A week ago residents of the poorer barrios of Venezuela's capital Caracas woke up to find soldiers everywhere.
Dressed in black helmets, military fatigues, and bulletproof jackets, a fleet of soldiers on 400 motorcycles flew through narrow, crumbling, streets while being supported by trucks and two helicopters. They set up street checkpoints and positioned themselves on rooftops to monitor the neighborhoods, while officers scoured alleys and houses holding heavy weaponry.
The military deployment took place in the midst of Venezuela's massive economic crisis triggered by the fall of oil prices and characterized by a shrinking economy and hyperinflation. Blackouts are now constant, in many areas water is severely rationed, and public sector employees work just two days a week in an effort to save energy.
Patients are dying in hospitals for lack of basic care, desperate families are buying bootleg medication at inflated prices, and standing in huge lines is required to buy basic goods such as toilet paper, condoms, and rice.
At the same time President Nicolás Maduro faces a drive by the political opposition, emboldened by its electoral win in December that gave it control of congress for the first time in 17 years, to force a recall referendum.
The situation is so tense that last week's show of military strength sparked immediate rumors of a coup. What was actually happening was close to the opposite — the launch of a new phase of an anti-crime offensive that some observers see as an effort by Maduro to show the unsettled population that he is still in charge, and intends to remain so.
The Operation Liberation and Protection, or OLP, began in July 2015. It is the country's 23rd anti-crime initiative since President Hugo Chávez took office and launched his Bolivarian revolution in 1999. It is the third since his protegé, Maduro, began his term after Chávez died in 2013.
But, some say, anti-crime operations in Venezuela are not necessarily primarily about the rampant criminal gangs that caused Caracas to be named the most violent city in the world in 2015 with a terrifying homicide rate of nearly 120 murders per 100 000 citizens.
"It's a preventative measure in the face of widespread dissatisfaction in Venezuela," said criminal lawyer and well-known criminologist Luis Izquiel. "People want to see a political change with the referendum, because they are hungry and lack most things."
The new stage of the OLP was announced with great fanfare on state-owned TV. Reports detailed the number of soldiers, cars, ambulances, tanks, and helicopters involved, as well as the exact details of the equipment they carried.
When the OLP was first launched in July 2015, it promised to dismantle criminal gangs operating in poor barrios. It consisted of military sweeps that caught up anyone who was allegedly involved and, critics say, many others who were not.
Izquiel, the lawyer, says that the second stage of the OLP appears more directed towards political control, with the military now preparing to occupy some areas for longer periods of time.
"Here you can see that the message is the intimidation," he said. "They are going to stay for some time to prevent public dissatisfaction from showing."
Even if the aim is to control crime, critics argue that the OLP should be discontinued because it has both failed to reduce homicide rates — which increased by 7 percent in the first few months of this year compared to the same period in 2015 — and encourages abuse.
"It's only good for violating human rights and criminalizing poverty," said Izquiel. "When the OLP targets a poor area, it destroys anything that stands in its way, tearing down houses."
A report released last month by a local human rights group called Provea, in association with the US-based Human Rights Watch, detailed extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, forced evacuations, and the destruction of many homes.
Irene González tells the story of how she lost her house to the OLP last year, and went on to form the Committee of Victims from Ensenada, a poor area in the state of Miranda.
"I woke up early to go to work, around 4 am. It was raining. I saw a lot of soldiers as I left my home. Then I found out there were 1,500 of them. They told me I could not go out, because it was an OLP," she said. "I asked how long it would take, as I had to go to work, and their response made me shiver because they said 'For as long as it takes us to tear down your house.'"
González said the operation led to the capture of two people who were later released, and the formation of the committee of victims by 110 families whose homes were destroyed by what they say they were told was a presidential order.
"There's no excuse to leave all those families in the street," said González. "There were no criminals or drugs in the area."
Perhaps most worrying for the government is that González is not somebody who has been easily turned against the "socialist" project launched by President Chávez 17 years ago and is now under the charge of Maduro.
"I'm a Chavista, but I don't like Maduro," she said. "Our beloved president Chávez would have never allowed this atrocity to take place."
The recently-implemented second stage of the OLP included an initial claim of success, in the form of the capture and death of José Antonio Tovar Colina, also known as El Picure, who was said to head a criminal group that controls three states.
Jamilton Andrés Suárez Ulloa, also known as El Topo, was also killed in the operation. He reportedly controlled the mining areas in the Bolívar state and was the alleged mastermind behind the death of a group of miners in Tumeremo earlier this year.
"There's a society that is demanding safety after being overwhelmed by criminal leaders," said Inti Rodríguez, member of the human rights groups Provea, that helped elaborate last month's report. "And the government is answering with the same heavy-handed policy that enables it to say it's doing something."
Rodríguez, however, added that this time the political side to the operation is particularly obvious.
"There's a clear motive behind the launch of the second stage of the OLP. The referendum to revoke Maduro's presidency is on the horizon," he said. "The security operation has a huge propaganda effect and the militarization of poor areas stops an uprising from taking place."
The relaunched OLP came three days before president Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency which, if approved by the national legislature, would give him wider powers of state intervention in the economy, which are already considerable.
Maduro, meanwhile, has stepped up his already frequent allegations that an internationally-backed intervention or coup against him is imminent. This Saturday he told a large gathering of supporters that the military will start exercises in a week in order to ensure it is prepared for "whatever scenario."
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