Is Venezuela’s Attorney General Biased Towards the Opposition?

Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega is fueling a climate of impunity vis-a-vis deadly opposition violence, argues VA's Lucas Koerner.

The heightening standoff between Venezuela’s Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Diaz, and the other branches of government has dominated international news headlines in recent weeks.

Mainstream media outlets have tried to paint Ortega as the lone defender of democracy standing up to a ruthless Maduro government hell-bent on turning the country into a socialist dictatorship. 

In particular, international journalists have highlighted the top prosecutor’s criticisms of the government over its convening of a National Constituent Assembly, the use of military tribunals, as well as alleged human rights violations against protesters. 

Meanwhile, government supporters have accused Ortega of promoting impunity in the face of over two months of violent opposition protesters that have claimed at least 82 lives since April 4, according to data compiled by Venezuelanalysis. 

In light of the release of a new 101-page report on the unrest authored by the National Ombudsman’s office, I will evaluate these claims of bias against the attorney general to determine who’s right. 

Military tribunals

In a series of sharp criticisms in recent weeks, Venezuela’s attorney general has taken aim at the Maduro government’s use of military tribunals to try those accused of violent crimes during protests.

“The use of military justice is contrary to the principles of the Venezuelan constitution. It violates the principle of judgment by one’s peers,” she said in a press conference on May 24. 

While the mainstream media has seized on the use of military courts as one more indication of Venezuela’s alleged dictatorial meltdown, the issue is slightly more complicated than the international press’ one-dimensional presentation. 

In its newly released report, the National Ombudsman’s office dedicates a subsection to military tribunals in which it underscores their constitutional legality in certain cases. 

Under Venezuela’s Organic Military Justice Code, civilians may be tried in military courts for the crime of “rebellion” under special circumstances, namely if the suspects are organized militarily and are engaged in hostilities against the national armed forces.

There is little doubt that such a legal category does not apply to the vast majority of Venezuelan protesters, who have in fact been largely peaceful. 

However, the demonstrations have been characterized by focos of extreme anti-government violence, which has targeted state institutions, public infrastructure, government supporters, and even military installations. 

For instance, the General Francisco de Miranda Air Base in eastern Caracas has been a repeated target of opposition demonstrators who have hurled blunt objects and Molotov cocktails at the installation and even destroyed part of the outer fences, trespassing its grounds. In another emblematic case, 80 to 100 anti-government militants besieged an army mortar battery garrison in Tachira state for several hours, burning a vehicle outside the entrance and even entering the premises. According to Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at the building’s gas cylinders, which could have caused a deadly explosion detonating the facility’s munitions in the vicinity of the town center. 

Moreover, it’s a well-known fact that paramilitary groups are active in Venezuela, particularly in the border regions, and that many have links to the country’s political opposition. In fact, authorities arrested six alleged Colombian paramilitaries in Tachira last month.

Nonetheless, it would be dubious to suggest that the majority of the violent acts committed by Venezuelan opposition protesters over the past eleven weeks constitute crimes of armed rebellion worthy of military jurisdiction.

For the record, I – and I think I can speak for my fellow colleagues at Venezuelanalysis –oppose the use of military tribunals, which runs contrary to the Bolivarian Revolution’s explicit goal of bottom-up radical democratic transformation.

However, the response of the Venezuelan state should be placed in an international context.

Can the reader imagine how Washington would react to a violent protest movement backed by a hostile foreign power whose explicit objective is the toppling of the elected US president? Under these circumstances, a Democratic or Republican administration would respond with the full weight of the US state’s repressive apparatuses, which could even conceivably take the form of declaring anti-government militants – for example, those involved in the recent torching of a Supreme Court executive office – “enemy combatants” and suspending fundamental constitutional protections.

In comparison with the US or any other state in the global North, the reaction of the Maduro government in the face of eleven weeks of violent anti-government mobilizations claiming at least 82 lives has been exceedingly tame. Witness, for instance, the US state’s merciless crackdown on the anti-Trump inauguration protests, for which 212 demonstrators are facing 70 to 80 years in jail.

Contrast this with the Venezuelan Public Prosecution (MP) extremely lenient, arguably permissive, attitude towards the violent demonstrations.

In a number of cases, such as the murder of 23-year-old Paola Ramirez, the accused – who is incidentally an alleged member of the ultra-right Vente Venezuela party – has been charged with simple intentional homicide and illegal possession of firearms, amounting to 12 to 18 years in prison. 

According to Supuesto Negado, the MP has neglected to charge Ramirez’s alleged killer, Ivan Pernia, with aggravated homicide under the country’s anti-terrorism legislation, for which he could face up to 30 years behind bars. 

Likewise, in a shocking revelation, Ortega announced on May 24 that of 2664 people indicted for crimes such as homicide, looting, grievous bodily arm, robbery, and arson, “only 284 have been jailed”.

“[This] confrontation… will not be resolved by putting people in jail,” she said during the press conference.

The Justice Ministry has accused the MP of “not guaranteeing the correct application of justice” and has pointed to the case of a campesino in Merida whose home was burned down by alleged opposition supporters in which prosecutors set the suspects free without further investigation.

This leniency comes on top of the Public Prosecution’s failure to investigate the alleged victims of opposition political violence, as we will see below.

In this context, the use of military tribunals could be seen as an understandable if illegitimate response on the part of a besieged Venezuelan government to a situation of impunity fueled by the MP’s own inaction.

Death toll doubts 

Another major question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is how many people have died in protests, and, of those deaths, how many are attributable to authorities.

According to the latest list of fatalities compiled by the MP, 66 people have died between April and June of this year.

There are, however, a number of problems with this list.

First, in those cases where there have been arrests and/or indictments, the MP does not provide key details about the context of the homicides or the identity and political affiliation of those allegedly responsible for the killings.

For instance, in the high-profile case of Almelina Carrillo, the MP fails to note that she was in the vicinity of a pro-government march when she was fatally hit in the head with a frozen glass bottle thrown from a nearby apartment building, thereby omitting the possible political motivation of the crime.

Likewise, in the case of Augusto Pugas Velazquez, the MP indicates that six people have been detained without mentioning that the arrested are five state police officers and a Bolivarian Militia sergeant.

This failure to disclose key details regarding the political affiliation of the perpetrators obstructs our efforts to determine responsibility for the violence and consequently reinforces the hegemonic media narrative that a majority of the deaths are the fault of the government. Such ambiguity is particularly troubling in light of the fact that at least 46[i] of those killed over the past 11 weeks were not themselves participants in opposition protests, but rather bystanders, government supporters, state security personnel or looters. 

The attorney general has recently revealed in a radio interview that 19 of the fatalities constitute “human rights violations” perpetrated by authorities.

When asked by the interviewer, “How many deaths can be indisputably attributed to security forces,” Ortega replied, “Until now, certainly 19 [at the hands of] security forces, with accuracy.” 

The top prosecutor’s statement comes across as rather strange given that an examination of the MP’s own list shows that only in 10[ii] cases have there been arrests, indictments, and/or arrest warrants issued against active duty state security personnel. 

This figure matches closely with the information compiled by both the National Ombudsman’s office and Venezuelanalysis, which have both found 11[iii] deaths attributable to authorities to date.

Such a discrepancy begs the question, namely where is the evidence pointing to the responsibility of security forces in those eight[iv] other cases? 

Ortega has indicated that the MP has issued 19 pending arrest warrants against state security personnel, which she says have “not been turned over to the public prosecution”. 

However, if the MP has evidence pointing to the responsibility of authorities in these eight other deaths, why not go public with the allegations – as it has with the high-profile case of Juan Pernalete – in lieu of ominously hinting at the government’s culpability?

Instead, Ortega presents these publicly unsubstantiated accusations as if they were “indisputable” facts, thereby usurping the powers of the judiciary, which alone can determine guilt and innocence.

These unexplained and unsupported allegations are, moreover, highly dangerous insofar as they play into the dominant mainstream media narrative blaming the violent unrest on the government, which is quite functional to US-backed regime change efforts currently afoot in the South American country. 

Politically selective omissions  

A comparison of the reports by the MP and the National Ombudsman’s office reveals sharp discrepancies, not only in terms of the quantity of deaths attributed to authorities, but also with respect to the number of those allegedly killed by protesters themselves. 

The Public Prosecution omits several high profile cases of Venezuelans dying directly or indirectly as a result of anti-government roadblocks.

For instance, the MP excludes from its list the cases of Oliver Villa Camargo (29) and Efrain Sierra (34), who, according to the National Ombudsman, were both murdered while attempting to cross opposition barricades. 

The prosecution likewise fails to include the kidnapping and execution of grassroots Chavista leader Pedro Josue Carrillo (21) in Lara state, which the Ombudsman’s office has denominated a “hate crime”. 

To these omissions, we may add socialist labor leader Rexol Navas – allegedly murdered at an opposition roadblock in Valencia – and Ricarda de Lourdes Gonzales, who reportedly suffered a CVA and died when the ambulance was prevented from passing a barricade.

It is deeply troubling that the MP has not only omitted these deaths from its list of casualties, but that it has even neglected to open criminal investigations. 

There is little doubt that the failure to prosecute these alleged cases of opposition political violence contributes to a climate of impunity in which the lives of those allegedly killed by opposition militants appear to matter less than those killed by security forces.

Conclusion: Bureaucratic negligence or deliberate impunity?

In view of the Venezuelan Public Prosecution’s failure to investigate key cases of opposition political violence, the following question must be posed: does this inaction stem from bureaucratic ineptness in the face of protracted violent unrest or does it evidence a broader pattern of pro-opposition bias on the part of the attorney general? 

The MP’s inaction in these cases must be taken together with Ortega’s various public postures and actions that could be read as legitimating anti-government violence.

On May 3, she told The Wall Street Journal in an exclusive interview, “We can’t demand peaceful and legal behavior from citizens if the state takes decisions that don’t accord with the law.”

The interview was published on the same day that three people were killed in traffic accidents caused by the opposition barricades and one day after Rexol Navas was assassinated at an anti-government roadblock.

That Ortega would make such statements to a US newspaper with a proven record of lying about Venezuela in favor of regime change is the height of political irresponsibility and speaks volumes about her own personal motivations in this intensifying standoff.

In a forthcoming sequel to this analysis, I will examine what factors may be driving Ortega in her head-on confrontation with the other branches of Venezuela’s government and the broader implications of this internecine institutional struggle for the future of the Bolivarian Revolution.

[i] According to Venezuelanalysis’ own count, of the 80 killed to date, at least 23 are bystanders, 6 government supporters, 4 state security personnel, and 13 alleged looters.

[ii] The MP has yet to issue an indictment in the controversial case of opposition protester Juan Pernalete, who was allegedly killed by a tear gas canister. Venezuelanalysis has nonetheless opted to attribute the death to authorities. In the case of Carlos Moreno, an off-duty Sucre municipality police chief named Ramon Camacho has been arrested and charged with the murder. The CICPC has suggested Camacho is a member of the March 5 Front collective, but the allegation has not been corroborated. Venezuelanalysis has attributed this death to pro-government civilians.

[iii] Both Venezuelanalysis and the National Ombudsman attribute the following deaths to security forces based on information provided by the MP: Gruseny Antonio Canelon, Daniel Queliz, Jairo Ortiz, Christian Ocha, Diego Hernandez, Eyker Daniel Rojas Gil, Luis José Alviarez Chacón, Manuel Castellanos, August Sergio Pugas Velásquez, Juan Pablo Pernalete Lovera, Cesar David Pereira. There have been arrests and indictments in all cases except for the that of Pernalete, which remains highly disputed.

[iv] Ortega has reported on the basis of evidence collected by the MP that Juan Pablo Pernalete was killed by a tear gas canister. However, a preliminary autopsy suggested that the student protester was killed by a captive bolt pistol. The case remains a heated point of contention between the MP and the Justice Ministry. Ortega has yet to issue any further public details regarding the eight other deaths she attributes to the government.