© 2024 KGOU
Oklahoma sunset
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Virtual reality offers a chilling 3D look inside Venezuela's spiraling prison

A person standing near Times Square in New York City wears a virtual reality headset screening an immersive experience of the conditions at Venezuela's El Helicoide prison, on Sept. 19, 2023. Protesters gathered to demand the release of political prisoners and the closure of the detention center over allegations of torture.
Stefan Jeremiah
/
AP
A person standing near Times Square in New York City wears a virtual reality headset screening an immersive experience of the conditions at Venezuela's El Helicoide prison, on Sept. 19, 2023. Protesters gathered to demand the release of political prisoners and the closure of the detention center over allegations of torture.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — After being tortured and brutalized during 129 days at El Helicoide, Venezuela's most notorious jail for dissidents, human rights activist Víctor Navarro was determined to expose its horrors to the world.

He wrote a book, but it didn't capture the true madness of El Helicoide — which is Spanish for helicoid, named for its helix design.

But then Navarro took a virtual reality tour of the house of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. Although viewing it in Argentina, it made him feel like he was right in the secret annex in Amsterdam where Frank hid from the Nazis for 25 months before she was captured and sent to a concentration camp, where she died of typhus.

Víctor Navarro, a Venezuelan former political prisoner and developer of the "Helicoide Reality" project, shows the virtual reality tour simulating the conditions in which the prisoners live in the prison, during an interview with AFP in Buenos Aires on July 27, 2023.
Luis Robayo / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Víctor Navarro, a Venezuelan former political prisoner and developer of the "Helicoide Reality" project, shows the virtual reality tour simulating the conditions in which the prisoners live in the prison, during an interview with AFP in Buenos Aires on July 27, 2023.

"It was really moving," Navarro tells NPR. "So, I decided: This is what I'm going to do."

After working with 3D graphic designers and interviewing 30 former Venezuelan political prisoners, Navarro put together a virtual reality tour of El Helicoide. Then, he hit the road, VR headsets in hand, to educate audiences in the U.S, Europe and Latin America about the growing repression of Venezuela's authoritarian regime.

Navarro, 28, lives in Argentina where he has refugee status. Ex-inmates that he interviewed for the project were mostly inside Venezuela.

It's an intense experience. With Navarro narrating (in Spanish, with an English version also available), viewers are led into Helicoide's dark, cramped, underground cells that are fouled by human feces. Flies buzz, water drips, cockroaches scurry away.

Víctor Navarro shows on his laptop part of the virtual reality tour of Venezuela's El Helicoide prison.
Luis Robayo / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Víctor Navarro shows on his laptop part of the virtual reality tour of Venezuela's El Helicoide prison.

Then comes the accounts of former inmates. One tells of being handcuffed and shoved inside a tiny, isolation cell where he could barely move. Another describes almost suffocating when a guard pulled a plastic bag over his head.

A screen grab from the virtual reality experience created by Venezuelan former political prisoner Víctor Navarro.
/ Víctor Navarro/Screenshot by NPR
/
Víctor Navarro/Screenshot by NPR
A screen grab from the virtual reality experience created by Venezuelan former political prisoner Víctor Navarro.

"That's when the real torture began," the former inmate says. "I don't know how many times I fainted."

There's even sound, which Navarro says was secretly recorded by another prisoner on his cellphone, of a detainee screaming as guards shock him with electricity.

"The idea of doing something through virtual reality was spectacular," says Antony Vegas, an opposition activist who was detained at the Helicoide for five years and worked on the project with Navarro after he was released. "It's a way to teach what torture at El Helicoide is really like."

One fan is Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College in Massachusetts who, along with his students, took the VR tour of the Helicoide during Navarro's recent visit to the campus.

"There are plenty of talks and exhibits about human rights violations, political prisoners and torture, but nothing like this," Corrales says. "And there is nothing as portable and as vivid as this technology can produce."

One of Corrales' students, Giulia Miotto, said the experience left her shaking and sweating. In a class paper she wrote: "I truly hope that this virtual reality experience of El Helicoide is able to help drive its closure. In the meantime, it is devastating that these atrocities are ongoing."

The Venezuelan government did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. But in 2022 it "categorically rejected" a U.N. report that described the widespread torture of political prisoners in the country's jails.

Ironically, the Helicoide was once a symbol of Venezuela's progress amid an oil boom.

A view of Venezuela's intelligence police headquarters, known as el Helicoide, in Caracas, Venezuela, 2018. It was the same year that Navarro was brought there.
Fernando Llano / AP
/
AP
A view of Venezuela's intelligence police headquarters, known as el Helicoide, in Caracas, Venezuela, 2018. It was the same year that Navarro was brought there.

Construction began in the 1950s under dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez. It was designed to be a luxury shopping mall and convention center. Its spiral design suggests a spaceship and drew praise from artist Salvador Dalí and poet Pablo Neruda.

However, Jiménez was forced out in 1958, and successive governments lost interest in the complex, which remained unfinished. At one point in the 1970s, the building filled up with squatters. Eventually, parts of El Helicoide were occupied by the state intelligence service, which added prison cells in the bottom floors.

Navarro arrived there in 2018 when he was arrested for taking part in massive protests against President Nicolás Maduro, who during 11 years in power has led Venezuela into its worst economic crisis in history. Police officers burst into Navarro's home, put a shotgun to his head, and led him off to El Helicoide.

"That's when the hell began," he says in his NPR interview.

Navarro was slapped, kicked, thrown to the floor. He recalls a guard putting three bullets into his pistol then placing it in Navarro's mouth, though he didn't pull the trigger. But he says it was even worse hearing the screams of fellow prisoners who were being tortured in nearby cells. He had been falsely accused of conspiring against the Maduro regime but after four months behind bars was suddenly released.

He is one of nearly 16,000 dissidents who have been imprisoned in Venezuela since 2014, which may be the highest number of political prisoners in Latin America, says Alfredo Romero, who heads the Caracas human rights group Foro Penal (Spanish for Criminal Forum). Although most have been released, many remain traumatized.

Andreina Baduel (second from right) joins others to protest against the taking of what they call political prisoners outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service building known as El Helicoide, in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov 3, 2021. Baduel is the daughter of former Defense Minister Raúl Isaías Baduel, who died in prison in 2021.
Ariana Cubillos / AP
/
AP
Andreina Baduel (second from right) joins others to protest against the taking of what they call political prisoners outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service building known as El Helicoide, in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov 3, 2021. Baduel is the daughter of former Defense Minister Raúl Isaías Baduel, who died in prison in 2021.

"When you get out, you are not the same person," Navarro says.

Behind bars he lost 40 pounds and, once at home in Caracas, had recurring nightmares, couldn't remember people's names, and sensed that he was always being followed. Eventually, he fled Venezuela, put together the VR tour, and hit the road, visiting about 20 countries.

Meanwhile, Vegas, the former detainee who worked with Navarro on the VR tour, is discreetly presenting it to small audiences in Caracas and hoping that he won't be rearrested for doing so. Indeed, as Maduro maneuvers for another six-year term in July's presidential election, his antidemocratic crackdown continues. Romero, of Foro Penal, puts the current number of political prisoners at 264, including 67 in El Helicoide.

That's why Navarro continues to spread the word — through virtual reality.

"We are exposing what the Venezuelan government doesn't want people to see," he says. "It shows the scale of the crimes they are committing."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.