Leader of 2002 Oil Industry Shutdown Flees Venezuela Prison

Carlos Ortega, the leader of the 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, which caused over $7 billion economic damage, and who was convicted to 16 years in prison, fled yesterday along with three imprisoned military officers.

A labor leader who led a failed oil strike to oust President Hugo Chavez several years ago has escaped from prison, prompting troops and police to secure ports, airports and embassies to prevent one of Venezuela’s most prominent prisoners from fleeing country.

Carlos Ortega, who was serving a 16-year sentence for civil rebellion, escaped along with three military officers from the Ramos Verde military prison, Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez said Sunday on state television.

He said the prisoners might have escaped early Sunday, but officials said they were still trying to determine the time.

Troops and police were securing all ports, airports and embassies nationwide to prevent the fugitives from fleeing or seeking asylum at a diplomatic mission, Defense Minister Gen. Raul Baduel told a news conference.

"This is to prevent … one of the most horrible crimes committed against Venezuela from going unpunished – a crime of conspiracy along with a coup in which one of the leading figures was Carlos Ortega," Rodriguez said.

Officials were investigating the possibility that members of the military helped the four escape, though there was no evidence yet of such complicity, Baduel said.

Ortega, considered a political prisoner by Venezuela’s opposition, was convicted in December of civil rebellion and instigation to commit illegal acts for his role in the 2002-2003 strike that aimed to topple Chavez’s government.

The two-month strike virtually shut down oil production in the world’s No. 5 oil exporting country and cost Venezuela $7.5 billion, helping plunge the economy into one of the worst recessions in memory. Chavez refused to step down and regained control of the industry by firing almost half the work force at the state oil company.

The government has also linked Ortega, the leader of the million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation, to an April 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez before a popular uprising helped restore him to power. Ortega organized a general strike that led up to the coup, but was never convicted of any charges related to it.

It was not the first time Ortega has slipped away from Venezuelan authorities. He fled the country after a local court ordered his arrest in 2003 and spent over a year in exile in Costa Rica. His asylum was revoked in August 2004 after Ortega reportedly said he would return to Venezuela to work clandestinely to oust Chavez. Ortega spent months in hiding before he was arrested in Caracas in March 2005.

His jailbreak recalls the escape of another prominent Chavez opponent – Pedro Carmona, a business leader who briefly became interim president during the 2002 coup. Carmona, who faced rebellion and conspiracy charges, fled from house arrest a month after the coup, and was granted asylum in Colombia.

The three military officers who escaped with Ortega are brothers Col. Jesus Farias and Col. Dario Farias and their uncle, Capt. Rafael Farias.

Jesus and Rafael Farias were charged with military rebellion in October after being linked to a group of alleged Colombian paramilitaries who were detained in May 2004 for allegedly plotting to assassinate Chavez.

Dario Farias was arrested for theft in April 2005 after a military assault rifle was found hidden in his car’s fender.

Authorities were trying to re-establish control of the prison where the four were held in Los Teques, just west of Caracas. Inmates – angered by suspended visits and other security measures taken because of the escape – broke in and vandalized the prison director’s office.