The Operation

Latin America

Operation Trueno began on the night of April 20, 2022, when around 800 police and military officials traveling in 30 cars and 10 armored vehicles descended on the municipality of Altagracia de Orituco in the state of Guárico.

This story is part of an investigation produced by InSight Crime and the Venezuelan human rights organization Defiende Venezuela that exposes the abuses of the Venezuelan security forces and tells the stories of their victims. Explore these stories and the full human rights report here.

The security forces set up checkpoints throughout town, where they arrested people on spurious charges – or demanded bribes not to. They harassed and extorted local businesses, demanding goods and services with threats.

The officials set up their bases of operations in a local hotel and in houses and ranches seized from people under investigation. There, they brought in sex workers and threw parties that lasted until the early hours of the morning. And they held and tortured detainees.

They were ostensibly going after Tren del Llano, and they drew up a list of targets, but few names were actual members of the criminal group. Instead, they targeted people with familial or social connections to gang members, people who had unwittingly aided or been forced to collaborate with the gang – including their extortion victims – and anyone with a criminal history or who lived in a poor neighborhood.

Units of up to 30 officials, usually with their faces covered and identifications obscured, staged raids of the houses of those on the lists. They had no arrest or search warrants, instead telling people they were acting on a “presidential order.”

The officials often broke down the doors as they entered, then physically and verbally abused whoever they found inside. They hit them, beat them with their guns, tied them up, and threatened to kill them.

In the raids and after, the officials stole everything they could find – cash, cell phones, electronic devices, clothing, and vehicles. They even took food, and on some occasions, cooked up meals for themselves during the raids.

Those detained faced cruel and degrading treatment, suffering physical and mental abuse. Some were taken to clandestine torture centers.

Some of the women detained were subjected to sexual violence and humiliation.

The detentions were justified with falsified arrest reports and planted evidence, in most cases involving munitions they claimed to have found. Some detainees were forced to give false testimonies.

In some cases, officials demanded bribes running into the thousands of dollars to free the detainees, or to carry out transfers to court hearings or detention centers.

Most of those taken were held in jails in Caracas, four hours from Guárico. They had to pay bribes to get even basic services in the prisons. Their families were expected to provide them with food, but had to bribe officials to be able to visit or even communicate with their loved ones.

Most detainees were hauled in front of anti-terrorism courts. They were not allowed to have their own lawyers, and were instead forcibly represented by public defenders, some of whom demanded money to provide families with information about the cases.

While some victims were released after a few days, others remain incarcerated in inhumane conditions, held in overcrowded facilities without proper food or medical care. Some have been threatened by Tren del Llano as the gang believes the victims have informed on them to get judicial benefits.

This story is part of an investigation produced by InSight Crime and the Venezuelan human rights organization Defiende Venezuela that exposes the abuses of the Venezuelan security forces and tells the stories of their victims. Explore these stories and the full human rights report here.

Operation Trueno began on the night of April 20, 2022, when around 800 police and military officials traveling in 30 cars and 10 armored vehicles descended on the municipality of Altagracia de Orituco in the state of Guárico.

This story is part of an investigation produced by InSight Crime and the Venezuelan human rights organization Defiende Venezuela that exposes the abuses of the Venezuelan security forces and tells the stories of their victims. Explore these stories and the full human rights report here

The security forces set up checkpoints throughout town, where they arrested people on spurious charges – or demanded bribes not to. They harassed and extorted local businesses, demanding goods and services with threats.

The officials set up their bases of operations in a local hotel and in houses and ranches seized from people under investigation. There, they brought in sex workers and threw parties that lasted until the early hours of the morning. And they held and tortured detainees.

They were ostensibly going after Tren del Llano, and they drew up a list of targets, but few names were actual members of the criminal group. Instead, they targeted people with familial or social connections to gang members, people who had unwittingly aided or been forced to collaborate with the gang – including their extortion victims – and anyone with a criminal history or who lived in a poor neighborhood.

Units of up to 30 officials, usually with their faces covered and identifications obscured, staged raids of the houses of those on the lists. They had no arrest or search warrants, instead telling people they were acting on a “presidential order.”

The officials often broke down the doors as they entered, then physically and verbally abused whoever they found inside. They hit them, beat them with their guns, tied them up, and threatened to kill them.

In the raids and after, the officials stole everything they could find – cash, cell phones, electronic devices, clothing, and vehicles. They even took food and, on some occasions, cooked up meals for themselves during the raids.

Those detained faced cruel and degrading treatment, suffering physical and mental abuse. Some were taken to clandestine torture centers.

Some of the women detained were subjected to sexual violence and humiliation.

The detentions were justified with falsified arrest reports and planted evidence, in most cases involving munitions they claimed to have found. Some detainees were forced to give false testimonies.

In some cases, officials demanded bribes running into the thousands of dollars to free the detainees, or to carry out transfers to court hearings or detention centers.

Most of those taken were held in jails in Caracas, four hours from Guárico. They had to pay bribes to get even basic services in the prisons. Their families were expected to provide them with food, but had to bribe officials to be able to visit or even communicate with their loved ones.

Most detainees were hauled in front of anti-terrorism courts. They were not allowed to have their own lawyers, and were instead forcibly represented by public defenders, some of whom demanded money to provide families with information about the cases.

While some victims were released after a few days, others remain incarcerated in inhumane conditions, held in overcrowded facilities without proper food or medical care. Some have been threatened by Tren del Llano as the gang believes the victims have informed on them to get judicial benefits.

This story is part of an investigation produced by InSight Crime and the Venezuelan human rights organization Defiende Venezuela that exposes the abuses of the Venezuelan security forces and tells the stories of their victims. Explore these stories and the full human rights report here.

Read the Stories

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pdf download thumbnail report abuses human rights defiende venezuela violence in venezuela

Read Defiende Venezuela’s full report documenting 34 cases of abuses and human rights violations committed by the security forces during Operation Trueno.

Read InSight Crime’s profile of the gang that was the declared target of Operation Trueno.

Credits

Illustrations and color: Juan José Restrepo
Investigation: Ezequiel A. Monsalve Fernandez, Hjalmar D. Soler Zambrano
Texts: James Bargent
Creative direction and art direction: Elisa Roldán

Layout and effects: Belmar Santanilla
Editing: Mike LaSusa, María Fernanda Ramírez, Lara Loaiza
Graphic design: Juan José Restrepo, María Isabel Gaviria, Ana Isabel Rico
Social media: Camila Aristizábal, Paula Rojas, Daniel Reyes

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