Photo: Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch Claims Abuse Against Civilians in the Apure Conflict

The NGO collected testimonies of raids and executions by the military in the area where the Venezuelan forces are fighting a FARC rogue group

What’s happening on the border with Colombia in western Apure, where Venezuelan forces are fighting a FARC front that pays no allegiance to the FARC commanders protected by Maduro?

We only know fragments, the shrapnel of images, tweefarcguerrillts, slogans: the Defense minister sending more troops; journalists punished for getting any information out of the theater; rumors about more soldiers being killed by guerrillas than the regime is prone to admit; thousands of civilians crossing the Arauca river to find refuge in Colombia… the opacity we should expect of any armed conflict in any isolated corner of the underdeveloped world, enhanced when one of the parties involved is a government that strongly believes in censorship and misinformation, and is practically unable to emit anything that’s not propaganda.

However, in the same week The New York Times publishes a piece about the extent of irregular groups in other border regions like the Venezuelan Guajira, Human Rights Watch issues a report focused on the abuses that the Venezuelan Armed Forces are allegedly committing against the civilian population. 

A couple of contextual pills before discussing what HRW is saying. One, the Apure border has seen abuse against civilians for decades, since the pre-Chávez tensions between Venezuelan security forces and Colombian guerrillas kidnapping, trafficking and extorting in the area. Two, in our country, the security forces, especially police squad FAES, established years ago a militarized pattern of raids, incarcerations and executions in slums and villages that has been extensively documented by the media and the UN Human Rights Council, for instance.

Regarding the current conflict in Apure, Human Rights Watch talks of the “execution of at least four peasants, arbitrary arrests, the prosecution of civilians in military courts, and torture of residents accused of collaborating with armed groups.” The kind of things Latin America has seen so many times in Colombia and Central America, and the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. But this is Venezuela, today, and it’s not isolated or casual at all. “The egregious abuses against Apure residents are not isolated incidents by rogue agents, but consistent with the Venezuelan security forces’ systematic practices,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “International inquiries are essential into the mounting evidence against security force members who have committed abuses, and against commanders and top-level officials who knew or should have known what was happening during these operations.” 

As it happens with every problem the Maduro government has, no matter its size or origin, who suffers the most is the population.

HRW got information from Venezuelan and Colombian officers (although the Office of the General Prosecutors didn’t respond) and interviewed 68 displaced people in the Colombian city of Arauca during March and April. What they said is pretty similar to the procedures of FAES in the slums of Caracas, and FAES is actually one of the corps involved in the claims, along with usual suspects, the National Guard and anti kidnapping unit CONAS: “Interviewees said soldiers and security force agents raided the houses of families… Residents, mostly peasants, were dragged from their houses without arrest warrants. Agents ordered detainees to cover their heads with their t-shirts and beat them, threw them to the ground, and threatened to kill them… Two detainees who were later released confirmed that they had been held in military installations. Multiple interviewees said that detainees were not members of armed groups… On March 25, FAES took four members of a family from their house in La Victoria, said a family member. Their bodies were found a mile away, in El Ripial, with cuts, bullet wounds, and apparent bone dislocations. Forensic experts concluded that photos of the bodies suggest that they had been moved, and that firearms and grenades may have been planted by their hands… Some families locked themselves inside their houses for days, then fled to Colombia. People with dual Venezuelan and Colombian citizenship feared that security forces would consider this proof of ties to armed groups.”

We have reported in our PRR that the Maduro government is having a hard time solving this conflict because the enemy can cross the border easily and even attack from the Colombian side, while the Venezuelan forces are unable to both persecute and coordinate a response with the Colombian security forces, given the hostility between both governments. Yet the abuses add another layer, which unfortunately isn’t new at all: as it happens with every problem the Maduro government has, no matter its size or origin, who suffers the most is the population. The people who happen to live in that region, barely surviving with their farms and trade, are not responsible for the liaison with FARC dissidents or this rogue guerrillas’ ambition to export drugs through a corridor from Arauca to the Venezuelan ports, yet it’s them who are abused, displaced and killed. There are combatants falling as well, including Venezuelan soldiers, but it’s the ordinary people who get the short end of the stick.

Let’s hope the work by Human Rights Watch helps in making their suffering more visible, at least.

Rafael Osío Cabrices

Journalist and author. His most recent book is Apuntes bajo el aguacero: cien crónicas empantanadas (La Hoja del Norte).