The scale and brutality of violent repression by Venezuelan security forces is evident in video footage shot in recent months, Human Rights Watch said in a multimedia piece released today. 

(New York) – Human Rights Watch issued a multimedia report today that shows the scale and brutality of violent repression of protests by Venezuelan security forces in recent months.

Since early April 2017, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets to protest the government’s growing authoritarianism. The government has responded with a brutal crackdown. Security forces have shot demonstrators at point-blank range with riot-control munitions, run over demonstrators with an armored vehicle, brutally beaten people who offered no resistance, and broken into homes of suspected opponents. The security forces have also arbitrarily arrested hundreds of demonstrators, bystanders, and critics and prosecuted them in military courts.

For years, Maduro has been operating under the assumption that he can commit abuses without any meaningful oversight, given the absolute concentration of power and lack of judicial independence in the country.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

“When you see images of the repression, the government’s narrative about a violent coup-plotting opposition falls apart,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Regional leaders should use this evidence to send a clear message to Venezuelan officials and security forces that these actions will not be tolerated and that those responsible will eventually be held accountable.”

The video includes images of egregious human rights violations by members of the Bolivarian National Police and the Bolivarian National Guard. In many cases, armed pro-government groups, called “colectivos,” have carried out the abuses with collaboration or acquiescence of security forces. The abuses include:

Brutality during massive anti-government demonstrations. Security forces have used a variety of riot control munitions – pellets, marbles, teargas canisters, and other so-called non-lethal cartridges – in response to demonstrations. In several cases these munitions have been used inappropriately, at too close a range or directly targeting people, causing deaths or severe injury.

Security forces have also shot toward demonstrations from rooftops and run over demonstrators with an armored vehicle. In many cases, the victims clearly posed no imminent threat and offered no resistance. Some were not even participating in demonstrations. Security forces have fired teargas canisters directly toward demonstrators, health workers, and the Red Cross building in Caracas, and into malls, homes, universities, and health facilities.

Arbitrary arrests and prosecutions. More than 4,000 people have been arrested since early April, according to the Venezuelan Penal Forum, a local nonprofit group that provides legal support to detainees. Those arrested include demonstrators, bystanders, and people who have been taken away from their homes without judicial warrants. In many cases, security forces and colectivos have stolen detainees’ personal belongings and subjected them to physical and psychological abuse. Security forces have severely abused detainees in detention, including ill-treatment that may amount to torture. Military courts have prosecuted more than 470 civilians.

Demonstrators clash with riot security forces at the fence of an air base while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela.

© 2017 Reuters

Breaking into homes. Security forces and colectivos have broken into residential buildings and raided homes without a judicial order, destroying doors and cars, stealing, and beating and detaining residents.

Breaking into the National Assembly. On July 5, security forces allowed armed thugs to assault the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition, and beat up opposition legislators in broad daylight. The attack was coordinated between colectivos and members of the National Guard, according to audio recordings released on July 7.

Street demonstrations have been largely peaceful, yet security forces have repeatedly used extreme force against peaceful protestors. There have been some incidents of violence by some demonstrators, including throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, but in no way do these actions justify the killings or other acts of brutality by security forces, Human Rights Watch said.

Since early April, more than 90 people have been killed in the context of demonstrations, including several members of the security forces, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz has opened investigations for the alleged violation of fundamental rights in more than half of the 1,500 recorded injury cases. The attorney general has also published official information regarding ongoing investigations, many of which point to officials’ responsibility for rights violations.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of abuse, there is no evidence to indicate that any key high-level officials other than the attorney general have taken steps to prevent and punish violations. On the contrary, officials have downplayed the abuses or issued implausible blanket denials, often blaming demonstrators for all violence. Government officials and supporters threatened to remove the attorney general from office.

In late June, President Nicolás Maduro declared that his government will never give in to its opponents, and that any future political defeat would result in violence. “What we couldn’t do with votes,” he warned, “we would do with arms.”

On July 30, the government is planning to hold elections for a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the Venezuelan Constitution. Over 7 million Venezuelans voted against the government’s initiative in a plebiscite organized by the opposition on July 16. Opposition leaders have vowed to stay on the streets to stop the government from moving forward with the Constituent Assembly proposal.

“For years, Maduro has been operating under the assumption that he can commit abuses without any meaningful oversight, given the absolute concentration of power and lack of judicial independence in the country,” Vivanco said. “Unless Latin American leaders redouble the pressure and show him that this will no longer be tolerated, the flow of horrific images like these will only continue.”