Venezuelan security forces have committed egregious abuses against local residents during a weeks-long operation against armed groups on the border with Colombia, Human Rights Watch said Monday.
Venezuelan security forces opened the offensive in Apure state on March 21, 2021, with the alleged purpose of combatting armed groups in Venezuela. The operation led to the execution of at least four peasants, arbitrary arrests, the prosecution of civilians in military courts, and torture of residents accused of collaborating with armed groups. The abuses follow a pattern similar to that of systematic abuses that have led to international inquiries into possible crimes against humanity in the country.
“The egregious abuses against Apure residents are not isolated incidents by rogue agents, but consistent with the Venezuelan security forces’ systematic practices,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “International inquiries are essential into the mounting evidence against security force members who have committed abuses, and against commanders and top-level officials who knew or should have known what was happening during these operations.”
On April 5, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López announced the arrests of 33 people, to be tried under military jurisdiction. He said six camps of “terrorist groups” had been dismantled, and nine “terrorists” had been killed. He reported 8 deaths and 34 injuries of soldiers.
Confrontations between the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, FANB) and a dissident group from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) known as the Martin Villa 10th Front broke out in various rural areas in Venezuela on March 21. Since then, at least 5,800 people have fled Apure state for Colombia, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Despite support from aid groups and the authorities in Arauquita, the Colombian city of 50,000 where most of the displaced Venezuelans and Colombians have arrived, shelters are overcrowded and aid is insufficient. Many more are staying in homes of friends and relatives in rural areas in the state of Arauca, Colombia, with limited, if any, access to aid. Colombian authorities have also reported the arrival of Venezuelans and Colombians living in Apure in the Colombian municipalities of Arauca and Saravena. Between 300 and 400 forcibly displaced people are in other parts of Venezuela.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 68 people in person in the state of Arauca and by phone in March and April. They included 38 people who had fled Apure, as well as lawyers, forensic experts, community leaders, journalists, local Colombian authorities, and humanitarian and human rights organizations. Most of those who had witnessed abuses feared reprisals in Venezuela and spoke on condition that their names and other identifying information be withheld.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed information from Colombian and Venezuelan authorities, and other evidence such as photographs, videos, and audio recordings of attacks, lootings, and people crossing the river to Colombia. The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office and Ombudsperson’s Office did not respond to requests for information.
Displaced Venezuelans said that frequent airstrikes and fighting, as well as egregious abuses by Venezuelan security forces, caused them to flee.
The security forces they identified as responsible for abuses included the FANB, the Special Action Force of the Bolivarian National Police (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES), the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB), and the National Anti-Extortion and Anti-Kidnapping Command (Comando Nacional Antiextorsión y Secuestro, CONAS).
Interviewees said soldiers and security force agents raided the houses of families living in the town of La Victoria and its rural areas of El Ripial, Los Arenales, La Capilla y La Osa. The agents did not show a search warrant, witnesses said. Residents, mostly peasants, were dragged from their houses without arrest warrants. Agents ordered detainees to cover their heads with their t-shirts and beat them, threw them to the ground, and threatened to kill them.
An official list of detainees and their whereabouts has not been provided, but relatives and human rights groups reported they were initially held at a military base in the city of Guasdualito and, weeks later, transferred to a section within the Santa Ana prison in Táchira state that is administered by the military. Two detainees who were later released confirmed that they had been held in military installations. Multiple interviewees said that detainees were not members of armed groups.
On March 25, FAES took four members of a family from their house in La Victoria, said a family member. Their bodies were found a mile away, in El Ripial, with cuts, bullet wounds, and apparent bone dislocations. Forensic experts concluded that photos of the bodies suggest that they had been moved, and that firearms and grenades may have been planted by their hands.
Security forces broke into several houses and looted or destroyed personal belongings, food, and household items, residents said. Some families locked themselves inside their houses for days, then fled to Colombia. People with dual Venezuelan and Colombian citizenship feared that security forces would consider this proof of ties to armed groups.
In 2020, the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela and the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) found evidence that crimes against humanity may have been committed in Venezuela. Their reports implicated the same security forces accused of committing abuses in Apure.
On March 26, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek Saab appointed two human rights prosecutors to investigate events in Apure, and established a joint commission of 12 experts to investigate the killings in El Ripial. The Attorney General’s Office has not responded to a Human Rights Watch request for information on the status of investigations.
The Venezuelan judiciary has routinely failed to adequately investigate compelling evidence of widespread human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch research has shown, allowing impunity to remain the norm.
The Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court and the UN Fact Finding Mission on Venezuela should assess the possible responsibility of those directly implicated in extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, and torture by Venezuelan security forces in Apure, Human Rights Watch said. They should also assess the possible responsibility of commanders and high-level authorities who may have ordered abuses, or may bear responsibility for failing to take appropriate steps to prevent crimes or hold those responsible to account.