MEXICO CITY – Venezuelan security forces operating against Colombian rebels along the nations’ shared border have executed peasants, tortured and arbitrarily arrested people, and prosecuted civilians in military courts, an international monitoring group said Monday.
The Human Rights Watch report said the operation began March 21 in the rural state of Apure, where it said Venezuelan authorities previously had tolerated the presence of armed Colombians.
The report said accounts on what prompted the clashes vary, but community leaders as well as human rights and aid groups told the organization that an armed band with close ties to the Venezuelan government is trying to oust a rival guerrilla group to consolidate control over drug trafficking.
“The egregious abuses against Apure residents are not isolated incidents by rogue agents, but consistent with the Venezuelan security forces’ systematic practices,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “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.”
The operation in Apure has prompted roughly 6,000 people to flee, mostly to Arauquita, a town in Colombia where shelters are now overcrowded. Not all have access to aid.
A day after the clashes began, Venezuela's defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino López, said the operation had resulted in the arrests of more than 30 people, the destruction of six rebel camps and the seizure of weapons, but he did not name the Colombian armed group involved. After reports of abuses surfaced, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek Saab announced two efforts to investigate the situation.
Hours after the report was released, Venezuelan authorities in a statement said several soldiers had been killed in clashes with the Colombian armed groups. They did not give a specific number.
Padrino López in a statement said “bloody combat has been taking place with Colombian irregular armed groups” in the last 72 hours. The statement said that “a significant number of casualties” were recorded in the irregular groups and “several subjects who are providing valuable information for future actions were captured.”