Facing an Uncertain Future, Maduro Turns to Special Police Force to Crush Dissent
CARACAS, Venezuela — The agents barged into the home of Yonaiker Ordóñez, 18, on Sunday morning as he slept. Dressed in helmets and carrying rifles, the men grabbed the teenager and forced him to another room without explaining why they came, his family said.
“They took him to the area behind and killed him there,” said his sister, Yengly González.
The operation resembled one of the many police raids against the gangs that terrorize Venezuela’s poor neighborhoods. But Mr. Ordóñez’s only crime, his family said, was that he attended a protest against the government days before.
President Nicolás Maduro is facing the biggest challenge to his authoritarian rule yet. Protesters are in the streets, an opposition lawmaker has declared himself the rightful president, a growing number of foreign governments have backed that claim and the Trump administration has intensified the pressure, cutting off Mr. Maduro’s access to oil sales in the United States — a principal source of his government’s cash.
In the face of the crisis, Mr. Maduro has hit back hard, sending out security forces to crush dissent in deadly operations that have alarmed even some of the president’s traditional supporters.
But while Venezuela’s armed forces have publicly declared their allegiance to Mr. Maduro, they have not taken the muscular role they have in the past. When months of chaotic demonstrations arose against Mr. Maduro two years ago, it was largely the National Guard that squelched dissent with batons and bullets, with protesters prosecuted in military courts.
But this time, in a potential sign of the strained loyalties inside the military, much of the crackdown has been entrusted to a relatively new national police unit that Mr. Maduro created to conduct raids on gang groups in Venezuela’s slums.
Now the unit appears to have his political opponents in its sights. Known as the Special Actions Force, or FAES, it is being sent to work as Mr. Maduro’s enforcer in the poor neighborhoods that once supported him but have turned against him, according to human rights groups, former government officials and current lawmakers.
At least 40 people have been killed in the latest round of protests against Mr. Maduro, largely in nightly raids in poor neighborhoods involving the special police unit, human rights groups say.
“FAES has become deeply involved in acts of repression,” said Delsa Solórzano, a lawmaker in the opposition-led National Assembly who met with recent victims of the raids.
The involvement of the special police unit is especially worrisome, human rights advocates say, because the unit was created to put down armed gangs or rescue hostages, not to control crowds of protesters in a peaceful manner.
“The consequence when they go in is massacres,” said Keymer Ávila, an investigator with Provea, a Venezuelan human rights organization. “They weren’t made to handle demonstrations.”
But Cliver Alcalá, a former military general who broke ranks with Mr. Maduro, said it was not surprising that the government was relying on the special police unit to do its bidding. The reason: It has lost trust in many members of the armed forces to confront protesters the way they did in 2017.
Many of the National Guardsmen who were sent to the streets in previous years have not returned to work because their salaries are nearly worthless, Mr. Alcalá said. Venezuela’s inflation — the worst in the world — has obliterated them.
Beyond that, he said, the government is afraid of uprisings or public shows of defiance by members of the armed forces, including the one last week, when members of the National Guard were arrested after pledging allegiance to the opposition. Other small uprisings have taken place before being put down.
Human rights groups say little is known about Mr. Maduro’s special police force, including the names of its top commanders and who exactly has been invited to form its ranks.
The unit patrols Venezuela dressed in black, with the identities of its members concealed by balaclavas covering their faces. A former Venezuelan government official, who asked not to be named because he is being pursued by the government, estimated its ranks to be about 1,500 people. They’re seen in Caracas on the backs of motorcycles in order to penetrate hillside slums, where they arrive heavily armed with assault rifles and body armor.
“Their faces are covered because they want impunity,” said Luis Izquiel, a criminologist in Caracas who teaches at the Central University of Venezuela. “They know they’re violating human rights.”
The group came into existence in 2017 as Mr. Maduro struggled to wrest control of the country’s poor neighborhoods from criminal gangs.
The government had been organizing joint raids with the police and armed forces, called Operation Liberate the People, which became increasingly bloody. In a single two-year period, the government said the raids killed more than 500 people.
Facing mounting opposition to the raids, Mr. Maduro changed course, creating the special unit of his national police charged with a similar task.
The new police are taught to be loyal to the president, training at Venezuela’s National Experimental Security University, an institution founded under Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
Mr. Izquiel, the criminologist, said that officers leave after only six months training that is largely conducted by ideologically driven professors who preach allegiance to Mr. Maduro’s government.
Even before the protests, the police unit had been involved in several high-profile crackdowns.
Among them was the killing of Óscar Pérez, a rogue police pilot who commandeered a helicopter and captured the attention of many Venezuelans in 2017 when he fired blank ammunition on government buildings and unfurled a banner calling for Venezuelans to rebel against Mr. Maduro.
For months, he continued to attack military bases and taunt the government on social media.
In an interview with The New York Times shortly before his death, Mr. Pérez asserted that a pro-Maduro paramilitary group had penetrated the special police unit and exerted influence over it. It was an explosive assertion even then, because it meant that civilian vigilantes were acting as uniformed police officers.
The day of Mr. Pérez’s death, the leader of the paramilitary group, a man named Heiker Vásquez, was killed fighting alongside FAES officials who had surrounded Mr. Pérez.
Uniformed members of the special police unit were also photographed in Mr. Vásquez’s funeral procession along with members of his paramilitary group, known as the Three Roots. In Venezuela, these armed paramilitary groups are known as “colectivos,” and typically have their roots in fervently pro-Chávez circles.
“If it’s not FAES in these raids, it’s colectivos dressed in FAES uniforms,” said Ms. Solórzano, the legislator, saying that she believes the pro-government groups are being armed and asked to fight alongside regular officers.
Julio Reyes, an opposition activist, said he was targeted on Sunday in the Tacagua Vieja neighborhood by the special police unit.
Just after he had gotten up and his wife began making coffee, he said he heard motorcycles revving in front of his house. Six masked men barged into his home, forced his family onto a couch and pointed a gun at his wife and him, he said. After a short period, they left.
“I said, ‘Brother, lower your weapon,’” Mr. Reyes said. “‘You’re not talking to a criminal, you’re talking to a father who works Monday through Saturday.’”
Relatives of Mr. Ordóñez, who was killed that day, said they never got a real explanation for his death.
His sister, Ms. González, said she asked a FAES officer patrolling the area why the group had shot her brother. The officer said that Mr. Ordóñez had been killed in a fight with the unit and had been trying to flee, she recalled.
But Ms. González said the explanation made little sense because her brother had already been hit with rubber bullets fired by FAES officers during a protest several days ago, and was barely able to walk.
On Wednesday, at his funeral, Mr. Ordóñez’s body lay in a wooden coffin lined with butcher paper. Family members knelt beside it in the back of a pickup truck before it was lowered into a grave.
“The government obliges you to be what they want you to be,” said Ms. González. “Because if not, they will imprison you, or you’re dead.”