Eloisa Barrios holding a portrait of her brother Benito, the first Barrios family member to be killed by Venezuelan police.
When police in the UK fatally wound a civilian it becomes the stuff of primetime news, from Charles de Menezes to Ian Tomlinson to Mark Duggan. But not so in Venezeula. Despite our population being over twice the size, only 722 killings took place here in the UK last year, compared to a relatively and depressingly gigantic 13,080 murders in the South American country. What's more, there is irrefutable evidence to suggest that many of these killings happened at the firearm toting hands of those employed to uphold the law. In a report filed by Venezuela's National Police General Council, 80 percent of police institutions were found to be using weapons in a way that "violated institutional guidelines". In an effort to counter the forces' trigger-happy tendencies, the Venezuelan government introduced two new laws to regulate how officers conduct their business. In 2010, the Office of the Attorney General also established a Criminal Investigation Unit to improve prosecution rates of human rights violations committed by Venezuela's security forces.
While these may seem like decent attempts to reform the nation's law enforcement system, one family feel like it'd be impossible to atone for the wrongs committed against them. Over the past 15 years, ten members of the Barrios family – based in Guanayén, northern Venezuela – have been killed; all of them Barrios men – brothers, fathers, uncles, sons. It is the belief of one female member, Eloisa Barrios, that the men were all killed by the police as part of a multi-generational vendetta against her family. Her life is now dedicated to pursuing the justice she perceives is owed to her brothers and nephews and spreading the word of their story, which began in 1998.
Eloisa’s brother Benito Antonio Barrios was at home in Guanayén with his two sons, Jorge Antonio and Carlos Alberto, when police broke down the door, entered, beat Benito and dragged him away. “We were going through a really bad time anyway,” recalls Eloisa, “because my father was in hospital in a coma. The doctors had just told us that he probably wouldn’t wake up the next morning, when my mom came to tell us that Benito had been arrested.” The next time anyone saw Benito was when his dead body – chest and stomach punctured with gunshot wounds – was found at a local hospital. Police were charged with his killing but never convicted. “At the time we didn’t know that he had already been killed. Then my brothers went to Guanayén and, when they arrived at his house, found a man driving a hearse looking for the Barrios family to identify Benito’s body.” When questioned on why they'd detained Benito in the first place, police said they'd gone to his home in response to a call reporting a gunfight between two men – a claim his family strenuously deny.
Eloisa in front of portraits of eight of her murdered family members.
Eloisa claims that her brother had been singled out as a troublemaker since his arrest over a bar fight in the early 90s and harassed by police ever since. That Benito had been involved in other criminal activity, or even in some kind of relationship of collusion with the police that had gone sour, is also likely, if not probable. However, the lack of any official investigation means we will never know – what we do know is that over time, the vendetta (if that's what this is) has become increasingly one-sided.
On the 11th of December, 2003, police detained Benito's teenage son, Jorge Antonio. Given the fate that had befallen his father five years earlier, Narciso Barrios (Jorge's uncle, Benito's brother) and his own son Nestor followed the police. Jorge was eventually released, but Narciso was shot several times in the head; the police killing him in front of his own son.
Less than a year later, Benito’s other brother Luis Alberto began to receive threats from a policeman. On the 20th of September, 2004, after hearing noises on the roof of his house, Luis was shot in the head several times and killed. Within 12 months of that happening, 16-year-old Rigoberto Barrios had also been shot – in the four days it took for him to die from his wounds, he claimed the gun had been wielded by a policeman.
You can understand why, after that, most of the Barrios family fled Guanayén. “We had to move for our safety," explains Eloisa. "I, for one, was living in the village of Cagua, in the State of Aragua, and had to leave because the police also began to harass the family that was there. Now there are almost no Barrios family members in Guanayén. There are some children from my brother Juan Barrios – they are young and are with their mum in Guanayén. There are two of my brother Luis' sons, who are underage. One of them is 12, the other eight, with their mum. They're the only ones left in Guanayén. They have thought about it and are looking for a new place to live.”
Eloisa in her home in Venezuela.
If there was ever an indication that the Barrios wished to end this longstanding feud, it was surely their migration. But far from putting an end to the killing, the gun sights merely shifted towards a younger generation. In the space of five years Oscar José Barrios (22), Wilmer José Flores Barrios (19), Juan José Barrios (28), Victor Tomás Barrios (16) and Jorge Antonio Barrios (24 and Benito’s eldest son) were also killed.
Eloisa claims that none of her younger relatives were seeking vengeance for what happened to their elders. “None of my family have ever been the kind of people who take revenge with their own hands,” she says. But even if they had, any claim that this was a two-sided war would surely be unfounded. Again, the lack of an official inquest into any of these killings has left them open to speculation, but as the numbers have clocked up it has became increasingly difficult to deny that the police harbour a vendetta against the family, which they have been exercising either through direct attack, or a failure to adhere to numerous protection orders issued to the Barrios.
The latest and tenth Barrios killing took place on the 16th of May this year. This time, the wounds inflicted on 17-year-old Roni Barrios pointed to him being attacked with a machete or an axe rather than a firearm. Roni had been seen the night before, as he made a brief visit to his hometown in Guanayén to visit relatives.
“Think about how big the pain of losing a family member is,” Eloisa pleads, “and then after that, think of the pain and rage of looking for justice and getting nothing. Because, primarily, none of these cases have been investigated – nothing. Nobody knows who's responsible for the deaths because there's been no proper investigation. My job isn't permanent; I work as a seamstress on my own and, when I need to attend hearings, I try to be free.”
Eloisa holding a portrait of Jorge Antonio, her murdered nephew.
Eloisa has her own ideas about the origins of the spate of deaths in her family. “A long time ago, before Benito’s death,” she recalls, “the civil servants in Guanayén threatened the women of my family, even those who were underage. But since I started to report the allegations and complained publicly to the press, the harassment has been directed at my nephews and my brothers. When the younger men were at the station being tortured, the police told us, 'This is because of the complaint.' That's why I think it was [a case of] revenge.
“It's happened twice to women, though,” she concedes. “Once, they got into one of my sisters' houses. The girls were talking and fixing their hair when a patrol came in and took them. We went to talk to the commander but they didn’t release the girls until the next afternoon. On another occasion, a patrol took the girls who were standing in front of the house. We went to talk again with the commander and they were released eventually.
“After that though, everything was against men.”
Eloisa holding a portrait of Luis Alberto, her murdered brother.
With the authorities failing to acknowledge their involvement and declining to investigate these murders, the general consensus holds that Benito’s death precipitated a chain of cover-ups to silence the family, however absurd that may seem – like attempting to cover bloody footprints by pouring more and more buckets of blood over them. Hence the fervent support given to the family by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They issued several urgent measures ordering the Venezuelan authorities to provide protection for members of the family, but these remain largely ineffective. In light of Roni’s death, the Inter-American court also accused Venezuelan authorities of failing to protect the family and ordered them to report back every two months to explain what they'd been doing to prevent more assaults on the family.
“The Court gave a deadline for the delivery of a house for us to live in, in safety.” Eloisa explains. “The deadline was the 24th of June and they gave us the house on Saturday the 21st. At least we saw a quick result there. But it was necessary to take my relatives out of that risky place.”
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