VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) - When Venezuelan troops and police launched an early-morning raid on the slum neighborhood of Brisas del Hipodromo last month, they detained hundreds of men without presenting arrest warrants and used heavy machinery to destroy hundreds of homes.
President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, which launched a far-reaching security crackdown in July that has killed dozens of suspected criminals, said the Aug. 17 operation in Valencia aimed to break up right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups.
Residents, who strenuously deny links to organized crime or the drug trade, returned to the area and built improvised shacks from the remains of their homes - only to have those structures knocked down in a separate operation by troops on Thursday.
“All the money I had in the bank, I put into my house to be able to live decently, but now I live worse than a dog,” said Angela Holguin, 56, who was returning from a clinic after an operation when she discovered her home was being leveled.
“We can’t figure out what we’re being punished for, because this is too much humiliation,” she said, standing near the remains of a destroyed church.
Under Maduro’s latest security campaign, authorities have arrested thousands of citizens, raided homes, and destroyed private property without legally-mandated court orders, according to rights groups and residents.
Activists say they have received dozens of complaints of mass arrests of citizens with no link to criminals, degrading treatment by troops, and theft of personal property during the campaign known as “Operation to Free the People,” or “OLP.”
Fifty-two people were killed resisting arrest during the first month of the operations, the government said, though it has not mentioned any police casualties. Rights groups say this pattern signals illegal executions disguised as gun battles.
The campaign has included the deportation of hundreds of Colombians living near the border, drawing global attention last month as migrants returned to their native country with their belongings on their backs.
Venezuela’s Interior Ministry did not respond to questions regarding the security operations.
State ombudsman Tarek William Saab, the government’s principal human rights advocate who was himself illegally arrested in 2002 during a coup against late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, did not respond to an emailed list of questions.
In comments to local media, Saab has acknowledged “police excesses” and arrests of unnecessary numbers of people, but has broadly supported the security crackdown.
Maduro dismisses the human rights complaints as sabotage by political adversaries and promises the campaign will improve security in Venezuela, which U.N. statistics show had the world’s second-highest murder rate in 2012.
“The plan is to consolidate territories of peace wherever the OLP operations take place, to free the people of this paramilitary stain and these criminal gangs that sully our people,” Maduro said during a televised address in August.
The campaign appears to be the most aggressive security policy of more than 20 anti-crime plans launched since Chavez took office in 1999.
The raids generally start before dawn with a combination of police and troops descending on neighborhoods or towns believed to be under the control of criminal gangs.
Unlike the widely-publicized Brazilian raids on drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro, the operations do not create permanent police presence in the areas of an operation and do not allow press access.
Some reporters seeking to cover them have complained of harassment and detention.
Many of the operations show no immediate signs of having generated complaints, and have been applauded by government sympathizers.
But residents spoken to by Reuters in Valencia, Caracas, and the border state of Zulia characterized the operations in their communities as using disproportionate force and being marked by insufficient due process.
Soldiers beat pregnant women, forced their way into homes, and stole possessions in the Caracas slum of Cota 905, the site of one of the first OLP operations, a community leader said.
“This is supposed to be a security operation, they shouldn’t be beating people,” Lisney Bermudez, 43, a nurse and community leader who witnessed the operation, said in a telephone interview.
Human rights organization Provea says 4,021 people were arrested during the first month of the OLP raids, but that less than 10 percent were actually charged with crimes, in what the group calls a sign of indiscriminate arrests.
In an Aug. 17 statement about the operation in Brisas del Hipodromo, the Interior Ministry said six people with outstanding criminal records, including two wanted for murder, were arrested as part of a broader effort to capture paramilitaries.
Yoel Medina, 32, a welder, was not among those six but nonetheless worries that his brief detention on the day of the raid could leave him with a criminal record.
“They pulled me out of my house, they took my fingerprints and mug shots. Now I’ve been booked like I’m a criminal,” he said. “Why, if I didn’t do anything?”
Editing by Paul Simao