A Venezuelan priest is facing the prospect of prison after he spoke against execution-style police killings, and called for an investigation into a state police force and a politician close to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.
While charges against the priest could have serious implications for the Church across Venezuela, the priest told The Pillar he is trying to maintain confidence in the justice of God, even while facing an unjust trial.
Father Alfredo Infante, SJ, is no stranger to armed conflicts. He has been a critical voice against gang violence for years in Venezuela.
In March, the Jesuit helped publish an investigation into extrajudicial police killings in Venezuela, produced by Centro Gumilla, a Jesuit-run think tank, and PROVEA, the country’s best-known human rights organization.
The publication did not reflect well on high-ranking officials of the Venezuelan government.
At a March press conference, Infante and other human rights advocates denounced the state police in Carabobo – the third most populated state in Venezuela – as the country’s most lethal force in 2021.
Of 1,414 extrajudicial executions in Venezuela at the hands of law enforcement last year, Carabobo’s police were responsible for 221, they said.
Infante’s group called for an investigation into the police chain of command, and into state Governor Rafael Lacava, one of the Maduro regime’s “fresh faces” — meant to be younger, pragmatic pro-government politicians generally perceived as more business-minded than other members of the regime.
A response came quickly.
Governor Lacava brought charges in early May against Fr. Infante and Marino Alvarado, a PROVEA staffer who worked on the report.
The governor alleged “aggravated and continued defamation” for “exposing the governor to public hatred and contempt,” according to Infante’s attorney, Joel García.
If convicted, both Infante and Alvarado could face between two and four years in prison, plus fines.
“In this case, the criminal offense has aggravating circumstances because it was allegedly committed in a public, written document, which increases the sentence from 1-3 years to 2-4 years, and doubles the fine,” Eddy Ferrer, a Venezuelan law professor and former judge told The Pillar.
After Lacava pressed charges, Infante held another press conference, at which the priest thanked “the families of the victims of alleged extrajudicial killings who, with their prayers and words, have given their support.”
Infante emphasized that the “report is not a campaign against the governor, but a campaign in defense of life.”
“Asking for an investigation into extrajudicial killings is a right and a citizen duty protected by the Venezuelan Constitution—not a crime,” the priest stressed.
“Almost 100% of the victims are young, poor males,” he said, “it seems that for law enforcement, being a young, poor man is being a criminal. This is unfair.”
“As a man of faith, I am inspired by the sacred commandment: ‘Thou shall not kill.’ The Church will keep its voice and action in favor of the victims, and [in favor] of re-establishing the rule of law,” he added.
For his part, Infante believes that his trial is already off to a bad start. Both the priest and his lawyer told The Pillar that Infante’s due process rights have been violated, because the trial is not beginning in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, but in Carabobo, the state where Lacava is the governor.
“They did not accept our reception through Caracas. In a case of defamation, the competence court is the place where the alleged crime was committed, which, in this case, would be Caracas,” Infante told The Pillar.
García, the priest’s attorney agreed. The lawyer told The Pillar that the charges against his client are “a form of censorship.”
“They are trying to silence people who make complaints and reports, because that is what this was: a report and a request for investigation, nothing else.”
And, the attorney explained, Infante’s right to defense has been compromised in the trial proceedings.
“The fact that they did not allow me to be designated as his defense counsel here in Caracas is a violation of the right to legal defense ... we will try to reach an agreement and, if we can’t, we will go to trial,” García explained.
When high-profile cases involve members of the PSUV, the ruling party in Venezuela, party members seldom lose in court.
Venezuela was ranked in the last position on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index in 2021, because of significant “deteriorations in the factors measuring Absence of Corruption and Fundamental Rights.”
Nevertheless, it seems the governor is trying to reach a settlement out of court.
Infante revealed in a radio interview Tuesday that the governor’s legal team reached out for a settlement, to which he is open, but the priest said there cannot be “a settlement with impunity” regarding the extrajudicial killings.
Fr. Infante is now the pastor of the San Alberto Hurtado Parish in La Vega, one of the biggest slums in southwest Caracas.
La Vega is just one of the many slums in Caracas where gang-related violence is rife. The biggest, Petare, is so large that Pope Francis announced the creation of its own diocese in 2021.
The Caracas slums are among the most dangerous zones in Latin America — gang and drug violence are rampant. Caracas itself has long had one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Human rights organizations have alleged that law enforcement officers often enter slum areas and open fire indiscriminately, killing innocent people, including women and children.
In some instances, there have been reports of extrajudicial executions by the police - similar to the killings Infante cited in his report.
In January 2021, police forces raided La Vega to attack drug gangs.
At least 23 people were killed during the police action, the most in a security operation in Venezuela in over 50 years. Humanitarian groups dubbed the raid a massacre.
According to PROVEA, most of the killings were cold-blooded executions, committed after victims were already detained and unarmed.
After the 2021 killings, Infante criticized the government’s investigation into the raid.
The priest claimed that family members of the deceased had not received information from government officials. He said Attorney General Tarek William Saab’s response to allegations of brutality had been “embarrassing,” and called police killings “a pattern of public policy of the state, both systematic and massive."
“It is very paradoxical that in a government which proclaims itself to be of the people, and a defender of the poor, the ‘La Vega massacre’ happens and there is no known investigation to date,” the priest said.
For his part, Infante is familiar with difficult circumstances.
The priest served as a missionary on the Zambian border of war-torn Angola from 1996 to 1999, where he led 14 different schools in 14 communities.
Infante then ministered at the Colombo-Venezuelan border during the worst part of the armed conflict between the government and the FARC revolutionaries, an armed group that formally operated until 2017 and which has been accused of kidnapping, sex slavery, drug trafficking, terrorist attacks, and bombings, among other crimes. Infante did the dangerous work of helping Colombians fleeing their country’s violence.
The priest says experiences in Angola and the Colombo-Venezuelan border prepared him to address human rights violations in Venezuela.
“Living priesthood in situations like this is being in the hands of God. There is no other way of living this but with open eyes: doing everything you can but knowing nothing depends on yourself; you are in God’s hands,” he told Aleteia in 2021.
Infante’s case could have a significant impact on the relationships between the Church and Maduro.
Considering the left-wing and autocratic tendencies of the Venezuelan regime, the Church has been relatively unscathed since the rise of Hugo Chávez and then Nicolás Maduro to power.
Few would say that relations between the Church and the Chavista government have been good, but beyond criticism and threats - Chávez once threatened to “exorcize” some Venezuelan bishops - the government has not enacted systematic policies of persecution against the Church, at least not on the level of other autocracies.
In fact, Church officials have in recent years served as political and humanitarian mediators between Maduro and opposition leaders.
But the prospect of a Catholic priest imprisoned in Venezuela for his humanitarian activities is almost unprecedented, and could further damage the relationship between the regime and the Church, with potentially significant humanitarian consequences.
Cardinal Baltazar Porras, Caracas’ apostolic administrator, is a sharp critic of the Maduro regime, and has criticized the U.S. policy against Venezuela for its “uncertainty.”
Infante told The Pillar that he has received the cardinal’s “full support” through phone calls and texts.
Neither the Archdiocese of Caracas nor the Venezuelan bishops’ conference have commented on Infante’s case.
But the priest emphasize that he felt obliged to speak out, and has confidence in God in the road ahead.
“The Church has been a prophetic voice in many aspects in Venezuela. I feel that regarding the extrajudicial killings there has been a little bit of prudence (...) I feel at peace with my conscience, with God, and with the country,” Infante told The Pillar.
“I have an inner peace that is not mine; it is a gift from God. I feel accompanied by many in prayer to be able to face this situation.”