Fifty-year old Carmela was sleeping at home when she was woken by banging and shouting from the apartment above, where her son Samuel lives. Rushing upstairs, she says she found the 27-year-old mechanic stripped half-naked, being beaten by police officers. Ignoring her cries, the officers dragged Samuel from the apartment and took him to their local headquarters, where they demanded payment for his release.
We met Carmela when we started working with her community in Venezuela, a makeshift settlement where homeless people are allowed to erect houses on state-owned land. The people we met there complain that they suffer constant harassment from certain police officers. They say these officers demand bribes in return for leaving them in peace. If they refuse to pay, they reportedly risk incrimination, illegal detention, and physical and sexual assault. Others told us that the officers confiscate identification cards and demand payment for their return – reportedly asking for as much as much as several thousand US dollars.
Local people say they fear their cards will be dropped at a crime scene if they refuse to hand over the money. As a result, most find a way to make the payment.
For Carmela, this was impossible. She has four children. One suffers from cancer. Another committed suicide, leaving her with five grandchildren, the youngest aged only three. Her small income as a housekeeper does not provide her with money to pay off police officers.
She turned to Margarita, a local community leader, for help. While Margarita was too afraid to speak out publicly, she directed Carmela to us.
“We were already in contact with senior officials from the local authorities about corruption problems in the community”, says Mercedes De Freitas of Transparency International Venzuela. “So when Carmela came to us, we contacted the government authorities and the police, and demanded they take action to resolve the situation. They moved quickly to set up a police operation.”
Carmela returned to the local police headquarters to pay the bribe in exchange for Samuel’s release and the state authorities were watching. As soon as the money changed hands, they moved in and arrested the officers involved. The police officers were detained and now await trial while a full investigation is underway. Samuel was released without payment.
“It may only be one case, but this is a real turning point,” says Mercedes. “In an area where people feel there is little chance of justice, Carmela’s case shows that it can happen. There is a long way to go, but we will continue working with the community to help other victims lodge complaints, and ensure they are protected when they do.”