Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence.
I still remember the newspaper photographs of Linda Loaiza López camped out on the steps of Venezuela’s Supreme Court. She lay on a thin patio-sofa mattress, tucked under a bright blue children’s comforter printed with toy boats. The slender young woman with twisted lips and fiery eyes was surrounded by her mother, father, and sisters holding simple posters with stencil-traced letters, demanding justice.
“My hunger for justice is greater than my other hunger,” López told reporters, as medics inserted an IV into her arm. Given the frail state of her kidneys and pancreas, López was tempting death with her hunger strike. But she thought this was a small feat after having survived more than three months of torturous captivity.
In 2005, I was working as a foreign correspondent based in Chile, and this was the first I’d heard about López. She was an eighteen-year-old who three years earlier had been kidnapped and brutally violated, and whose case was going nowhere in a corrupt and indifferent justice system because her abuser was well connected. The trial had been postponed 38 times and 59 judges had refused to hear the case. In a few weeks her case would reach the statute of limitations, after which her aggressor could be freed—a prospect that terrified her.
Desperate, López waged a hunger strike, despite having received death threats and a recently undergone an operation of her pancreas—one of the multiple surgeries she’s needed since her abduction.
“I have a rebellious side and when I want something, I always find the strength to do it,” she would tell me later. “It was hard, but I felt so much support.”
Thirteen days into her hunger strike, López finally got her trial, but it ended in an acquittal. She was launching an appeal of the case when I met her in September 2005, at the makeshift Caracas office of the non-profit she founded to support survivors of gender-based violence. On a spartan wall, paper sheets bearing dot-matrix-printed letters collectively spelled out the “Friends of Linda Loaiza Foundation.”
Decked in a teddy bear t-shirt, López spoke of her plans to study law. Frustrated but undefeated by everything she had experienced, she told me that if the appeal failed, she had her next step in mind: going all the way to the Inter-American Court. Her plan sounded David-and-Goliath-like. I remember wholeheartedly wishing her well, but believing that, inspiring as she was, she didn’t stand a chance.
I reconnected with López in February 2018, as her case finally reached the Inter-American Court for Human Rights—coming full-circle seventeen years after her haunting ordeal. Beyond López’s stomach-churning victimization, it’s her persistence over years to seek justice for gender violence in a system that is profoundly broken, in a culture that is deeply misogynist, and in a country that is mired in crisis—that makes her so remarkable.
When eighteen-year-old López left her apartment building on a sunny March morning in 2001, she didn’t notice the man lurking around her dead-end street in the heart of Venezuela’s tumultuous capital. She and her nineteen-year-old sister Ana Secilia had been in Caracas just one month, after leaving their family farm in the State of Mérida to study at a local university.
That morning, López was off to enroll—until she felt the cold barrel of a gun against her back.
“Walk or die!” a deep male voice ordered, as he led her to his red-wine colored Jeep Cherokee. He pushed her in, and López soon found herself bound and gagged in a hotel room—the beginning of her worst nightmare.
Over the coming months, her abductor sadistically raped, tortured and humiliated López with unspeakable brutality. He beat and sodomized her with poles, liquor bottles, broomsticks and his fists. When she least expected it, he would put out cigarettes on her face and body. He decided if and when she ate, slept, or went to the bathroom.
“He took pleasure in watching me suffer,” she recalls. “Every second was about clinging to survival. At the same time, I never lost hope of being freed, heard and saved.”
López says her captor gloated that he had had other victims, describing in detail how he had beaten and tortured them too, even showing her photographs. “He spoke as if this was normal for him,” she says. He told her he had killed eight women and dumped their bodies in ditches alongside the La Guaira highway. “He told me he would do the same to me.”
Meanwhile, López’s family was facing their own ordeal trying to get the authorities to investigate her disappearance. When her sister Ana Secilia went to file a missing persons report, she was told to wait 48 hours. Then she received a phone call from a man claiming he was her sister Linda’s boyfriend, telling her Linda wouldn’t be coming home. But Ana Secilia knew her sister didn’t have a boyfriend. After he abruptly hung up, Ana Secilia called back, and a voicemail recording revealed the caller’s name: Luis Carrera Almoina.
Armed with this information, Ana Secilia returned to the police station but a male officer “laughed and told me surely I was interfering in my sister’s relationship. He said he would call him and let me know.”
López remembers overhearing that call, where Carrera Almoina assured the officer that she was his girlfriend. After hanging up, he beat her harder than ever.
Ana Secilia tried six times to file a missing persons report. Carrera Almoina threatened over the phone to kill her if she persisted. Then, more than two months after her sister’s disappearance, the police finally took a report—about the death threat to Ana Secilia, still nothing about her sister.
“Over time, I finally came to understand it,” Ana Secilia confided. “There was a network of information and the police were in alliance with him. He knew everything.”
López says her aggressor bragged that he was untouchable because his father was Gustavo Carrera Damas, an influential writer and well-connected rector of a major university in Caracas at the time. He hailed from a family of intellectual elites, with an uncle who led a political party and other relatives in power circles.
Whenever Carrera Almoina left the apartment, he would leave López bound, handcuffed, and gagged, sometimes in the bathroom or closet, or tied to the bed, with curtains drawn, doors locked and the TV playing loudly, to drown out her screams.
Then one day, as López lay helplessly mangled, bleeding profusely, her jaw broken and teeth dislodged, she says “he called his father and told him he was going to look for some black bags to get rid of me, because I was no longer of use to him.”
Then he left without taking his usual precautions. López knew it was her one and only chance. Despite severe injuries, she mustered the strength to crawl to a window, open it, and cry for help. Passersby heard her, and Caracas police and firefighters arrived to a grizzly scene of blood-spattered walls and a horror-movie-like victim.
According to court transcripts, first police responder Giovanny Chicco Salas said: “In the eight years I’ve been [a police officer] I’ve seen injuries, but not like these. It is one of the most upsetting cases I’ve seen. In my opinion, if this person had been in there for one more day she wouldn’t have come out alive.”
Inexplicably, the ambulance then took more than five hours to reach the University Hospital of Caracas, which was a drive that usually took 10 minutes.
“After all the tragedies I’ve experienced, I believe they were stalling because they were waiting for me to die,” López confides. “It was like a game. But they didn’t win.”
López was on the verge of death when she was rescued. Her injuries were so bad that doctors described them as worse than those from a traumatic traffic accident.
She had a fractured jaw and nose, disfigured lips and ears, and trauma to the brain. The blood that had built up in her ears due to the beatings had caused her eardrums to burst, and her right eye was deviated from its socket. She had broken ribs, trauma to the ovaries and pancreas, a ruptured spleen and cigarette burns all over her body. One of her nipples had been cut off and her vagina was so badly damaged it needed reconstruction. And she weighed just 62 pounds.
Ana Secilia recalls arriving at the hospital to find her sister naked and surrounded by doctors in a bathroom. “Linda?” she asked. Her sister turned to face her, leaving Ana Secilia aghast. She hardly recognized her.
“She looked like a monster,” she says. Some of her teeth were crooked, wiggly or in the wrong place. “Her body was all bruised and full of cigarette burns. I couldn’t even imagine this being done to an animal.”
Over the next few years, López would spend more than 600 days in the hospital. To date, she has required fifteen major surgeries. And those are just the physical injuries. Her emotional scars run deep, and she continues to need treatment for post-traumatic stress.
Had the day gone even a little differently, she could have been killed. Still, López escaped. “I honestly feel like that day, I was born again,” she confides, the right-hand side of her mouth tugging due to the many reconstructions she’s needed over the years. “And with each surgery I’ve had—which have all been very hard—God has given me new life.”
Although López had sexual injuries and told medical staff she’d been raped, forensic tests were performed a week later—far too late to retrieve valid evidence. After a series of medical mishaps, her family decided to seek private healthcare.
The López Soto family was of modest means, and there were many expenses, so Ana Secilia took on a part-time job selling empanadas during mornings while working evenings at a carwash. Her family had to sell off pieces of their small farm, which meant her siblings had less food and fewer educational prospects.
Compounding such hardship, Ana Secilia says the public prosecutor tried to bribe them to withdraw the case, saying they were up against “powerful people that wouldn’t be overtaken by some peasants.”
López says the prosecutor showed her photographs Carrera Almoina had taken of her and other women and promised to incorporate them as evidence in her file, although she never saw them again. Despite her trauma, López says seeing those photographs again, and remembering that she had survived while his other victims hadn’t, convinced her to pursue a legal case at all costs: “I felt I had to speak out because it wasn’t just me. There were others, and there would be others.”
López and her lawyer began the legal motions, never imagining the enormity of the battle ahead. In November 2001, Carrera Almoina was formally charged with rape, grievous bodily harm, kidnapping, deprivation of liberty, and attempted murder.
Soon after, López received death threats and says she faced a slew of unqualified, untrained, and indifferent police officers, forensic doctors, prosecutors, public defenders, judges and magistrates, as well as a reluctant justice system. Her trial was postponed multiple times and many judges refused to hear the case. And as the maximum pretrial detention limit approached, the thought of Carrera Almoina being freed pushed her to wage a hunger strike. The public protest garnered widespread media attention, and after thirteen days, she finally got her trial.
When the proceedings began, López believed justice would finally prevail. But rather than vindication, López says she was treated as if she were the one on trial. She had to recount the details of what had happened to her to the court, forcing her to relive the trauma, while also facing offensive insinuations from Carrera Almoina’s defense.
“The whole process was discriminatory and deplorable,” she says. Her family was even attacked by armed motorcyclists after leaving the courthouse one day.
The trial court heard that Carrera Almoina had been arrested for abusing a former girlfriend. His defense, however, argued that López and Ana Secilia ran a prostitution ring. A clause in Venezuela’s Penal Code allows sentences for crimes against sex workers to be reduced to a fifth.
Although attempted murder trials normally last three to four months, López’s lasted only weeks. A female judge, Rosa Cadiz, acquitted Carrera Almoina of all charges and, on top of that, ordered an investigation into López and her family for prostitution. Although that investigation yielded no evidence and never officially concluded, the insinuations hurt López deeply.
She recalls that tragic day: “I saw that the threats he made while I was captive were real… and there was no authority that could stop him, despite the existence of laws meant to protect me.”
Nevertheless, López appealed.
A retrial was ordered and began on November 9, 2005, lasting six months. López chose not to testify as a witness this time around, to avoid the stress and stigma.
This time, the retrial ended in Carrera Almoina’s conviction for “grievous bodily injuries and illegitimate deprivation of liberty.” However, he was acquitted of rape, sexual violence, torture, and attempted murder—charges that would have yielded a much heftier sentence.
López was outraged. “For me, every proceeding before the Venezuelan justice system has been traumatic…. Every decision has been devastating and discriminatory for me, my family, and for all women.”
Carrera Almoina was sentenced to six years and one month in prison. But given his pre-trial detentions, he spent just two more years in jail and the final year-and-a-half on parole. Today, he is a free man. And López has chosen not to learn anything about his whereabouts, she says for the sake of her mental health.
In a nation of superlatives, known for its beauty queens and aggressive macho culture, sexual violence is common in Venezuela. Although there are no official figures on violence in Venezuela, and whatever statistics are sporadically published aren’t categorized by gender, local NGOs have resorted to tallying media-reported murders to get a sense of femicide rates. Based on figures from the journalist-run Cotejo, 448 women were murdered in 2018 – a 10% increase over 2017.
For a national prevention campaign in October 2018, Venezuela’s then-Minister for Women, Caryl Bertho, tweeted that “violence against women constitutes a grave public health problem and a violation of human rights.”
To be sure, Venezuela has introduced changes since López’s horror story. After Carrera Almoina’s conviction, in November 2006, Venezuela adopted the Organic Law on Women’s Right to a Life Free from Violence, which established comprehensive protection measures for victims that expanded the definition of violence and detailed the requirements for reporting it.
Venezuela also created the Ministry of People’s Power for Women and Gender Equality in March 2009, which develops guidance for the courts and prosecution services to deal with violence against women. In 2014, the Organic Law was amended to include 21 types of gender violence, including femicide and domestic violence.
But the laws themselves aren’t enough. In its 2017-2018 report on Venezuela, Amnesty International stated 10 years after the Organic Law was implemented: “prosecutors, judges, police officers, and other officials remained poorly equipped to protect women’s rights, and women often suffered re-victimization because of institutional violence.”
Impunity is another major problem. The 2014 Annual Report of Venezuela’s Public Ministry revealed that only 482 of the 70,763 complaints of violence against women ever made it to trial—a mere 0.7 percent. And a 2017 report by four civil society organizations estimated that a mere 0.48 to 0.79 percent of cases involving violence against women were reaching judicial instances, with few convictions.
“Unfortunately, these structural weaknesses still exist in Venezuela and for the victims of violence it is a chimera to obtain justice in Venezuela,” says Beatriz Borges, Director of the Justice and Peace Center, one of the organizations behind the report.
By December 2006, López’s last attempts to appeal were rejected by the Venezuelan justice system. Unshaken in her faith that justice would prevail, she set her sights on a bigger adversary: the very system that was supposed to have protected her.
Having exhausted all judicial avenues in her own country, López sought to elevate her case to the international level. She petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Washington DC-based regional human rights body tasked with protecting human rights across the Americas. López hoped to make it all the way to its sister body, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Doing so wouldn’t be easy. When López filed her petition in 2007, only 14 of the 1,456 petitions received by the Commission reached the Court. And it takes on average six-and-a-half years before the Commission will determine whether there was a human rights violation, a necessary step before it can be elevated to the Court. The process is lengthy, because the Commission and the Court don’t have the resources to handle more cases.
Deciding she might as well do something useful in the meantime, in August 2007 López enrolled in law school and began single-handedly preparing her petition. She had approached some Venezuelan NGOs to represent her, but was unsuccessful. Normally, individual victims do not present petitions against states. Instead, they rely on civil society or international organizations for such cases. But López did so as a private citizen, something that is rarely done, especially for cases involving violence against women.
“I submitted my petition as a ‘victim’ and I think this is a huge opportunity,” she says. “More women could do what I did.”
During López’s studies, her petition was accepted, and the exposure caught the attention of two human rights organizations—the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Venezuela’s Committee of relatives of victims of the events of February and March 1989 (COFAVIC)—which joined as co-petitioners for her case, in 2011 and 2014 respectively, offering pro-bono legal support.
Elsa Meany, a Senior Attorney with CEJIL, says it was emblematic as the first gender-based violence case against Venezuela. And as the system’s first against any country involving state responsibility for the actions of private citizens, it could have a “tremendous impact” on advancing human rights standards. A positive ruling would make it easier to hold states accountable by establishing important legal precedents.
López graduated from law school in 2011 and enrolled in a post-graduate degree two years later, pursuing a double specialization in international and human rights law. It wasn’t until 2015, when López was finishing her second degree that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed to hear her case—eight years after her initial petition.
On March 17, 2015, López traveled to Washington DC for the first time to testify at the Commission’s public hearing. Although she says she never doubted her case would make it, being there was intimidating. She felt a great sense of responsibility to speak on behalf of women victims everywhere.
Dressed in a conservative striped blouse and navy jacket, López told the Commission: “As a victim, I can tell you that sexual violence causes irreparable damage, that it is like living through death itself, fighting against it, conquering it, and inheriting its consequences.”
A few months after her testimony, the Commission released its report. It determined that Venezuela “should have been aware of the real and imminent risk” López faced yet failed to take any measures to protect her or prevent it. It said Venezuela had failed to comply with its obligations to ban torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, or to investigate cases with due diligence, in a reasonable timeframe. The Commission concluded that López faced discrimination, as trials focused “on speculations about the victim’s life and not on clearing up what happened,” creating a “revictimization that affected her privacy and dignity as well as her psychological and moral integrity.”
The Commission made detailed recommendations, to which Venezuela did not even respond. So, in November 2016, the case was elevated to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Such is the winding road that brought López to the Court in San José, Costa Rica on February 6, 2018. Nearly seventeen years after her kidnapping and eleven years after her initial petition, López’s case finally reached the highest tribunal in the region—her last hope.
Against the multicolored backdrop of 35 dangling flags, López adjusted her black polyester blazer, took a deep breath and walked towards the polished wooden witness stand. With her psychologist nodding her on reassuringly from the packed courtroom, López nervously scanned the expressions of the judges—a lone female flanked by six men donning black and red gowns—praying they would be impartial.
Taking herself back to those dark days she’d tried so hard to forget yet had been forced to relive so many times, her voice broke several times.
“It is important that you value my testimony,” she implored the judges, teary-eyed. Then, shifting from sadness to conviction, she intoned: “I come here now because I trust you…and I expect justice.”
López’s legal team argued, first and foremost, that the state of Venezuela was aware of her kidnapping through her sister’s attempts to report it; however, by failing to investigate, Venezuela allowed the violence to continue for months.
Her team’s second argument was that when police called López’s abuser, alerting him of attempts to report her disappearance, the state acted in complicity. Because López was then abused more forcefully, Venezuela became “a participant” in that abuse.
Thirdly, her lawyers argued that the state harmed her directly during both the investigation and the trial process, by humiliating her and forcing her to repeatedly retell her story, causing revictimization—a form of violence itself.
Expert witness Christine Mary Chinkin, International Law Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, testified that revictimization or secondary victimization “compounds the harms caused to the victim by causing her to feel disbelieved, humiliated, disempowered, causing her to relive the trauma of the criminal acts by excessive repetition of the details.” She said revictimization is a form of psychological violence and arguably also a form of degrading treatment under the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights.
In Venezuela’s concluding statement, representative Larry Devoe Márquez made an unusual mea culpa, acknowledging that when López was rescued in 2001, “the judiciary and Public Ministry had been plagued by the most diverse vices and practices contrary to the true sense of justice, which resulted in a marked sense of impunity and injustice for a large part of our population.” He said her case was a clear example of those “ills” and that she “did not have access to justice under conditions of equality.” He added that the “discriminatory regulatory framework” had since been corrected.
Devoe Márquez went on to accept responsibility for the Venezuela’s failure to properly investigate or ensure a fair trial, recognizing that López’s case was “marked by clear omissions, inadequate practices…and unjustified delays that contributed to [Venezuela’s] breach of duty.”
He then addressed López directly: “On behalf of the State of Venezuela, I apologize to you and your family for the inadequate performance of the organs of the justice system in the criminal proceedings to punish the terrible acts of violence against women that you suffered.…I ask you to please receive our most sincere apologies.”
Jaw clenched, López nodded. She believed these statements were insincere, and made only to appease the court.
Devoe Márquez then clarified that Venezuela was accepting responsibility for the actions from the moment Lópezwas rescued, not during her disappearance. He said there was no evidence that Ana Secilia or anyone else had reported her missing. However, the official police report of the death threat against Ana Secilia mentioned her sister’s disappearance as having motivated the threat, so the Inter-American Commission president Francisco Eguiguren argued that Venezuela could not claim to have been unaware of López’s situation.
Given Venezuela’s acknowledgment, the Court was expected to at least find partial responsibility. Just how far it would go was the question.
In its landmark judgment released on November 16, 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the State of Venezuela “internationally responsible,” by virtue of its “tolerance” and negligence to properly investigate, punish, and prevent the violent acts López endured.
The Court noted the absence of a legal framework to ensure that police and judicial officers are properly trained to investigate complaints of violence against women. That, coupled with the lack of concrete rules on collecting evidence and handling witnesses, contributed to the flaws in the investigations, which the Court said prevented access to justice and permitted Lópezs revictimization.
The Court concluded that Venezuela violated López’s right to: personal integrity; personal liberty; dignity, autonomy and private life; freedom of movement and residence; prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatments; prohibition of slavery; her right to a fair trial; as well as her right to judicial protection and equality before the law. The judgment orders Venezuela to compensate López and her entire family, cover her lifelong medical and psychological care, as well as finance her future studies, and those of her ten siblings.
It orders the criminal case against Carrera Almoina to be reopened and resolved and sanctions to be laid against those responsible for López’s torture, specifying that all institutions and officials at fault must be identified. Venezuela must publicly acknowledge its responsibility and prevent such cases from recurring—by collecting data on gender-based violence, obligatory training for relevant officials and other prevention measures, including a mandatory public education curriculum on violence against women, under the name “Linda Loaiza.”
The Court’s judgment is the first finding of responsibility by the Inter-American system against a state for torture committed by a non-state individual. The Court’s decision is only binding on Venezuela. But it creates a powerful international precedent that could help women in other countries in their own quests for justice. “I don’t think we’ve had such an aggressive torture judgment globally for quite some time,” says Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organization Against Torture. “For me it’s also the textbook case for a system that makes itself deliberately complicit.”
But several months since the Inter-American Court’s ruling, Venezuela still had yet to officially respond.
“The inaction by the State of Venezuela further revictimizes me and my family,” López says, clearly frustrated. She has kept up the pressure with daily social media posts urging the State to respond, using the hashtag #HazMeJusticia (#DoMeJustice). The banner on her Twitter account reads: “When the State of Venezuela executes the full content of the sentence, I’ll be able to speak about justice. Until then, impunity persists.”
Over the years, hundreds of women have sought her out, sharing their stories and support. She says she’s encouraged by the silence-breaking #MeToo and #NiUnaMenos movements, the latter of which ignited a rash of protests across Latin America after the rape and murder of a pregnant fourteen-year-old in Argentina in 2016. Women took to the streets in Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and Mexico. But beyond encouraging women to speak up, López says she hopes her story will embolden them to brave the justice system. She continues to support women to do so through her foundation, offering legal advice and moral support. In addition to running her foundation, she takes part in marches, conferences, and community discussions as well as appearing as a guest speaker at events in Venezuela and abroad. Still, Venezuela’s economic crisis has made that a struggle, but she perseveres.
“I will not surrender,” López vows, noting that she has literally spent half her life chasing justice. “For years, I’ve been an emblem of the fight against the physical, sexual, and psychological violence that women face in my country. This fuels me to continue, and sustain the struggle of others like me, as a defender.”
Still, after everything she’s been through, and given Venezuela’s current political and humanitarian crisis, I can’t help but ask her why she hasn’t left her imploding country. She laughs before realizing it’s a serious question.
“I love my country,” she says. “I want to correct the injustice, and in some way contribute those grains of sand that will eventually rebuild a new Venezuela,” she adds. “I will not surrender.”