HomeNewsVR transports users to notorious Venezuelan prison: ‘The world needs to know’

VR transports users to notorious Venezuelan prison: ‘The world needs to know’

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On Tuesday evening, the hustle and bustle in Times Square was the same as any other day: hectic crowds making their way across streets below towering skyscrapers, with a kaleidoscopic display of billboards shining over them. But amid that usual frenzy, tearful cries occasionally rang out from people wearing bright white virtual reality headsets — as they experienced for themselves the torture former prisoners have said they faced in one of Venezuela’s most notorious prisons.

In five-minute increments, tourists, reporters and passersby were transported to the dark, mold-filled and cockroach-infested halls of El Helicoide — a virtual reality experience based on interviews with 30 former detainees, including political prisoners, students and activists. In it, real-life screams of agony recorded by a detainee who smuggled a phone into the prison pierce through a montage of gut-wrenching images. The simulation was created by Voces de la Memoria — voices of memory — a nonprofit that uses technology to advocate for human rights and whose founder, Victor Navarro, was arbitrarily detained in El Helicoide, where he said he was tortured.

In one of New York City’s most iconic destinations, the goal was to stage a protest demanding the closure of facilities such as El Helicoide and the liberation of Venezuela’s nearly 300 political prisoners, Navarro said. But it was also a rallying cry for the international community to not lose sight of what the United Nations has said are systematic crimes against humanity taking place in the South American nation.

“The world needs to know that people are still being tortured in Venezuela,” Navarro told The Washington Post. “More than 300,000 people visit Times Square every day. In such a congested city, we wanted people from all over the world to stop for a second and immerse themselves into what’s happening in Venezuela.”

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Human rights nonprofit Voces de la Memoria used former detainees’ testimony to craft a VR experience about torture in one of Venezuela’s most notorious prisons. (Video: Voces de la Memoria)

About a mile from the protest that brought together former political prisoners, activists, and members of the Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan diasporas, hundreds of delegates and dignitaries from all over the world filed into the U.N. headquarters for its 78th General Assembly session. It was against that backdrop that the Venezuelan activists hoped to bring attention to their cause.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela released its fourth report since 2019, when it was established by the Human Rights Council to investigate allegations of gross violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture.

Previous documents delved into those abuses and the justice system’s response to violations. Last year’s report identified President Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle as the “main architects” in a machinery meant to silence, discourage and quash opposition to the government.

This time, the mission found repression against some groups has intensified as Venezuela gears up for next year’s presidential election. Based on interviews with almost 300 people, it found that politicians, labor leaders, journalists and human rights activists are increasingly being subjected to detention, surveillance, threats, defamation campaigns and arbitrary criminal proceedings.

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Maduro and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, which runs El Helicoide, did not respond to requests for comment from The Post. However, when the first report published in 2020, the government — which hasn’t allowed the Fact-Finding Mission to enter Venezuela — denied its findings and insisted that the country respects human rights.

The Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela documented at least five arbitrary deaths, 14 short-term forced disappearances and 58 arbitrary detentions between January 2020 and August 2023 — as well as 28 cases of torture and inhumane treatment during the same period. Detainees were often subjected to beatings, suspension from the wrists or ankles, suffocation with bags sometimes sprayed with insecticide, sleep deprivation and sexual violence, according to the report.

“The report validates everything that we’ve been saying and showing in the virtual reality experiences,” Navarro, the human rights advocate, said. “We’re not just a group of crazy people telling lies. It’s the truth: Venezuela tortures people, and it happens every day.”

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As a 22-year-old youth organizer, Navarro said he was arbitrarily detained in 2018 and held in El Helicoide. He had no contact with his family and no access to an attorney. For five months, he said he was deprived of sunlight and routinely beaten. The image of a guard laughing while placing a loaded gun inside Navarro’s mouth still haunts him, he said.

“It was a dehumanization that penetrates the most intimate part of your being to silence you, to question you and to even make you doubt your own existence,” Navarro said.

After being released in June 2018, Navarro said he “quickly realized being out of El Helicoide didn’t mean freedom.” He was prohibited from leaving the country or talking to the press and had to routinely present himself to Venezuelan authorities, he said. He decided to flee to Argentina, where he’s now a refugee living in exile.

During the pandemic, Navarro’s post-traumatic stress pushed him to write a book detailing his experience inside one of the largest detention centers in Latin America — but, when he was done, “I realized that words couldn’t quite capture what I had lived through.”

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Then Navarro went through a virtual reality experience about Anne Frank’s time in the Secret Annex: “I felt like in any moment, the Nazis were going to take me to a concentration camp,” he said. “If I was able to empathize with Anne Frank, someone I don’t know and who lived in another time, maybe others would be able to empathize with what happened in El Helicoide.”

Shortly after, Voces de la Memoria was born. By combining interviews with former detainees and input from psychologists, the organization put together “a virtual museum of terror designed to generate action,” said Francisco Marquez Lara, a senior adviser to the nonprofit who was detained in El Helicoide in 2016.

“Memory museums and experiences of this kind are usually done after the atrocities are over,” he said. “But we know that time makes people lose a bit of interest and sensitivity, and we don’t want this to keep happening. This tool is an innovation in the fight for human rights that has the potential to reach people wherever they are and immerse them into something that isn’t talked about enough.”

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So far, the simulation has been seen by dozens of politicians and presented in 15 countries and 45 exhibitions — but the plan is to “completely massify it,” Marquez said, and make it available for anyone with a virtual reality headset. The main goal, he said, is for “world leaders to know what’s really going on in Venezuela. As they negotiate with Maduro, it’s critical that they understand that he’s behind crimes against humanity.”

In New York City, the virtual reality simulation gave its Times Square users an intimate look into El Helicoide’s alleged torture rooms as one of the overlooking billboards raised awareness about the experience. Some wept, and others were left speechless, but most viewers immediately began asking questions, Marquez and Navarro said. For both former detainees, reliving their experience is painful — but necessary to prevent any abuse from being kept in the dark.

“The worst thing that can happen to a political prisoner is oblivion,” Navarro said. “But to see people wearing the headset and crying, empathizing or hugging me after, is such a profound sign of solidarity and gives me hope that we’re not alone — as hard as reliving this might be.”

That sign of hope came amid the sound of about 100 people in black T-shirts screaming “Freedom! Freedom!” into the air as night fell Tuesday.

Human rights nonprofit Voces de La Memoria organized a protest in Times Square to demand the release of Venezuela’s political prisoners on Sept. 19. (Video: Francisco Marquez Lara)

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