OLPs: The Rebranding of a Human Rights Black Mark

The so called "Operaciones de Liberación del Pueblo" are just old fashioned police raids. A new HRW/PROVEA reports detail the abuses committed in their name.

Some of us are old enough to remember the era of the redada: the good old-fashioned fourth republic shantytown police raid. The redada was a blunt instrument: you’d send cops into a barrio in numbers, knock some people around, crack a few bones and round up guys who generally looked like they might be up to no good. This is what passed for crime fighting back then.

As a law and order strategy, the redada was worse than useless – with off-the-charts rates both for false positives and false negatives. Redadas could be counted on to turn entire communities into enemies of the police, hampering any possibility of real buy-in from barrio communities and generally prizing the appearance of doing something about crime over actually doing something about crime.

Real police work works. Macho bullshit does not.

Time was when outrage over redada-style tactics was a mainstay of the left’s critique of Puntofijismo and its human rights record. The redada was the ultimate expression of unchecked power: warrantless searches, arbitrary detentions, random police beatings, humiliations and killings – the whole panoply of police abuse was on display in these operations. It all dovetailed neatly with the left’s critique of the puntofijista state’s disdain towards its own pueblo. A redada, we were told again and again, amounted to nothing but an unembarrassed exercise of raw class power against the poor.

Fast forward 20 years, and the redadas are back under a different name.

As this landmark Human Rights Watch/PROVEA report documents in detail, the Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo – known as OLP – is really just a redada in red garb, with the army in tow for extra firepower.

Much of the report looks like it was copy-pasted from the kind of anti-government pamphlets guys like Tarek William Saab were campaigning on in the mid 1990s.

To wit:

Security agents reportedly carried out mass detentions indiscriminately and without presenting warrants, sometimes pulling people out of their homes when they were sleeping, according to residents. According to official sources, security agents temporarily detained more than 14,000 people between July 2015 and January 2016 to “verify” whether they were wanted for the commission of crimes, but fewer than 100 of those people were ultimately charged with any offense. The large disparity between the number of those rounded up and those brought before prosecutors to be charged with a crime suggests that many of the detentions, quite likely the majority, were indiscriminate and arbitrary.

Just like the redada, the OLP is macho bullshit masquerading as police strategy.

Real police work – the kind that actually works – takes time, money and expertise. You need resources to gather the kind of actual intelligence you need to crack a criminal network. Actually figuring out who in the barrio is a crook and who is a victim is hard. It takes brains as well as brawn, patience as well as toughness. Breaking into people’s homes, stealing their diapers and Harina PAN, threatening them and beating them until they tell you something is easy. 

Real police work works. Macho bullshit does not.

Here we see the revolution having come full circle: recreating the exact same kinds of abuses it was mobilized against at its inception.

OLP tactics seem designed from the ground up to destroy the kind of community buy-in real police work depends on, alienating whole communities in the process. Heavy-handed police tactics reliably turn potential allies into lifelong enemies. Take this account of the OLP at the Cota 905 shantytown in Western Caracas.

More than 20 residents interviewed by PROVEA and Human Rights Watch gave accounts strongly suggesting that security forces committed abuses during the raid.[54] Some residents said that security agents—without showing warrants, saying that they were “acting pursuant to a presidential order”—forcefully entered dozens of homes during the dawn hour when most people were sleeping. The residents said that the agents stole cell phones, money, and food, among other goods. Dozens of residents disputed the government’s tally of 134 people detained, telling PROVEA that security agents detained what they estimated to be more than 200 people, including some who were held for an entire day and subject to beatings.[55]

The agents took several detainees uphill to an open area called “The Field” (La Cancha), where they forced them to kneel in the sun for several hours, according to residents interviewed by PROVEA and Human Rights Watch. For example, Pedro Beltrán, a resident, told PROVEA that security agents broke into his home in the early morning and took him and his son outside wearing neither shoes nor shirts. The officers then allegedly forced them to lie on the ground for four hours, and beat them when they raised their heads. Beltrán said that the officers then took them to La Cancha and forced them to kneel in the sun, without water, until 4 p.m. The officers allegedly placed their boots on the men’s heads and accused them of being paramilitaries.[56]

José Vega, another resident, told PROVEA in a taped interview that security agents stormed into his house when he was getting ready to go to work, beat him, and threatened to kill him. Vega said that the agents pressed the muzzle of a gun to his forehead and forced his fingers to grip another gun, telling him they could kill him in a “confrontation” if he didn’t provide information on who the “criminals” were. They eventually let him go without explanation, Vega said.[57]

Just imagine the terror involved in having a cop threaten to just murder you in cold blood and call it a “confrontation” in a context where cops shoot people every single day, chalk it up to “confrontations” and never ever face consequences for that. Think José Vega is ever going to call a proper tip in to the police after that? Of course not.

Here we see the revolution having come full circle: recreating the exact same kinds of abuses it was mobilized against at its inception.

But it’s worse than that, because some of the tactics the report documents have no counterpart that I can remember in the pre-Chávez era. Take the outright Gaza-style strategy of just bulldozing communities you don’t know how to control:

PROVEA and Human Rights Watch obtained evidence indicating that government agents arbitrarily evicted thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of houses during OLP raids. Under both international and Venezuelan law, authorities must notify people prior to evictions and grant them an opportunity to challenge the validity of eviction orders. Yet residents of two communities subject to mass evictions in Miranda and Carabobo states, as well as residents of government-funded housing in other locations, reported that they had been granted neither prior notice nor any opportunity to contest the government’s decision to evict them. During two OLP raids, security forces allegedly bulldozed hundreds of homes. Residents said that they had a right to live in the homes from which they were evicted, but said they were not given the opportunity to present such information to competent authorities before the evictions or to obtain adequate remedies after the fact.

Here we’re far beyond any abuse the puntofijista state ever allowed itself. I mean, when shit like this happens in the Middle East, teleSUR has an out-and-out conniption. When it happens in Caracas? It’s a triumph of the revolution against paramilitarism.