Venezuela: Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN)
Legacy of Chavez
The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN) is the premier intelligence agency in Venezuela.
SEBIN’s stated mission is to “contribute to the overall security, defense, and development of the nation as a fundamental element of the national intelligence and counterintelligence system by identifying and neutralizing threats that harm the supreme interests of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, acting within the law in close observance of guarantees and respect for human rights.”
SEBIN was established in 2009 following the reorganization of the National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP). Before Hugo Chavez came to power, DISIP worked closely with the CIA. In 1972, a declassified CIA memo shows that Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-American trained by the agency, actually served as a deputy director of DISIP. In 1976, the FBI received information from a source who had spoken with Ricardo Morales Navarrete, a Cuban exile informant working for DISIP, that Posada planned the October 1976 bombing of Cuban airliner that killed 73 people while working in Caracas.
Under Chavez, SEBIN was re-oriented to a new role: the political police of the Bolivarian revolution. According to the 2018 report of the Organization of American States and a panel of independent experts, SEBIN personnel have been credibly implicated in human rights abuses, torture, shootings of unarmed protesters, and repression of elected officials and judges.
SEBIN’s headquarters are housed in a pyramid-shaped edifice in the heart of Caracas known as the Helicoide. Inside the building is a prison known as “La Tumba” (The Tomb”) where overcrowding is endemic and torture routine, according to former prisoners.
Tamara Suju, a criminal lawyer and Executive Director of the Center for Latin American Studies (CASLA), told the OAS investigators she had been collecting evidence of individual cases of torture for 15 years. She said that torture, used selectively during Chavez’s reign, had become both “disproportionate” and recurring, under Maduro’s government.
“Indeed, the SEBIN and the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence both report to the Office of the Vice President and take direct orders on the use of torture from the Venezuelan executive branch,” according to the OAS report.
Igor Buitrago, a former captain in the Bolivarian National Armed Forces, told the OAS that the pro-government paramilitary forces, known as colectivos, act in coordination with the National Guard, SEBIN, and the Military Counterintelligence Service, known as DGCIM.
In July 2017 SEBIN agents arrested Supreme Court Judge Angel Zerpa. Maduro then publicly threatened the other judges with arrest, seizure of assets, and prohibition from leaving the country. Two days later, Judge Jesús Rojas Torres was arrested. While in detention at SEBIN headquarters and allegedly after being tortured, Judge Rojas retracted his oath of office.
“The SEBIN, coordinated from the capital by Director General Gustavo González López, attempted to detain in their homes, one by one, all of the judges appointed under the provisions of the Constitution,” the report said. “Most escaped, fleeing to neighboring countries or seeking refuge and protection in embassies in Caracas.”
In March 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on SEBIN director general Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez. In February 2019, Treasury sanctioned his successor, Manuel Cristopher Figuera.
In April 2019 Figuera broke with the government and called for Venezuelans to support opposition leader Juan Guaido. On May 7, the United States removed the sanctions on Figuera. Three days later, Maduro charged Cristopher Figuera had been working for the CIA.
Cristopher Figuera’s predecessor, Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez, was named to replace him.