Police raid LGBTQ-friendly spa in Venezuela, 33 arrested, citizens call out police corruption and media scandal

As I waited, the officers’ behavior turned vile. They launched a barrage of homophobic slurs, saying, “You guys are gay, and we’ll make you suffer.” My anxiety soared and my body began to tremble uncontrollably.

  • 9 months ago
  • September 1, 2023
7 min read
Interview Subject

Jesús Araujo, formerly a dedicated receptionist at the LGBTQ-friendly Avalon Spa & Bar, and the romantic partner of the spa’s owner, Guillermo Luis Cifuentes, endured immense challenges since the police raided the establishment, arrested patrons, and spread information to the media, leading to the spa’s closure. He now faces the multi-layered implications of a scandal mired in injustice while also navigating a challenging job market.
Background context
On July 23, the Bolivarian National Police arrested 30 men, two masseurs, and the owner of the Avalon Spa & Bar, a LGBTQI+ frequented business. Police claimed they responded to neighbor complaints of disturbances, though conflicting reports suggest the club is surrounded by morning-only businesses.

Police alleged the owner filmed an unauthorized orgy, citing condoms and private videos found on-site but detainees state otherwise. Thirty-three were held for 72 hours without contact with families. After legal proceedings, 30 patrons were released with reporting conditions pending trial, while the owner and staff face noise pollution charges and bail, not without controversy. Protesters gathered outside the courtroom for several hours, asserting that no crime had been committed.

CARABOBO, Venezuela — At 4:00 p.m., while working the front desk at the Avalon Spa & Bar [an LGBTQ+ friendly business in Carabobo], police stormed in, shattering my routine. Their abrupt arrival and aggressive questioning put me on edge. As they accused us of running an illegal, underground operation, I quickly phoned my partner, who is the spa owner. I urged him to bring our legal documents to prove our legitimacy.

As I waited, the officers’ behavior turned vile. They launched a barrage of homophobic slurs, saying, “You guys are gay, and we’ll make you suffer.” My anxiety soared and my body began to tremble uncontrollably. Striving to maintain my composure, I stressed that our LGBTQ-friendly spa operated by the books. Undeterred, the officers persisted. They raided the spa without a warrant while verbally abusing us, leaving our clients staring in disbelief.

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Police demands bribes in unlawful raid of LGBTQ-friendly spa

In a single moment, our legally-run, LGBTQ-friendly spa transformed into a living nightmare. Accused of hiding illegal substances, the officers corralled 40 of us and brazenly demanded bribes. Five complied, buying their freedom with steep payments. The rest of us? We became targets of relentless harassment.

After two agonizing hours, the officers declared that we were going to the police station. My heart hammered in my chest and my hands shook uncontrollably. Instead of taking us to the nearest station, they transported us to a distant one, amplifying our anxiety.

Packed like sardines in vans, the worried faces of our clients reflected our own fear. The internal turmoil felt unbearable—a blend of guilt, anxiety, and shame. We promised our clients a safe space; now their trust was shattered in Venezuela, where homophobia can become life-altering.

Arriving at the police station marked a new low. They confiscated our phones and demanded passwords. A female officer scrolled through our photos, adding insult to injury with derogatory comments. She invited her colleagues to join in the humiliation, punctuated by homophobic slurs. I felt naked and powerless. When a courageous client dared to challenge them, they silenced him. “You can’t do anything; this is part of our evidence gathering procedure,” they sneered. The audacity of their actions left me awestruck, adding another layer of violation to the already profound invasion of our privacy and dignity.

Isolated from the rest of Venezuela, we could not tell our families about the horrors we were going through. At 10:00 p.m., two more detainees paid their way out, leaving 33 of us. The officers demanded a collective payment of $3,000, as they photographed each of us, claiming they would present the photos to the prosecutor. In a state of desperation, we pooled together whatever money we had to meet their ransom. Just as we thought we were leaving, one officer stormed in, declaring, “The deal’s off; you will all be prosecuted.”

By this point, confusion, exhaustion, and relentless anxiety consumed me. Around 3:00 a.m., they brought in documents, accusing each of us of a supposed “crime” and listing our information. Despite our protests, they coerced us into signing, saying, “It’s our word against yours. Take your pick.” Under threats and duress, we all signed those incriminating documents. Sleep felt like an impossible luxury that night.

In the morning, officers sauntered in, gloating, “You girls are famous.” They showed us a media post smearing us with false claims of a spa orgy involving minors and drugs. Our identities splashed across the news. We felt humiliated and outraged.

As the hours dragged on, it seemed Venezuela had turned against us. Officers took sadistic pleasure in showing us scandalous news clips. “You’re trending on TikTok and Instagram,” they taunted. Deprived of basic needs like food, water, and restroom access for almost 12 hours, they finally granted these comforts, but only if we cleaned their facilities. Throughout the day, we pleaded for release, receiving dismissive responses. Wracked with guilt, I could only offer futile apologies to my clients. The day’s lone ray of hope came from the public protests outside. People rallied for our freedom, offering a faint glimmer in a dark experience.

From spa to courthouse, growing fears for unpredictable gay men’s future

In the late afternoon, officers administered physical exams as a prelude to the courthouse. As I stepped into view, I locked eyes with my sister in the crowd. Her tear-streaked face shattered me emotionally, and I sobbed uncontrollably. However, a logistical hiccup abruptly changed our course. We returned to the station, briefly reuniting with our anxious families. Amid the confusion, I noticed another detainee, publicly straight, whose brother yelled, “Raise your head; family is family!”

During this brief respite, an Arab client quietly confided, “I don’t want my family here; they’ll kill me.” I shared my nightmarish experience with my sister, expressing my growing fears about our unpredictable future. The following morning, officers herded us into vehicles and drove us to the courthouse. There, they crammed us into a dim, mold-infested room, choking on ammonia-laden air from morning until 7:00 p.m. During this torturous wait, a fellow detainee who had narrowly avoided a heart attack the day before said, “I want to kill myself.” I had no words left.

Eventually, they ushered us to the courtroom, only to encounter more delays. The judge held us in suspense for hours before sending us back to that squalid room. Around 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday, a truck returned us to the police station. By that time, we had been so wary, dreading the courthouse dungeon, that hunger and dehydration became our new tormentors.

Grimy and humiliated, we begged for showers, only to face more mockery. Officers took photos as we struggled to regain some dignity as they cleansed us with a parking lot hose. Sleep evaded me—feverish, exhausted, and denied antihistamines, I was at my wits’ end.

Venezuelan courtroom became the stage for systemic corruption, many police officers would prefer I stay silent

We returned to the courthouse on July 26, navigating another legal maze. The judge declared us all guilty and imposed fines, opting to detain only the owner and masseuses. My lawyer clutched my arm, whispering, “It’s a media circus; the lies won.” That same judge later confided in a sheriff that she had betrayed her morals. The farce was clear: media manipulation masked systemic corruption.

The decision to keep my partner Guillermo in custody hit me like a freight train. We managed a brief, soul-crushing farewell, leaving me shattered. Tears overwhelmed me as officers escorted me out. Outside the courthouse, reporters and crowds converged in a frenzy. I locked eyes with my sister and uttered, “Get me out of here.” Once home, I discovered my pets left my place in disarray, but I didn’t care. Their presence offered comfort. I urgently bundled up pillows and blankets and drove them back to my partner.

Days turned torturous. When they finally released him nearly a week later, relief flooded me. Yet, steering through a deluge of false media narratives demanded emotional resilience. As we made our way out, the judge who convicted us approached, apologizing and confessing she had succumbed to corruption. Her words elicited a swirl of emotions. Yet they served as another grim footnote to Venezuela’s fraught landscape.

Since then, my health has plummeted from the constant stress, yielding two new tumors. I’ve been piecing my life back together ever since. Without a job, I sent out numerous job applications, but the rejections keep rolling in, all thanks to the lingering scandal. The spa remains closed, while daily life presents a minefield of fear—especially when I venture outdoors. Many police officers would prefer I stay silent about the anguish we faced. Yet, I feel a resilience and a call to speak louder than ever against injustice.

All photos courtesy of Jesús Araujo. Photo Gallery features LGBTQ-friendly Avalon Spa & Bar.

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