Venezuelan Officials Arrest 14 National Guardsmen over Prison Escape

Following investigations into the prison escape of former union leader Carlos Ortega, along with three military officers, from Ramo Verde military prison, at least 14 arrests were made, announced Interior Minister Jesse Chacon.

Caracas, Venezuela, August 17, 2006—Following investigations into the escape of former CTV (Venezuelan Workers Confederation) leader Carlos Ortega, along with Darío, Rafael and Jesús Farías, three military officers, from Ramo Verde military prison, at least 14 arrests were made. One of the soldiers arrested had links with a party of the opposition, according to Venezuela’s Minister of Justice and the Interior, Jesse Chacon.

The National Guardsman Jhonny Espinoza, who officials say was responsible for holding the keys to the cells of the escapees has been detained for questioning at Ramo Verde by Venezuelan military intelligence (DIM), along with about a dozen of his colleagues who, according to a military spokesman, are at least “indirectly” responsible for the escapes.

Chacón, while refusing to give details on the still ongoing investigation, said that large cash payments had been made to prison guards.

He also commented on the possibility of Ortega being given political asylum if he managed to flee Venezuela. He said given that he has been legally “sentenced”, “I’d like to see which country would dare give him asylum.” He went on to accuse the four of having links to Colombian paramilitaries, but felt confident official Colombian channels would cooperate with Venezuela if they turned up there.

The home of Jairo Caro, an ex Copei (Christian Social Party) councilor who lives nearby the jail, was searched by police on Monday. He was subsequently taken to the local police station, but nothing was found at his property and no charges were made against him.

The Minister of Defense, Raúl Isaías Baduel, commenting on who was behind the planning, said, “We know that local agents exist whose interests don’t coincide with those of the country. For that reason we don’t discount them bearing some responsibility for the escape of Carlos Ortega and the three military officials”.

The escape was also debated in the National Assembly Tuesday, where Deputy Ismael García, from the party Podemos, was more direct than Baduel. He said it was part of the opposition’s electoral campaign, “the electoral campaign that they are planning is nothing but to produce a series of incidents like that which just occurred with the escape of Ortega and the three military officials involved in subversion and actions against the Constitution.”

Officials have established that the four escaped around 1 am Sunday morning and that they had keys to their own cells.

Responding to criticism of the state as “weak” over its inability to secure such high profile prisoners, President Chávez turned on the escapees who he accused of cowardice for not facing their punishment. “I think the others are the weak ones, the weaknesses are elsewhere, those that flee and those that don’t have even the bravery to face justice. I was a prisoner for two years accepting a situation and I left with my head head held high, how sad to leave in the early hours of the morning like rats,” said Chavez.

However, Ortega’s family and lawyer suggested Monday he may have been “disappeared” by the authorities. His lawyer Carlos Roa Roa said that it was the state’s responsibility to keep him safe and his sister worried that when his mother visited him on Sunday he didn’t mention anything, “Never, not even as a joke, did he speak of escaping.”

The opposition group National Resistance Commando called a march in support of the escapees on Monday but it was cancelled after scarcely 20 people turned up.

See also: Leader of 2002 Oil Industry Shutdown Flees Venezuela Prison