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People disembark in Colombia after fleeing Venezuela's Apure state due to a Venezuelan military operation against armed groups in the region, as well as egregious abuses by Venezuelan security forces. © 2021 Human Rights Watch

Armed groups operating in the eastern Colombian state of Arauca and the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure control people’s everyday lives through threats, kidnappings, forced labor, child recruitment, murder, and extortion. In Venezuela, they have done so with the Venezuelan security forces’ acquiescence and at times their collusion.

So it may seem surprising that Venezuelan authorities began an offensive on March 21, supposedly to combat armed groups in Apure. But the operation is selective—focused on one dissident group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, while allowing others to consolidate their control over drug trafficking in the area.

The operation led to extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, the prosecution of civilians in military courts, and torture of residents accused of collaborating with guerrillas. Victims deny links to armed groups.

Soldiers and security force agents raided homes and looted or destroyed personal belongings and food. Agents arrested people without warrants, beat them, and threatened to kill them. Detainees were held in military facilities.

A special police force took four peasants from their house. Their bodies were found a mile away with cuts, bullet wounds and apparently dislocated bones. Forensic experts concluded that photos of the bodies suggest they had been moved and firearms and grenades by their hands may have been planted.

Thousands have fled to Colombia.

The egregious abuses in Apure are not isolated incidents by rogue agents, but consistent with systematic practices in Venezuela that have been under examination by the International Criminal Court prosecutor and the United Nations Independent Fact-Finding mission on Venezuela. Both found evidence of crimes against humanity. The UN mission found “reasonable grounds” to implicate President Nicolás Maduro and his interior and defense ministers. The ICC prosecutor anticipates determining whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with a formal investigation by July.

These bodies, as part of their ongoing work, should assess the possible responsibility of those directly implicated and of commanders and high-level authorities who may have ordered abuses, or bear responsibility for failing to prevent crimes or hold those responsible to account.

With impunity at home, international avenues are the only hope for justice.

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