In Venezuela, A Family Blames The Police For Their Misery

  • A family photo of Victor Tomas Barrios, who was killed by police when he was 17 years old, in this exact spot in Cagua, Venezuela. Victor is one of nine men in the Barrios family that was murdered by the police.
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    A family photo of Victor Tomas Barrios, who was killed by police when he was 17 years old, in this exact spot in Cagua, Venezuela. Victor is one of nine men in the Barrios family that was murdered by the police.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR
  • Wilmer Barrios was killed by police at the age of 19, in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela. His family says the police had no legal reason to shoot him, but that instead they took his life because of a personal vendetta local police have waged against their family.
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    Wilmer Barrios was killed by police at the age of 19, in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela. His family says the police had no legal reason to shoot him, but that instead they took his life because of a personal vendetta local police have waged against their family.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR
  • Benito Antonio Barrios was killed by police at the age of 28 on the back porch of this home in Guanayen, Venezuela.
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    Benito Antonio Barrios was killed by police at the age of 28 on the back porch of this home in Guanayen, Venezuela.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR
  • Oscar Jose Barrios was killed by police at the age of 20 in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
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    Oscar Jose Barrios was killed by police at the age of 20 in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR
  • Juan Barrios, who was killed by police in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
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    Juan Barrios, who was killed by police in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR
  • Rigoberto Barrios was killed by police when he was 16 years old, in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
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    Rigoberto Barrios was killed by police when he was 16 years old, in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR
  • Luis Alvento Barrios was killed by police when he was 24-years-old in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
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    Luis Alvento Barrios was killed by police when he was 24-years-old in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR
  • Narciso Antonio Barrios was killed by police when he was 22 years old, in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
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    Narciso Antonio Barrios was killed by police when he was 22 years old, in this exact spot in Guanayen, Venezuela.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR
  • Jorge Antonio Barrios was killed by police when he was 24 years old, in this exact spot in Cagua, Venezuela.
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    Jorge Antonio Barrios was killed by police when he was 24 years old, in this exact spot in Cagua, Venezuela.
    Meridith Kohut for NPR

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The story of Venezuela's Eloisa Barrios is especially revealing because so many of her relatives have been killed. Revealing because of who she believes pulled the trigger.

Some weeks ago, Barrios climbed into our van for a drive to a cemetery. The burial ground is outside a village in the Venezuelan countryside. We went there to visit the Barrios family dead.

She told us nine relatives had been killed in shootings over the past 15 years. All nine were young men.

Eloisa doesn't visit their graves much. She's moved away from this village, called Guanajan. She doesn't feel safe here anymore. She doesn't rely on the police for protection, because she believes it was the police who sent most or all of her relations to these graves.

Across Latin America, some police are heroes while others are widely believed to be criminals. Venezuela's own government once estimated that police commit about 20 percent of crime. A 2006 investigation found that police killed an extraordinary number of people described as resisting arrest.

Eloisa Barrios visits the humble graves of nine male family members in the Guanayen cemetery. She says all nine were killed by the police, in what was a vendetta against her family. Recently, a 10th member of the family was stabbed to death. He was 17. i i

hide captionEloisa Barrios visits the humble graves of nine male family members in the Guanayen cemetery. She says all nine were killed by the police, in what was a vendetta against her family. Recently, a 10th member of the family was stabbed to death. He was 17.

Meridith Kohut for NPR
Eloisa Barrios visits the humble graves of nine male family members in the Guanayen cemetery. She says all nine were killed by the police, in what was a vendetta against her family. Recently, a 10th member of the family was stabbed to death. He was 17.

Eloisa Barrios visits the humble graves of nine male family members in the Guanayen cemetery. She says all nine were killed by the police, in what was a vendetta against her family. Recently, a 10th member of the family was stabbed to death. He was 17.

Meridith Kohut for NPR

"Why do you think the police have come after your family so many times," I asked.

She answers, "My brother Benito was detained for a bar fight in the 1990s." After that, she says, he was marked as a bad man: police harassed him, beat him, and finally arrested him. He died in custody. Police were charged for the killing but never convicted.

She says other members of the family were targeted over the years.

Her brother Narciso owned a liquor store police officers frequented until he was killed after a disagreement. Again, police were charged, and two were convicted, but the killings continued. Nearly all the crimes are officially unsolved.

Eloisa Barrios admits she can't be sure all her relatives were killed by police. But she's convinced most, if not all, were.

The Barrios family did seek justice in Venezuelan courts. Frustrated by the results, they turned to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. It's part of the Organization of American States, and that court ordered the government to protect the Barrios family.

Some were moved to new homes. Yet even in their new city, more relatives were killed.

In its formal defense before the human rights court, Venezuela said there is no evidence the state is deliberately "persecuting" the Barrios family, with "a view to exterminating" them.

Venezuela also questioned the impartiality of the court, from which Venezuela's government plans to withdraw this year.

In Venezuela, the Barrios family is unusual only in that so many from a single family were killed. It is normal for police in this country to be accused of murder.

Seeking to understand what was happening, we spoke with an adviser to Venezuela's interior minister.

Members of the Barrios family pose for a family portrait during a birthday party at a family home in Cagua, Venezuela. Nine men in the Barrios family have been allegedly murdered by the police. The party was largely attended by female family members — when asked why, several women said in unison, "because there aren't any men left." i i

hide captionMembers of the Barrios family pose for a family portrait during a birthday party at a family home in Cagua, Venezuela. Nine men in the Barrios family have been allegedly murdered by the police. The party was largely attended by female family members — when asked why, several women said in unison, "because there aren't any men left."

Meridith Kohut for NPR
Members of the Barrios family pose for a family portrait during a birthday party at a family home in Cagua, Venezuela. Nine men in the Barrios family have been allegedly murdered by the police. The party was largely attended by female family members — when asked why, several women said in unison, "because there aren't any men left."

Members of the Barrios family pose for a family portrait during a birthday party at a family home in Cagua, Venezuela. Nine men in the Barrios family have been allegedly murdered by the police. The party was largely attended by female family members — when asked why, several women said in unison, "because there aren't any men left."

Meridith Kohut for NPR

In a long talk, over coffee in Caracas, the adviser said the government has worked for years to reform the police. Many are poorly trained and educated. When they're given tests of their knowledge, many can't read the questions. Some are frustrated that criminals buy their way out of a corrupt justice system, so they just kill suspects. Other cops are corrupt themselves.

The government has approved new laws, new training requirements and new systems to hear civilian complaints. But so far it's hard to see much difference on the streets.

After we finished our tour of the Barrios family's village, we offered to drop off Eloisa Barrios in the distant city where she lives now. It was evening when we arrived, and she insisted we must stop over to have some cake.

It was a birthday party for her sister. The party spilled out of the house and into the courtyard, and even out into the street.

People smiled and danced — though when everyone posed for a family photo, we noticed something. The overwhelming majority of the family are women — a consequence of nine men killed so young.

And a few weeks after we left Venezuela, we heard the news. A 10th male member of the Barrios family was stabbed to death with a knife. He was 17 years old.

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