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A woman walks next to a gate that was broken during a raid of Venezuelan security forces, according to residents, in an apartment complex of Los Teques, Venezuela, July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

(reuters_tickers)

By Brian Ellsworth

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan security forces last week arrived at an apartment complex in a town outside Caracas following an opposition demonstration, shouting accusations that weapons were being stored inside, according to witnesses.

Without showing search warrants, dozens of troops ripped out gates and broke down doors in the 11-building Montana Alta complex in Los Teques, residents said, adding that they fired rubber bullets and tear gas once inside.

Such raids have become an increasingly common response by the government of President Nicolas Maduro to three months of often violent opposition protests demanding early elections and a resolution to the country's chaotic economic collapse.

Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/2qsTmHg

Montana Alta resident Dilcia Diaz, 63, said the troops broke a window of her ground-floor apartment with their weapons.

"I opened my door and they pointed (their guns) at me. They said, 'Get back inside, ma'am, or you know what will happen to you,'" Diaz said.

"They broke the (security) cameras, they left everything in darkness because they destroyed all the lights."

During the raid, which came after a National Guard soldier was shot at the nearby protest, residents said troops also forced their way into some apartments.

Raids like the one in Los Teques typically include arbitrary destruction and sometimes theft of private property, as well as the participation of unidentified masked men, according to witnesses.

It is not clear how many warrant-less raids have been conducted since Venezuela's latest round of protests began in April, though media reports and opposition politicians suggest at least a dozen.

One such operation in the Caracas neighbourhood of El Paraiso in June was condemned by Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who announced pending indictments against two top security officials in part due to such raids.

Venezuela's Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

'GET OUT OF THE WAY'

Government leaders have previously said the raids are needed to control violent elements who seek to overthrow Maduro, noting that two police officers and two National Guard troops have been killed in the protests. Many others have been injured.

Opposition officials argue that the trend is one further sign Venezuela is heading towards a dictatorship under Maduro, who is leading a plan to create a legislative superbody that will have the power to dissolve state institutions.

For a police raid to be legal it requires both a court order and the presence of a state prosecutor, said constitutional lawyer Jose Vicente Haro. He added that they must target specific people suspected of criminal activity rather than sweeping entire buildings in protest areas, as has been typical of recent raids.

"This is a systematic state policy to threaten and intimidate those who make legitimate use of their right to protest," said Haro, a prominent defender of protesters who have been arbitrarily detained.

Diosdado Cabello, No. 2 of the ruling Socialist Party who has no official role in state security, in May announced a plan called "Operation Knock-Knock" meant to uncover violent anti-government conspiracies through raids.

Days after that, travel agent Aristed Lopez heard an insistent ringing of the doorbell at his apartment in the bedroom community of San Antonio de Los Altos outside Caracas, where demonstrators had for days clashed with troops.

When he opened the door, two police officers accompanied by five or six unidentified men in ski masks carrying assault rifles pushed their way into his home, with no warrant.

"I didn't tell them they could come in. I just opened the door and they said 'Get out of the way,'" said Lopez, 53, who added he was not involved in the clashes.

The men found a spent tear gas canister that his 17-year-old son had Eduardo collected as a souvenir, a routine practice in the protest-stricken country.

That was initially used as grounds for detaining him and his son, who respectively spent 10 and 22 days under arrest.

They were accused of inciting violence at a demonstration elsewhere in San Antonio de Los Altos, even though security cameras at their building showed them being detained at the precise moment they were alleged to have been protesting.

Lopez, a devout evangelical Christian, believes he and his son were released thanks to the prayers he led during his detention as part of a group of 17 people who had been arrested in similar circumstances.

"It leaves a person in shock, because we have a constitution that says that everyone is innocent until proven guilty," said Lopez during an interview in his home. "What I can conclude is that there is no law here. It's the law of the jungle."

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; Editing by Girish Gupta and Daniel Wallis)

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