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Report: More than 500 people were killed in two years in Venezuelan government’s anti-crime campaign

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a televised address in Caracas on Sept. 29, 2017. (Venezuelan President's Office/EPA)
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CARACAS, Venezuela — In 2015, Venezuela's government announced a plan to take on soaring crime and bring stability to some of the most violent areas in the country. But a new report by investigative journalists alleges that instead of pacifying the country, the operation has left more than 500 people dead and led to the installation of pro-government armed groups in slums.

The investigation, by the local news site in partnership with a Colombian-based journalism nonprofit called Connectas, relied on official figures, media reports from around Venezuela, and interviews with people in five states to document the impact of the anti-crime program, known as Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People, or OLP. The program began well before the recent four-month barrage of anti-government demonstrations in which more than 100 protesters died.

The government of President Nicolás Maduro, who took office in 2013, has been accused for years by international human-rights groups of abuses such as arresting opposition politicians, intimidating media representatives, stacking the courts with supporters and using brutality against demonstrators.

According to the new report, Venezuelan security officers involved with the OLP, sometimes wearing masks, conducted dozens of raids in which they entered homes without warrants and shot people, some of whom were suspected of criminal activity. The operations left at least 560 people dead in at least 20 of Venezuela's 23 states, more than half of them in raids that killed at least five individuals, the journalists reported.

This past July, Venezuela's then-Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, said that the anti-crime program had resulted in around 500 deaths and numerous abuses. But the new report goes further, alleging that in many cases the victims were chosen as part of officials' vendettas or to benefit their allies in illegal businesses. It says that the objective in some cases was to replace organized-crime groups with violent pro-government gangs known as “colectivos” which took over drug trafficking and the distribution of subsidized food in neighborhoods.

Ortega Díaz turned against the Maduro government in March and was removed from her post in August. Her allegations were subsequently removed from the attorney general's official website.

The Maduro government has not commented publicly on the journalistic investigation, and several officials either refused comment about it or did not respond to texts, emails and phone calls.

The former attorney general has said that 1,074 Venezuelan officials have been investigated and 112 charged in connection with the anti-crime program's excesses. But the journalistic report concluded that investigations generally were pursued only when the killings received a lot of public attention.

The anti-crime operation started in July 2015, as Maduro's government was facing legislative elections. The president's popularity was declining because of soaring inflation and a growing scarcity of basic products — the fallout of years of socialist policies instituted by his predecessor, the late president Hugo Chávez, as well as slumping oil prices that hurt this petroleum-rich country. The opposition wound up winning a majority in congress in those elections.

An official from the Anti-Kidnapping and Extortion Command, one of the forces that participated in the anti-crime operation, told the Venezuelan journalists that a lack of control and supervision resulted in many officers using the anti-crime raids to benefit themselves. The official was not identified.

Among those caught up in the raids was an American citizen and former Mormon missionary, Joshua Holt. The 25-year-old and his new Venezuelan wife were arrested in 2016 and accused of possessing illegal weapons after authorities claimed they discovered an automatic rifle and a hand grenade in their home. Venezuelan officials publicly linked the couple to a gang that had killed a politician from the governing party, but Holt's lawyer has said there was no evidence he or his wife committed a crime. They are being held by Venezuelan intelligence forces and have never appeared before a judge.

Here's the link to the journalists' investigation (in Spanish):