A new report by Human Rights Watch that documents numerous alleged extrajudicial killings by members of the Venezuela police and military raises questions about whether the country’s security institutions are having a positive or negative net impact on its troubled security situation.
The report (pdf) titled “Unchecked Power: Police and Military Raids in Low-Income and Immigrant Communities in Venezuela,” examines abusive actions taken by security forces since the inception of Operation to Liberate and Protect the People (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo – OLP), a government anti-crime initiative launched in July 2015.
Some 245 people were killed during OLP raids occurring in the second half of 2015, the report says, with dozens more killed thus far in 2016. Authorities say many of the deaths occurred during violent confrontations between security forces and armed criminals, an assertion that Human Rights Watch questions.
“The sheer number of people killed by security forces during these operations raises concerns about whether and to what extent the use of lethal force by security forces has been justified,” the report states.
Human Rights Watch and the Venezuelan Human Rights Education-Action Program (PROVEA) documented 20 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings committed by security forces during OLP raids last year. The non-governmental organizations collected testimonies from eye witnesses in 11 of the cases, while its account of the other nine were based on media reports.
Olga Meza told Human Rights Watch that five armed men wearing the badge of Venezuela’s CICPC investigative police forcibly entered her home one night last August. She said a police officer pulled her husband out of bed and beat him, while another agent entered a bedroom and shot her 16-year-old son to death. Meza said that when the officers realized they had mistaken her son for their suspect, they fired shots into the air and then hollered that there had been a shootout.
According to Human Rights Watch, authorities later registered the incident as a confrontation, rather than an extrajudicial killing. After Meza filed an official complaint, security agents began harassing her and even following her when she went to visit her son’s grave. As of last month, Meza said she was not aware of any major advancements in the investigation of her son’s death.
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Venezuela is in the midst of a severe security crisis. Frequently, the security forces aggravate the situation rather than alleviating it. While the Human Rights Watch report focuses on alleged abuses carried out during OLP raids, the extent of human rights violations goes far beyond the scope of this one security operation. According to a recent investigation by Venezuelan news outlet Efecto Cocuyo, more than 200 people were killed by police just in the first month of 2016.
Venezuelan police are frequently on the receiving end of violence as well. A total of 112 officers were killed in the capital city of Caracas during the first nine months of 2015, and some municipalities have seen agents leave the force en masse due to personal security concerns.
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But unlawful acts of violence perpetrated by police officers cannot be solely attributed to, and should not be rationalized by, rising violence against the police. Academic studies have shown that approximately 70 percent of agents who are killed meet their deaths while off duty, which calls into question a direct or causal link between violence directed at police and abuses committed by them. Indeed, Human Rights Watch’s review of official documents and media reports turned up only three instances in which security personnel were killed during OLP raids.
It is more likely that the main cause of extrajudicial killings by Venezuelan security forces is the one alluded to in the report’s title: “Unchecked Power.” Police and military agents often face no repercussions for excessive use of force, meaning there is little incentive for them to practice restraint when conducting raids.
Rocío San Miguel, director of the organization Citizen Control for National Security, Defense, and the Armed Forces, has argued that extrajudicial killings disguised by authorities as “confrontations” have become so institutionalized that this practice amounts to “the realest and clearest way that the death penalty exists in Venezuela.”
A similar dynamic is seen in Brazil, where police are notorious for being among the most violent in Latin America. According to one citizen security body in Brazil, police officers killed an average of 2,239 civilians per year between 2009 and 2013. But these acts of violence are frequently classified as “resistance killings,” thereby absolving the police officers of culpability.
There are many factors involved in elevating the number of of killings committed by security forces in Venezuela and around the region, from militarized anti-crime strategies, to hyper violent criminal groups, to resentment over inadequate justice systems. As long as impunity for extrajudicial killings remains the norm, these numbers are not likely to go down.