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A child stands next to the ruins of houses, which were demolished by government officials during a special security operation called "Operation to Free the People" (OLP) in Valencia. © 2015 Reuters

Olga Meza sat down at the table in the office of a local human rights organization in Venezuela [1] and said she wanted justice for her 16-year-old son. She broke down in tears as she spoke of the night that members of Venezuela’s investigative police force broke into her home, beat her and other members of her family, and forced her to watch as a security agent stormed into her son’s bedroom and shot him dead.

Washington [2], along with a handful of Latin American capitals and several former heads of state, has criticized the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro [3] for using excessive force against antigovernment protesters, prosecuting its critics, and jailing political opposition leaders.

Maduro’s crackdown [4], though, is worse than even his critics realize. His broad and aggressive exercise of unchecked executive power has also been directed at residents of low-income and immigrant communities, where there was widespread support for the Bolivarian Revolution, the leftist, social movement of Hugo Chávez [5], who served as president from 1999 to 2013.

Since last July, the government has conducted a series of police and military raids against such communities under the umbrella of what it says is an operation to combat criminal gangs.

Venezuelans face one of the highest murder rates in the region, and they urgently need effective protection from violent crime [6]. But the government’s get-tough-on-crime approach has led to serious harm. Many victims and witnesses whom our organizations have interviewed describe widespread abuses that security forces inflict on the communities that most need their protection.

Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said in February that 245 people were killed during such raids in 2015. Dozens more have reportedly been killed since January. Government officials claim that victims died during security force “confrontations” with armed criminals. Yet we found 20 cases in which families of victims or witnesses to the killings said that there was no confrontation. In several cases, witnesses said the victims were last seen alive in police custody.

Residents also described indiscriminate mass detentions. According to official sources, security forces detained more than 14,000 people temporarily during these operations last year, allegedly to verify whether they were wanted for crimes. But fewer than 100 were ultimately charged.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, security forces deported more than 1,700 Colombians [7] from border areas where they were carrying out operations. Hundreds of them had either requested asylum or been granted refugee status by Venezuela. At least 22,000 more are said to have fled the country, fearing abuses or forced deportation. 

The security forces also bulldozed hundreds of houses and evicted thousands of people arbitrarily, victims told us, both from government housing and private homes. Those evicted said they received no notice and had no opportunity to contest the government’s decision. Satellite images obtained by Human Rights Watch [8] confirm that hundreds of homes were destroyed [9] in communities in two states after mass evictions.

A common denominator in these cases, and in government abuses we have documented in other contexts during the past decade, is that the victims—or their families— have nowhere to turn for protection. In a country without judicial independence, victims have no access to justice, nor can they count on prompt and impartial investigations that would help prevent abuses.

Meza said that security forces harassed her after she filed a complaint with a prosecutor’s office to open an investigation into her son’s killing. In the case of the forced eviction [10] of an entire community in Miranda state, residents told us, representatives of the attorney general’s office stood by as security agents forced people out of their homes, stole their belongings, and bulldozed 100 houses. Many people deported to Colombia said they were not allowed to challenge their deportations.

In the past, when our organizations have published findings such as these, the Venezuelan authorities have denounced us, swiftly and publicly, as liars, mercenaries, or malcontents attempting to destabilize Venezuelan democracy. Within the past month, however, much to our surprise, the Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States said at a public hearing of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights that the cases should be investigated. Two days later, the Venezuelan ombudsman, who has openly and repeatedly supported the government, said that those whose homes were destroyed must be compensated, that allegations of extrajudicial executions must be investigated, and that those responsible must be brought to justice.

The fact that a report we recently published includes widespread allegations of abuse against vulnerable communities in addition to official statistics and satellite images that corroborate victims’ claims clearly made a difference. Yet it remains to be seen whether it will all be forgotten once the heat is off. Responding to pressure from human rights groups, Maduro should publicly order security forces to stop using unlawful force. And he should overhaul Venezuela’s justice system, which has for more than a decade functioned as a mere appendage of the executive branch. Washington and regional governments should urge the Venezuelan government to act now to ensure the independence of the country’s judiciary.

Meza made it clear why pressure is needed. She told us, “I am looking for justice, and I can’t find it anywhere.”

Rafael Uzcátegui is Executive Director at the Venezuelan Human Rights Education-Action Program (PROVEA) and José Miguel Vivanco is Americas Director at Human Rights Watch.

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