- - Sunday, August 12, 2018

An armed movement among elements of Venezuela’s security services was most likely behind the stunning assassination attempt that featured a bomb-laden drone targeting the socialist regime of Nicolas Maduro, despite his efforts to maintain tight control on his military.

While there remains no shortage of suspects, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor on Tuesday announced the arrests of two high-ranking military officers. They were accused of being involved in the failed attack, which disrupted a military parade in the heart of Caracas this month.

The arrests of Gen. Alejandro Perez and Col. Pedro Zambrano brought the total number of suspects in custody to 14 and marked a fresh twist in an incident that has roiled the South American nation.

Mr. Maduro also made headlines this week by saying he would welcome help from the FBI in investigating the case, despite his renowned status as a sworn enemy of Washington.

With the ruling regime increasingly paranoid about coup plots, the Aug. 4 assassination attempt has been claimed by various groups purporting to represent former and active members of Venezuela’s armed forces under a variety of names, including The Resistance, Soldiers in T-Shirts and The Fenix Group.

Prior to the latest round of arrests, however, Mr. Maduro accused Julio Borges, one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders now living in exile in Colombia, of masterminding the plot. Regime critics dismissed the accusation as just one of a welter of conflicting claims from the government, which was under intense pressure well before the attack.

Venezuela is mired in a massive economic slump, Mr. Maduro has largely shut down his political opponents, and the lawlessness and shortages of daily life in the country have sparked Latin America’s largest refugee crisis. The United Nations said an estimated 2.3 million of Venezuela’s 32.8 citizens had fled as of June, mainly to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil.

Confusion over the drone incident has only added to the strain facing the country. One claim of responsibility for the assassination attempt was made by a former Caracas police chief, Salvatore Lucchese, who told the Reuters news service that “we showed that the regime is vulnerable. We didn’t get the target. But it’s a matter of time before we do.”

Some opposition leaders have claimed the drone episode was a hoax engineered by the Maduro regime to justify an even greater crackdown on dissent.

Immediately after the incident, Mr. Maduro arrested opposition lawmaker Juan Requesens, who led student protests last year, and called for Mr. Borges’ extradition from Colombia. The government said it also plans to press terrorism charges against Venezuelan exiles living in the U.S.

The case took another bizarre turn when Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez released what the government claimed was a videotaped “confession” from Mr. Requesens — even though the jailed opposition figure never mentions the drone attack or admits to any role in the attack. Mr. Requesens says on the video only that he helped Mr. Borges bring an unidentified man into Venezuela from Colombia but that he never met him.

Veteran Miami-based opposition journalist Patricia Poleo, long known for her close connections with the military, confirmed that she had received a communique from sources within the army announcing the start of an “armed struggle” against the president, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist leader Hugo Chavez, whom they accused of “consistently violating Venezuela’s constitution.”

It was unclear Tuesday what evidence the Maduro government may or may not have against the two military officers who were taken into custody. Authorities said 20 suspects were being sought, including in Colombia and the U.S., although the FBI has yet to respond to Mr. Maduro’s suggestion that he would welcome the bureau’s help.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said Washington’s charge d’affairs in Caracas, James Story, had expressed “the willingness of his government to cooperate” in the investigation of the plot, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Lucchese, meanwhile, was jailed in 2014 for refusing to suppress opposition protests. He resumed political activity upon his release in 2016 before fleeing the country to avoid another arrest.

He is linked with police inspector Oscar Perez, his onetime subordinate in the criminal investigations unit. Perez lobbed hand grenades at the Venezuelan Supreme Court building from a helicopter last year after pro-regime judges cleared the way for Mr. Maduro to centralize power. Perez was killed in March by the government’s internal security service known as SEBIN, which used RPG anti-tank rockets to raid his group’s safe house.

The Caracas metropolitan police, which Mr. Maduro has largely dissolved, always maintained close links with opposition leaders who have controlled the city government. Mr. Lucchese is a member of the First Justice Party led by Caracas Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, one of the most charismatic opposition leaders now jailed on what critics say are politically motivated charges.

Mr. Lucchese claimed a role in planning last week’s drone attack as part of a “sustained armed movement composed of street activists, students and ex-military officers.”

Doubting peaceful change

The extent of his group’s following in Venezuela is hard to gauge. Last year’s massive street protests against the Maduro government indicated a high level of radicalization among Venezuelans in the face of years of food, medicine and consumer goods shortages. The brutality with which the regime put down the protests, employing armed paramilitaries and snipers to shoot protesters, has many now doubting that peaceful change is possible.

“Venezuela is a dictatorship. It’s that simple,” Mr. Requesens said before his arrest.

When some opposition leaders openly called on the military to unseat Mr. Maduro last year, he formed an “anti-coup command” under Vice President Tareck El Aissami.

In 2002, Chavez was briefly ousted in a palace coup led by conservative army officers, whose junta collapsed when the commander of the army’s tank division withheld support.

Mindful of that history, Mr. Maduro has worked to secure the loyalty of the top officers through a system of institutionalized graft, army dissidents say. Gen. Nestor Reverol, a former anti-drug czar, was promoted to interior minister when the Obama administration accused him of aiding drug traffickers in 2016.

Mr. Maduro has also placed generals and admirals in charge of government-administered food distribution, oil refineries and other key economic sectors in a bid to ensure their loyalty.

“All the main combat garrisons, strategic bases, centers of operations and internal security units are under the control of regime loyalists, compromised through corruption,” said Lt. Jose Colima, who heads a group of exiled dissident Venezuelan officers based in Miami.

Growing unrest among the junior ranks has led to a string of arrests conducted by the DGCIM, the military intelligence service, which has rounded up over 200 officers on charges of rebellion and conspiracy to mutiny over recent months.

Attorneys for the soldiers confined in Venezuela list some 152 officers and noncommissioned officers, including two Army generals, in detention, as well as naval and air force officers who have been formally charged and are being held at underground jails at DGCIM and SEBIN headquarters.

According to the attorneys, some of whom have held government security posts, 26 officers, most of them lieutenants, were arrested in January and February and accused of ties with Perez. Even larger roundups came in March and in May, the second time in the aftermath of national elections that cemented Mr. Maduro’s hold on power but were widely condemned in Venezuela and abroad as illegitimate and fraud-ridden.

Those taken into custody by the DGCIM in May included some generals and middle-ranking officers assigned to armored battalions, motorized infantry brigades and special forces units. A naval captain heading a unit equivalent to the U.S. Navy Seals was charged with plotting to assassinate the president.

Lawyers say the government may have used torture to extract information and confessions from those swept up in the raids.

“It was all based on suspicion. There is no concrete proof that any of the officers were in the process of organizing a rebellion or mutiny,” said one lawyer working with the defendants.

Some analysts say Mr. Maduro is using methods pioneered by the Castro regime in Cuba to root out dissent and to cling to power, including pre-emptive raids against possible centers of dissent.

Cuban officials have advised Venezuela’s new intelligence services and set up their own intelligence networks within the armed forces, said a retired general who headed defense planning and held a ministerial post under Chavez.

But if the drone attack is any indication, there may be holes in the intelligence screen, and dissident cells may have acquired the capacity to fly below the radar.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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