Caracas, April 11, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Controversy erupted this week surrounding the investigation into the car-bomb assassination of Venezuelan State Prosecutor Danilo Anderson on November 18, 2004, after a key prosecution witness, Giovanni Vasquez De Armas recanted his initial testimony. Vasquez’s testimony helped convict three men in 2005 for carrying out the murder and implicated a number of radical government opponents as the masterminds behind the crime.
Widely perceived as one of Venezuela’s best and brightest attorneys, Anderson, 38, was investigating the role of key opposition figures in the April 2002 military coup, which briefly ousted Chavez from office, when he was assassinated. His brief included up to 400 people who had signed the illegal decree by which Chamber of Commerce (FEDECAMARAS) president Pedro Carmona abolished the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the National Assembly and fired the Ombudsman, the Attorney General, as self-declared interim President during the coup.
The attorney was assassinated in Los Chaguaramos in Caracas, while driving home from the college where he was taking post-graduate classes. He was killed by a C-4 plastic explosive placed on the frame under the driver's seat of his Toyota SUV, apparently detonated by remote control. His murder shocked Venezuelan public opinion across the political spectrum.
Vasquez, a member of Colombia's right wing paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), initially testified that he had been in charge of logistics for the plot to kill Anderson, including the transfer 12kg of C-4 explosives into Venezuela, after Venezuelan opposition figures had asked his organization for operational assistance. Vasquez’s testimony also implicated FBI and CIA agents as being complicit in Anderson’s murder.
Based partly on Vasquez’s testimony, three former police officers, from the same family, Rolando, Otoniel, and Juan Bautista Guevara, were convicted of planting the bomb and sentenced to between 27 and 30 years of prison.
Alejandra Rivas Aliendres, the judge formerly in charge of the case, had said that charges were based on far more than Vásquez's testimony and pointed to “12 separate pieces of evidence,” including a map in the Guevara brothers house that indicated the route of Anderson and statements from other witnesses who reported seeing the suspects in the same area as Anderson on the night of the murder.
On the same day as the arrest of the Guevara brothers, two other suspects, Juan Carlos Sanchez, another police agent, and a lawyer, Antonio Lopez Castillo, were shot dead in separate incidents after they opened fire on investigating officers. A police raid on Castillo’s house later uncovered a cache of weapons, explosives and military equipment.
Vasquez's testimony also implicated banker and former part owner of opposition television station, Globovision, Nelson Mezerhane; retired Gen. Eugenio Anez Nuñez; former police officer Fernando Jesus Moreno Palmar; Cuban-born Salvador Romani; and journalist and editor of El Nuevo Pais, Patricia Poleo, (a prominent critic of the government and advocate of non-democratic resistance to it), as the masterminds behind the crime.
However, Vasquez's credibility came under fire after it was shown he had a criminal record for identity fraud in his native Colombia and documentation of uncertain provenance has been produced apparently showing that he was serving jail time in Santa Marta, Colombia, at the time he claims to have witnessed the planning of Anderson's murder by leading opposition figures in Panama.
Former Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez admitted at the time that Vasquez was not to be trusted completely but imposed a ban on press reporting on his personal life while the case was sub-judice. In late 2006, Rodriguez lifted the ban and announced that criminal proceedings against the remaining suspects had been suspended, citing a lack of evidence.
On Tuesday night Vasquez's lawyer, Morly Uzcategui, claimed that the whole investigation into Anderson’s murder had been “staged” by Rodriguez and that his client knew nothing about the case but had testified against the suspects after receiving a $500,000 cash payment from a government official.
Uzcategui also claimed his client was flown to Venezuela's La Orchila island by the military intelligence agency where he received a “script” allegedly written by Attorney General Rodriguez and was “trained” for a month in the lead up to the trial “to prepare him” for testifying.
In an appearance before the Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday, Vasquez submitted, as supposed proof of his allegations, photos of a military intelligence airplane at La Orchila and a video of an interview carried out by María Angélica Correa also a journalist for El Neuvo Pais, allegedly filmed on August 14 2006, where he claimed the investigation was staged by Rodriguez and that he had received $500,000 for testifying.
In contrast, in a second interview taped on Tuesday, and broadcast on opposition aligned television station Globovision, on Wednesday, Vasquez contradicted his earlier claim, saying he believed that Rodriguez had been “duped” by three attorneys working under him, Yoraco Bauza, Gilberto Landaeta and Hernando Contreras, who he alleged had “staged” the investigation.
“I believe that Rodríguez did not know what the attorneys assigned to the case were doing and they duped him. I believe in the honesty of the ex¬–Attorney General,” said Vasquez.
Vasquez also said he had never met the Guevara brothers and that he had identified them correctly in court because Bauza had sent him a text message describing where they were seated. Bauza has categorically rejected the allegations.
In the interview Vasquez also denied his previous statement that he had participated in a meeting in Panama with Poleo, Mezerhane, and Nuñez, along with FBI and CIA agents, where Anderson’s murder was allegedly planned. However, in contradiction to Uzcategui, he refused to rule out whether or not he had prior knowledge of the plot to kill the attorney.
The controversial witness also admitted that his constant falsehoods made it difficult to believe his latest version of events but insisted it was true.
Asked why she had not come forward with the video earlier, María Angelica Correa claimed that Vasquez had threatened her with a gun and stolen the video and that she did not want to come forward without the tape.
However, Vasquez denied the accusations, “Never, ever, did I threaten her, I feel betrayed by María Angélica” he said.
In conjunction with Vasquez’s new story, government opponent and one of the suspects accused of planning the murder, Fernando Jesus Moreno Palmar, also retracted an earlier statement in which he claimed he witnessed a meeting between Poleo, retired general Jaime Escalante, and Elías Escarrá in Maracaibo, in Zulia, Venezuela, where they allegedly made further plans for Anderson’s murder, saying he made the statement “under pressure.”
Two weeks earlier, Hernando Contreras, one of the attorneys previously assigned to the case also published a letter in which he said he falsified documents in the trial of the Guevara brothers and alleged that Rodríguez had biased the investigation.
Current Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said that Contreras’s letter was “incoherent” but confirmed that an investigation has been launched to determine whether the records related to Anderson’s murder were manipulated.
Newly appointed as a supplementary magistrate to the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Rodriguez said he had nothing to hide and the investigation had been carried out with “absolute transparency.”
The former Attorney General added that it was ironic that opposition sectors who had previously classified Vásquez as a “liar” and a “mythomaniac” were now presenting his latest claims as credible.
While Rodriguez conceded that Vásquez was not a completely reliable witness, he pointed out that 60% of his testimony in the Anderson case coincided with that of another key witness Rafael García, a Colombian paramilitary.
Opposition groups are calling for Rodriguez appointment to the Supreme Court to be annulled. In turn, Rodriguez said the allegations were part of a dirty campaign by the opposition in the lead up to the November regional elections.
National Assembly president Cilia Flores said she had “full confidence” in the investigation carried out by the former Attorney General and said there was “media manipulation” to try and cover up the facts about the material and intellectual perpetrators of the Anderson bombing.
In an interview on state-owned VTV yesterday, National Assembly deputy Iris Valera alleged that the CIA was paying Vasquez, to recant his testimony and carry out “this media show.”
For several months prior to Vasquez’s revelations, Venezuelan private media has carried frequent reports criticizing the government and Rodriguez in particular, for failing to find and convict those guilty of planning Anderson’s murder.
Opposition aligned journalists have also claimed that Anderson operated an extortion ring called the “Gang of Dwarves” aimed at opposition figures and lived well beyond his means, however the allegations have been rejected by most people close to Anderson as well as the government. Similarly, allegations that the three investigating attorneys were part of the alleged extortion ring have not been substantiated.
Supporters of Poleo, who fled the country in 2005 after a warrant was issued for her arrest and is currently based in Miami, have also been campaigning for her to be covered by a decree issued by President Chavez in January this year in which he granted amnesty to a number of opposition leaders connected to the coup.
However, Chavez made clear that the amnesty decree does not cover “those who are fugitives from justice, those who never wanted to recognize Venezuelan institutions.”
On January 28 Poleo’s lawyer, Negar Granados initiated proceedings to determine her legal status in Venezuela and whether she will face arrest upon returning to the country and today he called for the case against her to be closed.
Chavez said that opposition sectors were trying to revive the Anderson case “in a perverse manner” for political purposes and said “this is being carried out by the same people that ordered the killing of the courageous attorney.”
“They are trying to break the institutionality of the Venezuelan government…trying to bring Venezuela, once again, to a situation of instability and ungovernability as they achieved six years ago,” the head of state said in reference to the opposition coup.