MARACAY: Workers in the industrial complex had been hiding in bathrooms and closets for hours when the shooting stopped. The last of the four suspected thieves, a slightly built man in yellow rain boots, surrendered on the roof, crying out, “Jesus saves!”
Police put him into a truck and started to drive away. But then witnesses watched, confused, as the truck circled back.
A video secretly recorded that rainy day in early August showed that police officers took the man to a concrete alley in the complex where his three companions already lay dead, held him in place, and then shot him point blank.
The video does not show the deaths of the others, but two witnesses told The Associated Press they saw the trio lined up against a wall earlier in the morning, police pointing guns at their chests.
The slayings raised new concerns about a crime-fighting initiative launched this summer that aims to take back neighborhoods overrun by gangs.
The program, officially rolled out in July as Operation Liberate the People, has already seen police shoot and kill more than 80 suspected criminals, according to an AP tally based on officials’ statements to the media.
There have been no reports of police injuries or deaths during the blitzkrieg-style operations.
Human rights groups are accusing security forces of carrying out summary executions. But many here also say the government is right to take a more militarized approach to fighting crime.
Venezuelans broadly support iron fist policing. And it’s the poor those most likely to be caught in the crossfire who most want to see an increased use of force, according to national polls.
In the case of the four killings, officials initially said that the men died during a shootout after they were caught stealing from a metalworking shop in the city of Maracay, outside Caracas. But after the video was leaked to the Miami-based Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Herald, eight officers were arrested and charged with homicide.
The AP has not independently verified the authenticity of the video, but witnesses corroborated what it shows, and officials acted immediately after its release, apparently in reaction to what it revealed.
“The police and the thugs are one and the same here,” said Willy Contreras, a young man who works beside the courtyard where the men were killed. “Neither side cares about human rights. And we can’t, either. Killing the criminals is the only way to make sure they won’t just go free.”
President Nicolas Maduro has not addressed the case. National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello addressed the issue of human rights concerns about police killings generally in July, saying opposition groups were trying to score points by undermining what he said was an effective approach.
State officials overseeing the crime-fighting initiative did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Days after the video was released and sparked wide outrage, Gov. Tareck El Aissami of Aragua state, where Maracay is located, ordered the officers’ arrests.
Venezuela has the world’s second highest murder rate, after Honduras, according to the United Nations.
Virtually everyone here has been touched by violence, and a culture of impunity means most killings go unsolved. While police generally acknowledge when they kill someone, it is not always clear that the slaying was committed in self-defense.
The government stopped publishing any data on police-related slayings in 2008, but the local nonprofit Committee of the Families of Victims counted 1,018 cases of extrajudicial killings in 2014, a 25 percent increase from 2013.
That’s more than twice the number of people who were reported killed by police last year in the United States, which has 10 times the population of Venezuela.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture has called on the country to investigate an emerging pattern of extrajudicial killings.
The neighborhood of warehouses and low-slung cinderblock homes where the four thieves died was the site of the summer’s first mass pacification campaign, one of dozens of similar operations that have been carried out this summer as the government works to reassert its authority after years of a more passive approach to law enforcement.
In May, about 2,000 law enforcement officers stormed in to reclaim an abandoned police station, killing 10 people over two days, according to local news reports.
A similar operation in Caracas in July resulted in 14 deaths and hundreds of arrests.
Analysts say the anti-crime initiative appears to be a bid to drum up support ahead of December elections, which the opposition could sweep for the first time in more than a decade.
But police killings were already on the rise, according to Central University of Venezuela criminology professor Andres Antillano. He said police have killed 20 people during the past year and a half in the Caracas slum he studies.
Slayings by security forces is a pervasive problem in South America. In Colombia, scores of army troops have been jailed for killing an estimated 3,000 civilians and tagging them as rebels a decade ago to inflate body counts during the country’s civil conflict. Brazilian police kill an average of five people a day.
And with Venezuela’s out of control crime rate, police are increasingly under attack themselves, with an average of one officer killed every day, often for their weapons.
Earlier this year, a security camera captured a teenager shooting a state police supervisor from behind as he ordered breakfast at a bakery in a small town near Caracas, then stealing his gun. The 18-year-old was later caught and killed by police.
Venezuelan police admit they are scared to leave their stations, and this spring held a street march demanding better protection and harsher punishment for criminals.
Marion Conoropo, the cousin of one of the officers charged in the Aug. 5 killings, and a former Maracay police officer herself, says the agency is underpaid and under-protected, and officers are pushed to show results.
“You have to understand he was under so much pressure,” she said of her cousin Humberto Conoropo. “The only thing people understand here is force.”
The same day the Maracay video was leaked to the South Florida newspaper, men with automatic weapons attacked the police station near the site of the slayings that had just been reopened after a pacification operation, killing one officer and injuring two others in an attack that locals widely believe was an act of retaliation.
The whitewashed walls of the police station are still stippled with bullet marks, and the carcass of a police truck, its windows punched out by the shooting, blocks the building’s entrance.
Workers at the industrial complex were reluctant to condemn the killings of the four suspected thieves even as they scrubbed down bloodied cement and paint over the chest-level craters left by the bullets.
They said thieves have targeted them for years, despite electric fences, surveillance cameras, and weekly protection payments to both gangs and law enforcement.
Andres De La Cruz, who says he saw three of the men standing against a wall with police pointing guns at them, said he’s still trying to forget that nightmarish morning. But he’s glad there have been no robberies since.