For three days in July 2021, the Caracas neighborhood of Cota 905 became an urban warzone. Just blocks away from Venezuela’s Miraflores presidential palace, over 3,000 police and military backed by armored vehicles fought street by street as residents cowered in flimsy breezeblock houses.

This show of force was not intended to face down an army, nor even a militia or paramilitary group. The enemy was a heavily armed and deeply entrenched street gang, led by a notorious gangster and made up mostly of young extortionists and drug dealers.

The so-called “mega-operation” cost dozens of lives and left neighborhood residents traumatized by abuses allegedly committed by security forces. But the operation achieved its goal of driving out Cota 905’s most-wanted gang leader, Luis Carlos Revete, alias “El Koki.”

President Nicolás Maduro has since embraced mega-operations, which he had occasionally used in the past, as a central pillar of his strategy for combating gangs that terrorize many Venezuelan communities. Despite seeming successes like the expulsion of El Koki, these actions raise doubts about their effectiveness as a crime-fighting strategy and their potential for human rights violations.

Taking a Hard Line

By the time Maduro came to power in 2013, Venezuela had seen year after year of record homicide rates, and had earned an unwanted reputation as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. That year, there were over 24,000 violent deaths in the country, yielding a murder rate of 79 murders per 100,000 people, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV).

Behind much of this bloodshed was an emerging generation of highly violent street gangs, which grew into what were labeled megabandas (mega-gangs). Maduro’s initial security strategies failed to stem the rising violence, while radical plans to tackle the megabandas, such as creating “peace zones” free of security forces, achieved little more than ceding territory to the gangs.

In 2015, Maduro took a more hardline approach. The government launched Operation Liberation of the People (Operación de Liberación del Pueblo – OLP), in which heavily armed security forces units raided gang-controlled zones with orders to take out criminals at any cost.

“The OLP was the first mano dura [iron fist] policy developed in the country,” an OVV analyst told InSight Crime, asking not to be identified for fear of political persecution. “It was shown to be a policy of extermination of criminals.”

At that point, the OVV began collecting data on police killings, officially categorized as “resistance to authority.” In 2016, over 5,000 such deaths were registered, accounting for 19% of all violent deaths in the country. This percentage rose as high as 36% in 2020 before dropping to 13% in 2022, according to OVV data.

Under mounting criticism from human rights defenders that had collected evidence of extrajudicial executions and mass arbitrary arrests, the OLPs were phased out. But in their place came the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES), a new police unit that Venezuelans came to see as a death squad.

The FAES have gained international notoriety for their extreme and indiscriminate violence and rampant abuses, leading to calls from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for the force to be disbanded.

In 2020, the Maduro administration piloted a new approach in Petare, a giant urban district on the edges of Caracas plagued by violence and poverty. In May, a mixed force comprised of FAES, the police Criminal Investigations Unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), and the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), descended on the area in search of the gang led by Wilexis Alexander Acevedo, alias “Wilexis.”  

SEE ALSO: The Hunt for ‘Wilexis’ – Manufactured Mayhem in Petare, Venezuela

Security forces reportedly sealed off the entire area, trapping residents inside, while armed police officers with their faces covered jogged along behind the armored cars that rumbled through the streets while helicopters buzzed overhead.

Though no official results were reported, multiple media outlets reported that at least 12 people were killed. Wilexis escaped, but he was forced to flee Petare.

After the hunt for Wilexis came the operation against El Koki in Cota 905.

The government used the operation extensively for public relations purposes at home and abroad. It claimed credit for liberating Cota 905 and blamed the violence in the area on enemies in Colombia and among the Venezuelan political opposition.

“This was an operation full of light and moral force,” said Maduro, in comments reported by local media. “We have dismantled and will continue to dismantle the Colombian model of terrorism and death.”

Between July 2021 and February 2023, InSight Crime has documented seven further mega-operations in which thousands of police and military officials, along with helicopters and armored vehicles, have been deployed to target criminal gangs.

There have also been numerous smaller operations involving similar tactics, as well as large-scale military campaigns against armed groups in the Colombian border region and mining gangs in the east of the country.

In addition to Wilexis and El Koki, the targets of these deployments have included Tren del Llano, a gang focused on extortion in the states of Sucre and Guárico, and the Carlos Capa gang, which was the main target of a mega-operation in the Valles del Tuy region of Miranda state.

The brute force of these operations has now become a defining characteristic of the Maduro administration’s response to gang violence and social control.

“The police operations in Venezuela are dramatic because they do not focus on public security. Instead, they are anarchic and oppressive operations that are trying to recuperate spaces that the state has ceded [to criminal groups],” said an investigator with Defiende Venezuela, a human rights organization that has been collecting evidence of police abuses during recent mega-operations, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from the state.

New Strategy, Same Abuses

The mega-operations are unabashedly violent. But officials claim they are carefully targeted.

“[Police] killed some of them in their houses, others in confrontations,” a municipal police officer in Miranda, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime after a mega-operation left 27 dead in the region. “Everyone they killed were gangsters, those guys are precise. They work with social intelligence, they had all the information verified.”

But families and friends of victims as well as human rights groups describe a very different scenario.

“My son had never been arrested, he never had any problems with the government, he was never rude to anyone,” the mother of a 19-year-old man killed by police in Petare, told InSight Crime.

When the police showed up at their house one morning in October 2020, they were convinced he was a local gang member who had murdered a police officer. When she protested that her son was innocent, the police hit her, put a gun to her head, and made her lie on the floor while they executed her son in the next room, said the mother.

“When I heard the gunshot and saw how they … took him away, I ran into the room. All I saw was a pool of blood,” she said.

Whether the victims are criminals or not, there is a pattern to the killings, said the Defiende Venezuela investigator.

“The officers show up at the houses of the victims without a search warrant, they ask for the youth or the adult, they execute them, and then they falsify the crime they are punishing by planting evidence.”

And the killings are just part of the abuses perpetrated during police operations. Following the operation against Tren del Llano in Guárico, Defiende Venezuela collected testimonies of physical and verbal abuse, torture, sexual violence, robberies, forced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests.  

Once established in an area, police also begin to squeeze communities, extorting and stealing from locals, according to residents and human rights groups that spoke to InSight Crime.

“The gang extorted people, but the officials set up checkpoints and began to shake people down. If someone doesn’t have their papers in order, they take their money,” said a small business owner in Guárico, who was injured by police after one such encounter.

The business owner claimed police officers demanded two crates of beer in the middle of an operation. When he refused, he was beaten and the police fired into his store, wounding his leg with a ricocheting bullet.

When he came back from hospital, he found officers had taken away the security cameras that had recorded the incident.

“They were drunk and in uniform,” he said. “They didn’t have any warrant. They were down the street from my business drinking with some women. What they wanted was beer.”

Corrupt officials also reverse engineer the gangs’ own extortion schemes by using gang members’ phones to work out who they had been extorting and targeting them as well, according to testimonies collected by Defiende Venezuela.

“They say to the business owners that if you had to pay them, then you have to pay us,” said the investigator.

Unclear Impact

While there is substantial evidence of how these mega-operations have caused widespread abuses of the civilian population, it is unclear if they have been an effective security strategy.

Over two years after the operation in Petare, the neighborhood remains the domain of Wilexis and his gang, who returned to the area within months and have been reasserting their control ever since.

Petare is locked into a cycle of violence. Every few months a gang conflict erupts, leaving a trail of dead. The police are deployed in response and leave yet more bodies behind. Residents take to the streets to protest police violence and call for peace.

For those living in the area, worry and fear have become part of daily life.

“Any time you are traveling through the zone you have to be alert because either side [the gang or the police] could catch you by surprise and put you at risk,” said a young community leader from the area. “You never get used to it, you live with a permanent anxiety because of all the stories you’ve heard and the things you have seen.”

SEE ALSO:After El Koki’s Death, Gangs Stir Once Again in Caracas’ Cota 905

It is a different story in Cota 905. After driving out El Koki’s gang, security forces launched a manhunt for the group’s fugitive leader that ended with him being gunned down in February 2022 at a hideout in Aragua, a few hours outside of Caracas.

Security forces have set up a near-permanent state of militarization in Cota 905 in order to prevent the remnants of El Koki’s gang or criminal rivals from filling the vacuum left behind there.

In May 2022, one attempt at lowering the number of troops in Cota 905 saw those that remained targeted by grenades, an attack blamed on El Koki’s former lieutenants. The attacks quickly led to the re-militarization of the neighborhood that continues over 18 months after the operation.

Similarly to Petare, residents have become accustomed to living in essentially occupied territory, with regular checkpoints, armored cars on street corners, and gun-toting police everywhere. But with no more gangsters to fight, the police spend more time harassing the population, said one Cota 905 resident, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.

“The police are uniformed gangsters,” she said. “Now when someone says the police are here it scares me, even though I’m no criminal.”

Elsewhere, the mega-operations have had unforeseen consequences. The Tren del Llano gang has been targeted more than any other group. It has now faced three mega-operations in two states, which have left several of its leaders dead and over 120 alleged members arrested or killed, according to InSight Crime’s media monitoring.

But instead of disappearing, the group has fragmented into several cells. While the overall strength of the gang may have weakened, the threat it poses has evolved and multiplied.

“The military operations have pushed and promoted the transformation of the megabanda into more sophisticated criminal forms,” said an investigator of criminal dynamics in Guárico, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.

But despite these doubts, there is no sign the Maduro government will change its strategy.

The operations have become yet another way of channeling resources to security officials, as their earnings from looting and extortion make up for the paltry wages they receive from the state, said the human rights expert from Defiende Venezuela.

“The operations are going to carry on as long as they are useful for officials who can claim the spoils of war,” he said.   

And perhaps more importantly, with presidential elections on the horizon, Maduro wants to show the public that he is addressing their fears over out-of-control crime and insecurity.

“These operations are going to continue because the Venezuelan state has no planned citizen security strategy. Instead, mano dura is its only way of attacking crime. They want to show, through fear and statistics, that they are doing something,” concluded the human rights expert.