GENEVA (NYTIMES) - Venezuelan special forces have carried out thousands of extrajudicial killings in the past 18 months and then manipulated crime scenes to make it look as if the victims had been resisting arrest, the United Nations said on Thursday (July 4) in a report detailing wide-ranging government abuses targeting political opponents.
Special Action Forces described by witnesses as "death squads" killed 5,287 people in 2018 and another 1,569 by mid-May of this year, in what are officially termed by the Venezuelan government "Operations for the Liberation of the People", UN investigators reported.
Laying out a detailed description of a lawless system of oppression, the report says the actual number of deaths could be much higher. It cites accounts by independent groups who report more than 9,000 killings for "resistance to authority" over the same period.
"There are reasonable grounds to believe that many of these killings constitute extrajudicial executions committed by the security forces," the investigators said.
The report, which UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet will present to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday, delivers a scathing critique of President Nicolas Maduro's embattled government and its handling of Venezuela's deepening political and economic crisis.
Since 2016, the report says, the government has pursued a strategy "aimed at neutralising, repressing and criminalising political opponents and people critical of the government".
Venezuela's Foreign Ministry rejected the findings on Thursday, saying the report offered a "distorted vision" that ignored most of the information presented by the government to UN researchers.
"The analysis is not objective, nor impartial," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, listing what it said were 60 errors. "The negative points are privileged in the extreme and the advances or measures adapted in the area of human rights are ignored or minimised."
The Special Action Forces, known locally by their Spanish acronym FAES, are nominally tasked with combating drug trafficking and crime, but UN human rights officials said they were concerned the government was using these and other security forces "as an instrument to instil fear in the population and to maintain social control."
Families of 20 young men who were killed in the past year described a pattern of violence in which the FAES units arrive in pickup trucks without licence plates, dressed in black and with their faces covered by balaclavas.
They break into houses, seize belongings and molest women, forcing some to strip naked. Then "they would separate young men from other family members before shooting them", the investigators reported.
In every case described to the investigators, attackers manipulated the crime scene. "They would plant arms and drugs and fire their weapons against the walls or in the air to suggest a confrontation and to show the victim had 'resisted authority,'" the report says.
The investigators said they had also documented the execution of six young men carried out during one of the house raids, the killings done as a reprisal for their participation in anti-government demonstrations.
Five special forces members were convicted of attempted murder and other offences in 2018, and 388 others were under investigation for abuses, according to the report. But few victims, it says, have access to justice or any redress.
The report also describes routine abuse by security and intelligence services of people detained for political reasons. In most of the cases, men and women were subjected to one or more forms of torture, including electric shock, suffocation with plastic bags, water boarding, beating and sexual violence. Women were dragged by their hair and threatened with rape, the report says.
The detentions often had no legal basis, according to the report, which says that more than 2,000 people were arrested for political reasons in the first five months of the year and more than 720 were still detained at the end of May.
Human rights activists welcomed the spotlight the report is turning onto government repression and abuses. "The government's reaction shows it hits the right points," said Ms Tamara Taraciuk Broner, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
But Ms Taraciuk expressed disappointment that the report stops short of urging the UN to set up a commission of inquiry. It calls instead for the government to set up an independent investigation, with some unspecified international participation.
"You cannot ask Venezuelan courts, which have no independence, to investigate the executive," she said.
The report comes two weeks after Ms Bachelet visited Venezuela. Its hard-hitting tone was especially eye-opening, given her political background. In her second term as Chile's left-leaning president from 2014 to 2018, she was among the few South American leaders who refused to openly criticise Mr Maduro's growing authoritarianism.
The Venezuelan government had tried to use Ms Bachelet's visit to bolster Mr Maduro's international legitimacy. More than 50 nations, including the United States, have stopped recognising him as Venezuela's legitimate leader, calling his re-election last year fraudulent.
Ms Bachelet's team was given unusual access inside Venezuela, unlike that given to her predecessor or other UN agencies. Mr Maduro heavily publicised his meeting with Ms Bachelet and promised to consider allowing her to open a full-time office in the country. The government also agreed to allow two UN human rights staff members to work in the country and said it would give them full access to detention centres.
But any hopes that her visit paved the way for a government change of course on human rights were quickly dampened by the news days later of the death in custody of a navy captain, Mr Rafael Acosta, who was detained the day Ms Bachelet's visit ended.
His lawyer said he had been in good health at the time of his arrest, but he died in a military hospital a week later showing visible signs of beatings.
Ms Bachelet expressed her shock at Mr Acosta's death and called for an investigation, but human rights groups said it showed the limited outcome from her visit.
"This case shows that the government of Venezuela is not taking her seriously," Ms Taraciuk said.