro and his allies.

Twitter users who mocked the passing of the National Assembly member or published unauthorized photos from inside his funeral were arrested and sent to the imposing headquarters of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, in Caracas. Five of the eight remain behind bars, including Marcano and Hernandez.

Victor Ugas, for example, probably didn't think he'd wind up behind bars for snapping and published pictures of congressman Serra's body at a morgue. Authorities detained him, accusing him of espionage and the illegal release of information.

One of those released is 54-year-old Maria Magaly Contreras, who spent several months in prison. Her lawyer, Oswaldo Cali, said his client is a clairvoyant who "spoke with an angel who told her Diosdado Cabello was going to die, so she wrote it on Twitter."

Cabello mentioned the tweet on his TV show, and a few days later, Contreras was arrested. She may be free, but she has to see a parole officer each week, do community service, and undergo psychiatric treatment, which revealed she attempted suicide behind bars.

"She did not want to bring the government down, or Diosdado Cabello to be murdered," Cali said.

Contreras is currently not allowed to use or access social networks.

Related: Rights Abuses Rampant in Venezuela Crackdown on Anti-Government Protests, Report Says

Gracias x tu visita, Encantador! RT — Maria Lourdes Afiuni (@mariafiuni)May 16, 2013

Marcano, pictured above, also kept a personal Twitter account.

Marcano's Twitter manager Ginette Hernandez was also jailed in the aftermath of Robert Serra's killing. For nine months, the pair's loved ones and advocates have been pressing through Venezuela's court system to get them released.

"There's no doubt that Lessi is imprisoned for political reasons," Jose Gregorio Baptista, his lawyer, told VICE News.

Marcano suffers from vestibular labyrinthitis, tension, and anxiety, Baptista said. As a result, he has been transferred on several occasions to the Military Hospital in Caracas for examinations.

His trial was delayed twice, and on January 29, his sentence got a conditional suspension, which was never carried out. Rossana Marcano, the prisoner's sister, told VICE News that the reasons behind her brother and niece's detention are "totally absurd."

"It's crazy to think that a prediction lead him to be detained and sentenced," Rossana Marcano said. "I think something like this has not happened anywhere else."

As she recalls, ever since her brother received the gift of foresight, he has been wanting to use it to help his country. "My brother did not even know who was going to be involved in such a terrible event," she said. "He merely felt and sensed things."

Related: Venezuela Denies 'Psychological Torture' Led Protester to Kill Himself in Prison

Robert Serra no era un ser humano, era un criminal que comandaba colectivos del terror y armaba niños. ¡Así que viudas, dejen el PEO!

— Inesita Terrible (@inesitaterrible)October 3, 2014

Ines Gonzalez Arraga, a 42-year-old doctor in chemistry, never hesitated to show her face or identity as @inesitaterrible. When congressman Serra died, Gonzalez published some offensive tweets against him. A few days later, on October 4, the political police called her in to testify.

Her father took her to the SEBIN offices in Maracaibo, expecting her daughter would only have to answer some questions. However, Gonzalez did not return home and to this day remains imprisoned at the SEBIN headquarters.

About a month after being detained, Gonzalez received a release form, which meant she should have been released two or three days after.

But as she prepared to leave jail, authorities charged her with "public instigation." In February, after spending four months in prison and going through two preliminary hearings, Gonzalez was sentenced to three years in jail. She pleaded guilty, a common practice among detainees in Venezuela as a way to reduce their sentences.

Like Marcano, Gonzalez is also sick, suffering from endometriosis, a gynecological illness that causes great pain during menstruation and urination. "They give her painkillers, but that merely eases the pain," said her sister, Marisol Gonzalez.

Two weeks ago, Gonzalez had to be transferred to the military hospital to undergo a checkup, but six SEBIN's officers allegedly beat her while she was on her way. Her sister denounced the aggression on Twitter. Now, Gonzalez needs an emergency surgery, her family said.

"The government's intention is to scare and stop people from using this channel . Freedom of expression here ended a long time ago. The only channels left for us are social networks," Marisol Gonzalez told VICE News.

Her parents have been torn apart by her sister's detention, and they traveled from their hometown in Zulia to see Ines Gonzalez. "They are outraged, they don't know what to do. Everything has been done, legally speaking," Marisol said.

Carlos Correa, executive director of Espacio Publico, an organization that advocates for freedom of expression, said that none of the Twitter detainee cases deserve a prison sentence.

"The recurring pattern is cases that serve as an example and show what can happen in order to make a social constriction out of fear," Correa said.

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Follow Alicia Hernández on Twitter @por_puesto