HomeNewsAnalysisBlack Ops: The Dark Side of Venezuela's OLPs

Black Ops: The Dark Side of Venezuela's OLPs


One of Venezuela’s top digital media organizations leads us on an in-depth tour through the aftermath of one of the government’s controversial OLP anti-crime operations and uncovers stories of a pro government death squad working side by side with law enforcement in some of the country’s most populous and troubled neighborhoods.

Johan Perez’s dried blood is still visible in one of the corridors of building 12, Terrace C of Ciudad Caribia. At number 14, the entry to the residence where Joel Perez lived and died shows signs of forced entry. In building 25, of Terrace B, the door of the house where the brothers Anthony and Julio Cesar Lopez died has three bullet holes. All these signs bear witness to the Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo - OLP) mounted here on June 30, as well as seven dead and 10 people arrested.

The story of these deaths did not begin that morning, but five days earlier on a Saturday. The calm of a weekend afternoon was broken in this model socialist city that Hugo Chavez built on Camino de los Indios road about 20 km west-northwest of downtown Caracas.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of RunRun.es. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

Laying the Groundwork

16-08-05ciudad-caribia-540x405Dozens of motorcycles and trucks carrying more than 100 armed men and women dressed in dark military attire drove into the center of the sprawling urban complex on land chosen by the late President Hugo Chavez from a helicopter. Though uniformed, these were civilians from several organizations based near the Perez Bonalde Metro station in Catia, on the nearest outskirts of the capital. They were a Colectivo, as the barrio-based, pro government organizations are known. Colectivos often show up to clash with anti-government protesters in the streets and to otherwise defend Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution.  

They brought three messages with them.

The first was greeted with applause: They proposed to organize the Local Committee for Food and Production (CLAP), a mechanism recently created by the government to distribute basic food bags in depressed areas.

"People went mostly to support that, because they always talked about the food," said a witness who asked that their name not be published. Faced with food shortages, any supply method is popular.

The second purpose, the visitors stated, was to avenge the death of one of their comrades whose bullet-ridden body was found in April in a wooded area at the entrance to Ciudad Caribia. The murdered colectivo member was a local coordinator of the Integrated Ground Transport System, president of the "Lautaro" Colectivo and a community spokesman. He had been a local pre-candidate of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela - PSUV) to the National Assembly.  

With the third announcement, the crowd fell silent: the colectivo wanted to put an end to the unionists who controlled the local construction industry. Those unionists were also citizens of Ciudad Caribia. The colectivo members then proceeded to project the faces of a series of people from the neighborhood on a wall of the Hugo Chavez Square complex, accusing them of being linked to criminal activities.

They called them paramilitaries, drug dealers and gamblers. Among the projected images was a picture of Ana Cedeno, sub director of a neighborhood and spokesperson for a community council, and one of Margarita Fórnica, another community spokesperson who also worked at a school.

"When they started with that, people began to slowly walk away," the witness said. The colectivo remained in Ciudad Caribia until after 8 pm.

The next day, June 26, another armed group in military uniform visited the Ciudad Caribia. They were officers of the National Guard (GNB). Neighbors say that it was Fórnica who has contacts with the government and requested support of the National Guard that Sunday to protect residents who had nothing to do with the union. Residents said the Guard kept the colectivo from entering the neighborhood by force that day, and many who had been named by the colectivo left Ciudad Caribia that night. Others stayed, thinking they had nothing to fear.

On Monday, everything was back to normal except for the rumors that spread. A member of the "Perez Bonalde" Colectivo, who went by the alias “Pata’e clavo” (foot and nail) and lived in Ciudad Caribia, had reportedly sworn that the OLP would place at his feet the heads of the accused delinquents.

The Siege of Ciudad Caribia

16-08-05RunRun olp2On June 30, armed groups began once again pouring into the large neighborhood before dawn. They set up headquarters in a structure built by the community’s housing mission.

“Everything was black,” recalled a woman who watched the incursion from behind her curtains. “They had black sweaters and vests, camouflaged military trousers, gloves, and their faces were covered with balaclavas.” She described seeing white jeeps like those used by the investigative police agency CICPC, dark vans with open backs, vans marked SEBIN for the national intelligence service, and National Guard motorcycles.

These massive, multi-agency deployments are a hallmark of the OLP operations that began in July 2015. The operation that moved into Ciudad Caribia that day was part of the “improved” New Phase of OLP announced by President Nicolás Maduro at the end of May 2016.

As the woman watched from her window she heard the terrified voice of her adolescent son behind her: “Death has come mom! The colectivos are death.”

Residents said they soon spotted several members of the "Perez Bonalde" Colectivo they recognized from the previous Saturday among the heavily armed groups.

Announcing that this was an OLP, the armed colectivo members accompanied members of the National Police, intelligence service and National Guard as they methodically searched the terraces of the residential complex. No one was allowed to leave or enter the area. Residents described scenes involving illegal raids "by order of Nicolas Maduro," mistreatment and abuses at the hands of authorities, threats and extrajudicial executions.

By 5 am, uniformed groups were in Terrace B, where Rodolfo Manrique and brothers Julio Caesar and Anthony Lopez died. In the first house, a resident who witnessed the raid said, the authorities knocked on the door and announced that it was an OLP. When a family member opened the door, masked men entered, found construction worker Manrique in the room where he was still sleeping and took him away.

"We were told they were going to take him to the Helicoide, but when we looked around, we were told he never got there," said a relative, referring to the massive 1960s drive-up shopping mall in Caracas which is now used as a jail. That afternoon, they found Manrique’s body in the morgue of the Hospital Periférico de Catia with a bullet wound in the chest.

“These days you feel afraid of any man in uniform,” said a witness to the OLP who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are terrified at the thought they might come back to Ciudad Caribia, because besides police there were colectivos and thugs.”

While most residents survived the incursion, they preferred to deny having been present. Few will talk about it, and those who do, do so with fear.

The Lopez brothers case is one of the most talked about. "They killed both of that mother’s sons at home. Imagine that, she has no one else,” said a neighbor. Anthony, who was 25 years old, worked as a peddler in Catia, while 19-year-old Julio Cesar was in high school. It was his mother who opened the door to the OLP agents early that morning to face the barrel of a gun. They soon led her away from her home, and shortly thereafter several gun shots rang out. A pool of blood remained on the floor. The boys’ bodies were wrapped in blankets and thrown into the bed of a pickup truck that also collected the bodies of other area residents.

"These people shot at them even after they had killed them,” a friend of the family said. “They began to shoot the walls and the door to make it look as if a confrontation had occurred."

National police investigators showed up in the area at about 11 a.m. to examine the scenes. Neighbors said that Joel Perez died in Terrace C, and that the gate to his residence was broken down. Johan Perez, identified as a leader of the union, tried to run but was gunned down outside the house.

"If you see a hooded person come, go into a house and kill a person, you can’t be calm," said a resident of Ciudad Caribia whose house had been searched during the operation. "They told me to be quiet and collaborate with them. I was eating breakfast and those people went into all the rooms and then after a little while they left. They were looking for Johan,” the witness said. Some of those who died that day appeared on the official list of people killed during the operation, but not Julio Cesar Lopez. The images of all those killed had been projected on the wall in the community center when the colectivo visited the previous Saturday.

There were several arrests in Terrace B. In building 11, all the men were taken out of their houses and made to kneel in the corridors. Several were beaten and taken away in a truck by the intelligence service.

"They hauled my 14-year-old grandson, he’s a minor, from his bed and arrested him with the excuse that he was a drug dealer and that he had a gun. How can they do that? I saw what happened and he didn’t have anything like that,” one resident complained. “Maduro will end up killing our children." The man said his grandson was released the next day.

A neighbor of Italiani Muzzo, a driver who was featured in the colectivo slide show, said he was arrested during the OLP. He was first taken to the Helicoide jail and later landed in a cell at the National Guard. His family said he had been "kidnapped" by police officers who demanded a ransom and threatened to come back and harm his wife and children if they do not pay. “But those people have no money," the neighbor said.

Few in Ciudad Caribia are willing to talk about what happened. Relatives of many of the victims work for government institutions, and in these hard times it is better to keep quiet than to lose your job.

And they have new neighbors. Several members of the colectivo that accompanied the OLP have taken up residence in Ciudad Caribia. Residents spoke of one heavily tattooed man who moved into an apartment lost by a couple with four children during the operation. The new owner reportedly told neighbors he was moving in under presidential orders.


OLP Continues; So Does Organized Crime

More than a year after the OLP began, organized crime continues to plague the densely populated neighborhoods it has targeted -- Cota 905, El Valle and El Cementerio. Drug trafficking, extortion, kidnappings and killings are still a daily occurrence, and more sophisticated forms of crime have evolved.

Runrun.es collected data in these residential areas over the year since OLP began. Close to 70 percent of the victims have been reported as suspected criminals who died in alleged confrontations with the authorities, many of them during an OLP. The data indicates that 19 percent of homicides during the period were attributed to criminals, and 5 percent of all victims were police officers. Family members of the officers are also targeted at times.  

As noted by Inti Rodriguez, research coordinator of the organization Provea, the OLPs have also generated three types of displacement: Families displaced by criminals, families displaced by police officers, and police officers displaced by criminals. "It has been a silent phenomenon that has not been addressed by the state," he said. (See video in Spanish below)

Lawyer and criminologist Keymer Avila noted that "the effect of all this institutional violence is the increase of general social violence and even violence against members of the security forces themselves.”

Avila said deaths caused by the security forces increased by 53 percent in 2015 over the previous year. Andrés Antillano, head of the Department of Criminology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, said during a recent forum that the OLP era has seen both police and social violence increase in Venezuela.

"These practices increase violence and particularly violence against the poorest,” Antillano said. “The more downcast, as the message appears to go, the better."

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of RunRun.es. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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