Over a dozen suspected criminals died during a massive anti-crime police operation carried out in various parts of Venezuela, raising troubling questions over who is holding security personnel accountable for the excessive use of force.
During the first days of a police operation conducted throughout Venezuela, fourteen suspects were killed in capital city Caracas in addition to three reported deaths in the northern state of Aragua, according to BBC Mundo. The security offensive, dubbed by authorities as "Operation Liberation of the People," is an attempt to combat crime in Venezuela, which is believed to have one of Latin America's highest rates of violence and criminal activity.
The large-scale operation also led to the arrests of 236 alleged criminals in Caracas, some of whom are suspected of having ties to Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups, reported the Associated Press. However, criminologist Luis Izquiel told El Nacional the Venezuelan government has not presented proof that criminal activity in the Cota 905 neighborhood -- the scene of one of the recent police operations -- is linked to Colombian paramilitaries.
The joint operations were carried out by elements of the Bolivarian National Guard, the Bolivarian National Police, and Venezuela's investigative police force (CICPC), according to EL Nacional.
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The high number of alleged criminals killed in just the first few days of the police operation is a worrying sign Venezuelan security forces may feel they will face no repercussions for using excessive force. Indeed, based on local media reports it does not appear any police officers are currently under investigation for the deaths of the 17 suspects. Meanwhile, Venezuelan authorities have been quick to lay the blame for other security issues -- such as drug trafficking and civil unrest -- on Colombian paramilitaries, effectively absolving security forces of any guilt.
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The civilian deaths also point to Venezuela's ongoing struggle to reform the country's police forces. Police reform in Venezuela is usually framed in the context of weakening the links between law enforcement and organized crime. However, reducing the excessive use of force was a central tenet of the "police revolution" President Nicolas Maduro announced in November 2014.
It is also worth noting high levels of violent crime -- combined with minimal state resources earmarked for public security -- often puts police in extremely dangerous or vulnerable situations, in which exercising restraint can be difficult. Killings of Venezuelan security forces is on the rise, spreading fear and even leading to the desertion of police officers in Caracas.