Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, earned the ignominious distinction of being the world’s most violent city in 2015, based on its homicide rate.
Crime and violence are rampant throughout the country, and a recent report from Human Rights Watch and a Venezuelan human-rights organisation indicate that the war on crime launched by the government has only added to the carnage.
In 135 operations conducted primarily in poor areas between July 2015 and the end of that year as part of the “Operation to Liberate and Protect the People” (OLP) 20 alleged extrajudicial killings were documented, hundreds of arbitrary detentions and some subsequent abuses were recorded, and thousands of people were evicted from their homes.
During OLP raids carried out by the national guard, national police, intelligence service officials, and state police forces last year, 245 people were killed, and in the cases included in the HRW/Venezuelan Human Rights Education-Action Program (PROVEA) report, evidence “suggests that the individuals whom security personnel shot and killed were non-threatening.” In some cases, those people were allegedly killed after they were taken into custody.
The disparity between the number of people killed in those raids and the number of security agents killed or wounded “undercuts the government’s claim that killings took place when criminals violently confronted the police,” the report says.
More than 14,000 Venezuelans were temporarily detained between July 2015 and January 2016 to “verify” if they were wanted in relation to any crimes, according to official sources. However, fewer than 100 of those people were ultimately charged with an offence.
In some cases documented by the HRW/PROVEA report, law-enforcement agents physically abused those detainees, and some agents allegedly stole personal items from homes.
HRW/PROVEA also found evidence that government agents had evicted thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of homes in the course of OLP raids. In some cases, residents said they were not given the legally required notice before those evictions or the opportunity to challenge them.
Many Colombians living in Venezuela, some of who had refugee status, were also deported during OLP operations.
More than 1,700 Colombian citizens were deported from the border state of Tachira alone, and more than 22,000 left Venezuela in fear of deportation or other abuses.
None of the deported Colombians interviewed for the report said they were given a chance to appeal, and many said they had been physically abused by Venezuelan security agents.
While the toll OLP-related security measures have taken is surprising, the tactics themselves are not new.
“There is a longstanding belief actually among the population, and this predates Chavez … that the only real way to address crime is through ‘mano dura,'” or “iron fist,” policies, Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, told Business Insider in late 2015.
“And the exemplar of mano dura is the military or some sort of highly repressive force,” Velasco added, “whether it’s the military or the national guard.”
With the failure of law-enforcement and gun-control reforms that were pursued between 2008 and 2014, the Venezuelan government has fallen back on these “mano dura” polices, which have emphasised a larger presence of the military and militarised police on the streets, particularly in poorer areas.
“When the army is deployed to do citizen security they follow the rules of engagement that are conventionally military,” Velasco told Business Insider. “Their rules of engagement are so discretionary and broad that we have seen a significant amount of deaths.”
These military forms of policing “have been proven ineffective time and again,” David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), wrote recently, but they continue to have broad public support.
In the face of these reported abuses, victims have struggled to find justice or to challenge the conduct of government agents. “The Venezuelan judiciary has ceased to function as an independent branch of government and has routinely upheld abusive government policies and practices,” the HRW/PROVEA report notes.
PROVEA has reported accusations to the Venezuelan attorney general on numerous occassions, it’s not clear that charges leveled against officers taking part in OLP raids will be investigated, according to WOLA.
“The problem is impunity,” a resident of Miranda state in north-central Venezuela told HRW/PROVEA interviewers. “As long as there is impunity, the mistreatment by authorities will continue.”