Caracas, Venezuela, October 27, 2005—A Venezuelan military court sentenced three Venezuelan military officers and 27 Colombians to two to nine years of prison for plotting an assault on Venezuela’s presidential palace and the assassination of President Hugo Chavez. Another 73 Colombians and 3 Venezuelan officers, who had also been suspected of participating in the plot, were freed after spending 17 months in prison.
118 Colombians were captured in May 2004 on a ranch just outside of Caracas, wearing Venezuelan military fatigues. Many of them appeared to be Colombian paramilitary fighters who had been recruited for a mission in Venezuela to attack the Chavez government and to kill the president. Six Venezuelan officers were also arrested in the course of the investigation.
Some of the Colombians were peasants who had been lured to come to Venezuela with the promise of jobs. Upon arriving, though, they were forced to engage in paramilitary training exercises and were forbidden to leave the ranch. 18 of the Colombians were released immediately after the capture and returned to Colombia because they were minors between 15 and 17 years. The ranch belongs to Roberto Alonso, a prominent Cuban-Venezuelan opposition activist.
The highest level officer to be sentenced was General Ovidio Poggioli, who had been charged with military rebellion and was sentenced to 2 years and ten months of prison. The other two Venezuelan officers are Colonel Jesús Farias Rodríguez and Captain Rafael Farias Villasmil, who were each sentenced to nine years of prison. The 27 Colombians were each sentenced to six years prison.
When the group of Colombians were first arrested, many opposition leaders argued that the government had staged the arrests, in order to make the opposition look bad. They pointed out that no weapons were found with the paramilitary fighters and that the whole operation looked far too amateurish to have any chance of success. Also, it was argued that it is practically impossible to transport 120 Colombian paramilitary fighters undetected all the way from Colombia to Caracas, considering that there are numerous military control points along the way.
Prosecutors argued, though, that former Venezuelan military officers arranged for safe passage of the Colombians and that they were going to be provided with weapons once it was time to carry out their mission.