By Diego Oré
CARACAS (Reuters) - Retired pilot Rodolfo Gonzalez was relaxing at home after a cinema outing in April 2014 when Venezuelan intelligence agents burst into his Caracas apartment.
The officials handcuffed and whisked him away, accusing the 63-year old of being "one of the brains" behind that year's anti-government protests that left 43 people dead, according to his wife who was briefly taken with him.
His accuser was a "cooperating patriot" who handed authorities a purported audio recording in which Gonzalez revealed "destabilizing actions" against President Nicolas Maduro's government, according to a court transcript.
"Cooperating patriots," or anonymous informers, have during Maduro's nearly three years in power taken an increasingly important role in providing information that leads to arrests of government foes, a Reuters review has found.
Maduro's government lauds them as guardians of its socialist revolution, helping curb the opposition's radical wing and staving off alleged coup plans.
Critics and legal experts say the informers are used as pro-government snitches to spread fear, weakening Venezuela's democracy and flawed justice system.
Gonzalez was locked in a windowless cell of intelligence service Sebin and held for nearly a year pending trial, according to his lawyers and family.
Then, in March 2015, he hanged himself with a belt.
"Without proof or investigations, just because of this anonymous testimony from a cooperating patriot, our lives have radically changed," said his daughter Lissette Gonzalez, her voice breaking as she recounted the tale in her office at Caracas university where she works as a sociologist.
Gonzalez was an opposition supporter but his family scoffs at suggestions he was planning to overturn the government. They suspect the supposedly incriminating tape was invented because only a transcript was presented in court.
Ruling Socialist Party officials, however, praise the "patriots" for protecting Venezuela from a coup like the short-lived putsch against former socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2002.
Maduro is often lampooned for exaggerating the threats against his government.
Yet some opposition radicals acknowledge wanting him gone by any means, there was violence on both sides during the 2014 protests and one young leader, now in detention, was caught on video apparently discussing bomb and assassination plots.
"I call on the Venezuelan people to be alert and to turn ourselves into millions of cooperating patriots to guarantee the country's peace," Maduro said during a recent rally, pumping his fist in the air.
The public prosecutor's office and information ministry did not respond to requests for comment, though one state prosecutor defended the informers.
"If it weren't for the cooperating patriots the fatherland-hating opposition would have already staged a coup," he said, asking to remain anonymous. "Cooperating patriots exist in other countries, but no one makes as much of an uproar."
Venezuela's "patriots" are a far cry from the world's most notorious secret police forces, such as Communist East Germany's Stasi.
Some government opponents compare them with Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. But as well as keeping tabs on dissidents, the CDRs are part of a formal structure with social functions from vaccination to recycling programs.
Though the term "cooperating patriot" first surfaced toward the end of Chavez's rule, it was only after his death and Maduro's election in 2013 that they began to gain prominence and the number of cases based on their information rose.
Lawyers say there seem to be two types: amateurs paid by intelligence agencies, and professionals in state security services who are assigned to specific targets.
Since the violent protests against Maduro in early 2014, there have been at least 20 cases involving the anonymous informers, according to a Reuters tally.
"There's no doubt these cases are rising," said Jose Vicente Haro, a lawyer who has defended around 20 people accused by "cooperating patriots."
There are no official statistics on the use of informers.
In dozens of court records examined by Reuters, the identity of those identified as "cooperating patriots," "witnesses" or "informers" is not disclosed, purportedly to protect family ties or out of fear of repercussions.
"This prevents the defense from interrogating this person in trial to verify their statements and contrast them with reality," Haro said.
Haro and other lawyers who have represented defendants in these cases say the use of anonymous informers is illegal because Venezuelan law stipulates that denunciations must be accompanied by full identification of the accuser.
Exceptions are allowed for undercover operations linked to organized crime or terrorism, but no charges in those categories were among the cases reviewed by Reuters.
Undercover agents must belong to the state's security groups, a requirement not met by some of the informers, lawyers say.
"The cooperating patriot is a nefarious figure for democracy," said Alejandro Salinas, a Chilean lawyer and author of the 2015 report "Venezuela: The Sunset of Rule of Law" published by the Geneva-based rights group International Commission of Jurists.
Local campaign groups, like Fundeci and Penal Forum, now defend those accused by "patriots" free of charge.
'LOVE IN THE TIME OF PROTESTS'
During an all-night protest in April 2014, a group of intelligence agents was dispatched to the Caracas apartment of poet Balvina Munoz.
The armed agents first rang the bell, and when they received no answer, started pounding on the door until a startled Munoz, in a bath robe, opened.
"Give me the book!" one officer yelled, according to Munoz's lawyer. "The one you're writing ... give it to me!"
Munoz was writing a book about the lives of young demonstrators called "Love in the time of Protests," a wink to Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book "Love in the Time of Cholera."
Accused of "instigating terrorism and social hate," Munoz, a mother of two, was locked up during 11 months in a women's prison on the outskirts of Caracas before being granted house arrest last March.
Weeks before her detention, Munoz had grown close to a fellow demonstrator, newly-arrived at the protesters' camp, and had told her about the book. The young woman stopped going to the camp after Munoz's detention, and Munoz's family subsequently matched her name to a policewoman.
Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello always ends his weekly TV show "Bashing With The Bludgeon" with a section broadcasting reports the "patriots" compile about opposition politicians, activists and journalists.
"To be a 'cooperating patriot' you have to have solid moral principles, love for the fatherland, and loyalty toward the President of the Republic and the supreme commander Hugo Chavez," he said in one episode last year, reading a letter from an alleged association of "cooperating patriots."
Alleged informers with names like "the judoka," "coconut water," or "global patriot" supply recordings on tapped phones, videos, photos and documents about anti-government figures.
Opposition lawmakers recently won a majority in the National Assembly and have vowed to push through an amnesty law to free political prisoners, including the dozens of people detained with information provided by "cooperating patriots."
But the government plans to block the effort and activists say many people have already been intimidated into silence.
"If you start to suspect everything you say could end up used against you, not only are you going to be scared of marching or protesting but also of talking with your neighbors," said the retired pilot's daughter, Lissette.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Corina Pons; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)