CARACAS, Venezuela -- A special Venezuelan police unit has been targeting and killing young men in poor neighborhoods as President Nicolás Maduro's administration seeks to clamp down on the opposition, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
The rights group said it has documented nine cases involving the Special Action Forces in which individuals were tortured or executed, part of what it said is a larger pattern of extrajudicial killings taking place under the guise of "resistance of authority."
"Venezuelan security forces are taking justice into their own hands, killing or arbitrarily arresting people they say have committed crimes, without showing any evidence," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
The report is the second in recent months to draw attention to alleged human rights violations by the Special Action Forces, known by its Spanish initial, FAES. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a highly critical report in July concluding that many deaths classified as "resistance of authority" may in fact constitute extrajudicial killings authorities are covering up.
In total, police and security forces have killed nearly 18,000 people in Venezuela who officials say were resisting authorities at the time of death, according to government figures.
The Maduro government has not yet responded to the Human Rights Watch report, but has previously defended FAES against similar allegations.
Right groups are urging the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate a wide range of documented abuses, from torture to violations of the rights to food and health, and identify those responsible.
The information gathered potentially could be used in domestic or international criminal proceedings.
"Since victims will not find justice in Venezuela today, an independent international investigation that can determine individual responsibility of those involved, including at the highest levels of the regime, is critical," said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas deputy director for Human Rights Watch.
The Special Action Forces was created in 2017 as a rapid response unit responsible for combating organized crime and drug trafficking.
Maduro has repeatedly expressed his support for FAES and chastised the U.N. report for raising questions about the unit's conduct, saying researchers had manipulated data and fallen for a false narrative widely repeated in the media.
"This is a dangerous link for intervention in Venezuela," he said.
Human Rights Watch said the cases it documented follow a similar pattern in which armed FAES agents dressed in black uniforms arrived in pickup trucks without license plates and burst into homes in low-income neighborhoods. Relatives of several men killed said FAES manipulated the crime scene and evidence after the death.
In one of the cases, the mother of a now-deceased man said a FAES agent broke down her front door in the middle of the afternoon as she was inside with her daughter, son and her daughter's two children.
She said the agent said he was looking for criminal hiding in the neighborhood and showed her a picture of a group of young men that included her son.
Agents took the woman, her daughter and the two young children outside and then proceeded to look for her son. She said she later heard six gunshots, and officers then tossed her son's body in the back of their car and took it to a hospital.
She said she testified before investigative police officers shortly after her son's death but has still not been contacted by prosecutors.
The woman, whose name Human Rights Watch withheld to avoid retribution, said that she wants justice for the death of her son.
"They can't decide who lives and who dies," she told the group.