Mexico City, Mexico, May 16, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan opposition figures reportedly conspired with Colombian paramilitaries to stage a coup d’etat and assassinate President Hugo Chávez.
Former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso made the revelations during his testimony to Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace on Thursday.
“At one point a Venezuelan general came along with his son and some Venezuelan politicians to propose Carlos Castaño and I […] that we carry out a coup d’état with a part of the Venezuelan Armed Forces allied with us to overthrow and assassinate Hugo Chávez,” Mancuso told the tribunal.
Mancuso, together with Carlos Castaño, led the the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC by its Spanish acronym), a former paramilitary group with ties to the Colombian Armed Forces that fought the country’s guerrilla armies, waging a violent campaign in the countryside that claimed thousands of victims.
The paramilitary chief was testifying before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP by its Spanish acronym), a tribunal established as part of a peace agreement between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. Mancuso delivered his testimony via video from a prison inside the United States after being extradited in 2008 to face drug trafficking charges.
Mancuso, who seeks to return to Colombia, faces a long series of serious charges related to his time as a leader of the AUC. People involved in the country’s decades-long armed conflict who participate in JEP tribunals are eligible to receive special consideration, including reduced sentences, if their testimony is found to be truthful.
The work of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace has grown in prominence as Colombian President Gustavo Petro seeks to implement what his government has termed “Total Peace” in the country after his conservative predecessor deliberately sidelined peace efforts. The AUC itself formally demobilized between 2003 and 2006 as part of a separate deal promoted by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, which was criticized for being too accommodating to the paramilitary groups and leaders.
In his testimony to the JEP, Mancuso added that Castaño rejected the Venezuelan opposition proposal but nonetheless offered to send AUC troops to train their Venezuelan counterparts to carry out the coup. In 2004, a group of 50 Colombian paramilitaries was caught in an estate outside Caracas with an alleged plot to assassinate Chávez, who was elected in 1998 and served as president until his death from cancer in 2013.
Mancuso’s claim bolsters accusations of collaboration and coordination between Venezuela’s hardline opposition and paramilitary groups on both sides of the border. Self-proclaimed former “interim president” Juan Guaidó and his allies faced heavy criticism after photos emerged of the opposition figure embracing high ranking members of Colombia’s Los Rastrojos after he crossed from Venezuela into Colombia to participate in US-led effort to force “humanitarian aid” across the border in 2019.
Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton later revealed that the so-called aid scheme was indeed an effort to try to embarrass Maduro and trigger a break in the armed forces, as Venezuelan government officials had denounced.
Guaidó again illegally entered Colombia last month as part of an effort to sabotage an international conference on Venezuela hosted by Petro. It was not clear if he relied on the help of armed actors in the border region once more. Guaidó eventually fled Colombia for Miami and subsequently held meetings with US politicians from both sides of the aisle who reiterated their support for him and Venezuela’s hardline opposition.
Petro has similarly denounced a coup plot by former Colombian security officials, mercenaries and paramilitary outfits. Retired state security officials and reservists staged a protest against the Colombian president’s security policies last Wednesday, with some openly calling for his ouster. Human rights activists in Colombia have long denounced the closeness between Colombian state security forces and paramilitary outfits.
Colombian mercenaries are also accused of involvement in the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, with 18 Colombians, many of them former soldiers, having been arrested in connection with Moïse’s killing. The assassination is suspected of being organized with the help of a Florida-based security firm.
In 2020, Venezuela foiled an effort by a 60-man paramilitary force organized by US special operations veteran Jordan Goudreau and retired Venezuelan Major General Cliver Alcalá to infiltrate the country via Colombia with the aim of assassinating Maduro.
The plot, known as “Operation Gideon”, counted on the support and blessing of high-profile Venezuelan opposition figures, despite denials from Guaidó. Goudreau has produced evidence showing the opposition hired his Florida-based security company Silvercorp and has sued anti-government operators for breach of contract.
Mancuso additionally testified that the AUC buried at least 200 bodies in mass graves inside Venezuelan territory in the early 2000s. The former paramilitary chief said that practice emerged after communities inside Colombia started to speak out against the incineration of victims in crematoriums as part of an effort to disappear bodies. Following Mancuso’s claims, Colombia and Venezuela announced that the two countries had agreed to “immediately” work together to help find the remains.
Edited by Ricardo Vaz in Caracas.