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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)

In Venezuela, A Family Blames The Police For Their Misery

Jun 10, 2013 (Morning Edition)

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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.

"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.

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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