As Venezuela lurches deeper into political crisis, President Nicolas Maduro has announced a new phase in the government's controversial "Operation Liberate the People" security program, pledging to cleanse the country of gang-related crime. Thousands of elite military troops have been deployed across Caracas, with five new "permanent" bases and over 130 checkpoints established in the city. Perhaps not coincidentally, this comes as Maduro has declared a "state of emergency" throughout the country in response to a supposed US-backed conspiracy against him by the political opposition, earning rebukes from Amnesty International, which called the declaration "alarming."
The anti-gang crackdown is real enough. On May 10, police and National Guard troops killed nine suspects in a Caracas raid that involved tanks and helicopters, seizing grenades and assualt rifles. Earlier in the month, security forces announced the killing in Guárico state of José Tovar Colina AKA "El Picure" (a large rodent native to Venezuela), said to control narco-networks across much of the country. In another raid in Bolívar state, troops reportedly killed Jamilton Andrés Ulloa Suárez AKA "El Topo" (The Mole), held responsible for a recent massacre at a wildcat mine that his criminal network was attempting to take over. As in neighboring Colombia, illegal mining appears to be emerging as a big sideline for the narco-networks in Venezuela. The situation with violent crime in the country has become so severe that lynch mobs have started to emrge, with suspected miscreants burned alive in several recent gruesome incidents around Caracas.
"Liberate the People" was first launched last year, with Maduro's typical populist rhetoric—but has met with the inevitable criticisms that the crackdown is criminalizing youth and the poor. Certainly, having armed troops in the streets could be useful to head off any protests over what the opposition sees as a power grab. Playing to his working-class base, Maduro also announced a public seizure of businesses and factories abandoned by their owners in the recent economic chaos, so they could be run by worker cooperatives—and the ex-owners jailed. But the Los Angeles Times reports that US intellgence agencies believe Venezuela's government is in danger of collapse. And Amnesty, in its statement opposing the declaration of martial law, recalls that previous such declarations in Venezuela have occassioned much bloodshed—especially the wave of repression in 1989 that left thousands dead.