Colombia — When Venezuela launched “Operation to Liberate and Protect the People” in July, the administration touted it as a massive crime crackdown that would help reduce one of the world's highest murder rates and bring lawless metropolitan areas under control.
A new study, however, suggests that the push is spawning its own wave of abuses, as security forces have allegedly razed neighborhoods, engaged in mass detentions and deportations, and murdered suspects — all in the name of fighting crime.
A report presented Monday by Human Rights Watch and Venezuela's PROVEA, paints a picture of policing gone too far.
“Venezuelans are facing one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere and urgently need effective protection from violent crime,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “But in multiple raids throughout the country, the security forces themselves have allegedly committed serious abuses — including unlawful killings — in the very communities that need their protection.”
The operation, known as the OLP, came as President Nicolás Maduro was under pressure to control Venezuela's spectacular crime wave. Depending on who's counting, the nation has the world's highest — or almost highest — murder rate. And criminal gangs have been known to stage attacks with assault weapons and hand grenades.
Last year, the government sent more than 80,000 security forces to sweep through working class, crime-riddled areas across the nation. In February, Interior Minister Gustavo González López said the operation had allowed the government to dismantle 144 gangs and make more than 2,300 arrests. That same month, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said that 245 people had been killed during OLP raids in 2015.
While officials routinely claim the deaths occurred during police confrontations, the report found at least 20 cases in which witnesses and families said there was no confrontation. In some cases, victims were last seen alive in police custody.
In a Aug. 17 case highlighted in the report, on the island of Margarita, police killed Ángel Joel Torrealba, 16, while he was still in bed, according to his mother. She said that after the incident, the agents forced her entire family outside and then staged the scene to look like a shootout.
The administration did not immediately react to the report, but in the past, the administration has suggested combative human rights groups are part of a larger strategy to discredit the government and pave the way for an ouster. The government has also blamed the violence on right-wing sabateurs.
Monday's findings come amid almost daily reports of high-profile and crimes, where nobody seems immune. Police have frequently been murdered — targeted for their body armor and weapons. And in less than two weeks, a retired general, a state legislator with the ruling party and a small town mayor have been murdered.
Beyond the extrajudicial killings signaled in the report, researchers found that security officials are engaging in mass and indiscriminate detentions. According to official sources, more than 14,000 people were temporarily detained between July 2015 and January 2016, but fewer than 100 were ultimately charged with any offense.
In addition, more than 1,700 Colombians have been deported during the period, hundreds of whom had either requested asylum or been granted refugee status by Venezuela. An additional 22,000 Colombians have left the country fearing deportations, the report found.
In other cases, the study found that government agents razed entire neighborhoods. Satellite images provided by Human Rights Watch suggest hundreds of homes were destroyed in communities where security agents allegedly carried out mass evictions. Residents told researchers that they were not given prior notice and had no mechanism for contesting the action.
Venezuela's opposition has long claimed that it has been the target of police overreach, but Monday's study suggests how widespread the use of force is, including in neighborhoods long-considered government strongholds.
“For over a decade, the Venezuelan government has wielded virtually unchecked power against its critics and opponents – jailing politicians, blacklisting trade unionists, censoring and shutting down media outlets, harassing human rights defenders, and cracking down on peaceful protests,” Rafael Uzcátegui, PROVEA’s executive director, said in a statement. “The OLP raids have illustrated the extent to which Venezuelans of all political stripes – including people in communities where there has been widespread support for the government – are defenseless in the face of government abuses.”