‘Hope in Darkness’: Surviving Venezuela’s political prisons

Jun 18, 2020, 5:00 PM
Venezuelan Gabriel Valles, 32, a 32-year-old systems engineer and opposition activist who spent fou...
Venezuelan Gabriel Valles, 32, a 32-year-old systems engineer and opposition activist who spent four years in Venezuelan jails, poses for a portrait in Bogota, Colombia, June 18, 2019. Valles currently has permission to work and live in Colombia for 90 days. (AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

SALT LAKE CITY – El Helicoide, where a Utah man and his wife were held for 23 months by the Venezuelan government, may be the most well-known prison in the country – but there are other places where political prisoners have come forward to describe human rights abuses and inhumane conditions.

The latest episode of “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story” sheds new light both on El Helicoide and another place where people say they were tortured: La Tumba, or The Tomb.

El Helicoide: A metaphor for a country

El Helicoide is carved into La Roca Tarpeya, a hill in Caracas named, perhaps prophetically, for Rome’s Tarpeian Rock, where executions were carried out. But it didn’t start out that way.

In Venezuela’s boom times of the 1950s and 1960s, former President Marco Perez Jimenez, a dictator, hoped to show off his country’s wealth and power with what would have been the world’s first-of-its-kind drive-in shopping mall.

The design drew attention. The structure is a three-sided pyramid with rounded corners, topped with an aluminum geodesic dome residents of Caracas can see from many places in their city.

The road, on which shoppers were meant to drive to their favorite shops, curves around the outside of the walls in a helix, from which the building gets its name; El Helicoide translates to “The Helix” in English.

It was celebrated by architects and art lovers. The Museum of Modern Art featured a model of the still-under-construction mall in its 1961 “Roads” exhibition.

But the vision never materialized.

Perez Jimenez was removed from office in a 1958 coup. His administration was accused of improperly funding the development. There were lawsuits.

The building sat unfinished for years. Over time, it housed people displaced by natural disasters before eventually, finally completed, it became the home of a number of government agencies.

One of those agencies was the SEBIN – Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, a top law enforcement and intelligence agency.

Political prisons and political prisoners

In 2014, the public first started to learn about the presence of political prisoners at El Helicoide and in other facilities in Venezuela.

The timing coincided with unrest in the country. Shortages of food led to widespread protests and eventually riots in the streets, some with a political bent.

One person who spoke loudly against the government of President Nicolas Maduro was a student activist named Gabriel Valles.

In September of 2014, he and his friend, Lorent Saleh, were in Colombia hoping to raise awareness about Colombian guerillas allegedly being trained by the Venezuelan government. They fought the regime as part of a group known as Operation Liberty.

Saleh was arrested Sept. 4, 2014, vanishing from public view, to the distress of his friends and fellow activists.

The next day, Valles held a news conference to speak about his friend’s arrest. He suspected Saleh had been handed over to the Venezuelan government – and in particular, the SEBIN.

While he was speaking, he noticed a police officer watching him from the street. He kept talking. When he finished, he walked into a nearby mall.

“I was walking in the mall. I just see more cops, more cops,” Valles said.

“I went to the supermarket inside the mall, and I see the cop, you know, entering the supermarket.”

According to Valles, the officer cornered him in one of the aisles of the store and asked to see his papers. Valles complied.

“And when they see mine, [they said,] ‘Yeah, Gabriel Valles? You got to come with us.’ They don’t tell me why, they just tell me, ‘You got to come with us,’” he said.

Valles said he found himself being expelled from Colombia and driven to the Simon Bolivar Bridge, where the SEBIN took him into custody.

Back in Venezuela, he arrived in a place called La Tumba, “like ‘The Grave,’” he said.

La Tumba

La Tumba is an underground detention facility with no windows. It sits below an officer tower that was originally meant to be the headquarters of a public transit system.

“They put us there two years and two months,” Valles said. He said he spent most of that time in both solitary confinement and a sort of sensory deprivation.

With completely white walls and bright lights burning 24/7, Valles started to lose track of time.

“You got to see in your mind like a laboratory,” he said. “With all the light and the white walls. The floor was black. It’s weird.”

He was cold all the time, and desperate for news from the outside world.

“You don’t have any information to know about your case, about your family. You’re just like, dead,” he said.

Everyone has a breaking point, but Valles tried not to let La Tumba break him.

He knew he had to stay strong if he was to have any hope of making it out.

“I realized something. I believe in God. And I respect all religion, OK? But you know, that time of life, that moment in life, when you realize there is nobody else, and you’ve got to do the job. OK?

“Nobody can help you in that situation,” he said. “Nobody can stay strong for you in that moment.”

He and Saleh went on a hunger strike, eventually getting themselves transferred to El Helicoide around the same time Josh and Thamy Holt arrived there.

It would be another two years before Saleh and Valles earned their freedom.

Symbols of oppression

Laura Gamboa, an expert on Latin American politics and an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University, sees places like El Helicoide and La Tumba as symbolic.

“In many ways, El Helicoide, in my personal opinion, resembles some of the more iconic buildings that we have seen in dictatorships, in these awful dictatorships that we have seen in South America of the 1970s,” Gamboa said.

One such building is the national stadium of Chile, Estadio Nacional Julio Martínez Prádanos.

One entire section of seats is always empty – its benches still the worn wood of decades past rather than upgraded to colorful plastic like the sections around it.

After a U.S.-backed military coup brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power, his forces used the stadium as a prison camp. The empty seats represent the 41 people who died there.

“If you go to these places, some of them have been kept as museums, for memory and truth and reconciliation, because literally they became a symbol of dictatorship,” Gamboa said.

“People would go in there, and we would never know if or when they ever went out.”

Those who survived El Helicoide allege they were victims of horrific abuse. Some described being waterboarded, or forced to answer questions with bags of excrement over their heads.

“I know that people who are kept [at El Helicoide] are more often than not subject to torture and all sorts of mistreatment,” Gamboa said.

“We’re talking about active torture, but we’re also talking about isolation for months.”

In the case of Thamy Holt, in a previous episode of “Hope In Darkness,” she described having her fingernails torn off with a pencil sharpener.

Josh Holt, like Gabriel Valles, said he and Thamy got through the abuse at El Helicoide because they had no other choice.

“A lot of people ask, ‘How did you do this?’ or ‘How did you do that?’ But when we go through things — how do we do it? We just do it! Because we have to,” Holt said.

Hope In Darkness releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Left to right, Lorent Saleh and Gabriel Valles in Cucuta, Colombia in April 2014. (Instagram Photo/Gabriel Valles) Gabriel Valles poses with a sculpture he created in Bogota, Colombia in February 2020. (Instagram Photo/to: Gabriel Valles)

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‘Hope in Darkness’: Surviving Venezuela’s political prisons