Robbery, Not Anti-Semitism, Motive for Attack on Venezuelan Synagogue

Following a weeklong investigation of the burglary and vandalizing of a prominent Caracas synagogue, Venezuelan authorities have arrested eleven suspects whose motive appears to have been robbery, Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami announced Monday.
One of the eleven arrested suspects in the synagogue attack being transported to court. (Globovision)

Mérida, February 10th 2009 (– Following a weeklong investigation of the burglary and vandalizing of a prominent Caracas synagogue, Venezuelan authorities have arrested eleven suspects, including a rabbi’s bodyguard who planned the crime, and a security guard who assisted the break in, Venezuelan Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami announced Monday.

The attack on the synagogue occurred in the early morning of January 31st. Burglars tampered with security cameras, stole property, defaced sacred items including the Torah, and spray-painted the walls with anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli phrases.

A confession by security guard Víctor Escalona revealed that a personal struggle over money was the motive of the crime. Edgar Cordero, a Caracas police officer and bodyguard of Rabbi Isaac Cohen had been denied a loan by the rabbi, so he planned to rob money from the synagogue’s coffers, and approached Escalona for assistance, according to investigators from the from Venezuela’s national Criminal, Penal, and Scientific Investigations Unit (CICPC).

El Aissami said anti-Semitism was not the motive, but rather a tactic used for two purposes, “First, to weaken the investigation, and second, to direct the blame toward the national government.”

El Aissami also detailed other evidence gathered during the investigation that implicated the security guard Escalona. “We observe that the fence was cut from the inside out and there is no evidence that would demonstrate that it was climbed or broken into from the outside,” said the minister, pointing to photos of the scene of the crime.

“Another thing we found was that the security guard [Escalona] declared he had been tied up and did not see anything, but we discovered that at one o’clock in the morning he sent a text message to the rabbi’s bodyguard [Cordero],” and had been separated from other security guards who were tied up, El-Aissami reported.

Escalona’s testimony led CICPC authorities to arrest a total of six metropolitan police officers, four civilians, and an investigator from the CICPC homicide department who were involved in the burglary, according to El-Aissami.    

The minister said the investigation has not concluded, and that arrest warrants have been issued for four more suspects who, according to fingerprints and footprints scanned by CICPC forensic experts, are suspected to have painted the anti-Semitic phrases on the walls of the synagogue.  

The results of the investigation so far negate accusations by government adversaries and opposition-aligned private media over the past week that the government inspired the attack, said El-Aissami.

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) congratulated the CICPC investigators Monday and denounced the private media and opposition leaders for using the synagogue attack as an electoral strategy against a proposed constitutional amendment that Venezuelans will vote on February 15th.

“We want to endorse these actions by the police, which have permitted the detention of the alleged culprits of this vandalism that the Bolivarian Revolution rejected from the beginning,” said PSUV leader Vanessa Davies in a televised address. “We want to condemn these parts of the opposition that immediately blamed the National Government.”

“They said that in Venezuela there was a government that persecuted citizens for their political or religious position,” Davies continued. “The Bolivarian revolution has demonstrated that in this country nobody is persecuted for their religious position. It would be wrong for the revolutionaries, who have been rounded up and persecuted in the past… to be the people who round up and persecute.”

Government officials, including President Hugo Chávez, have repeatedly condemned the synagogue attack and met with leaders of the Venezuelan Jewish community to express their rejection of the attack and to discuss how to improve relations.

Last Friday, Foreign Relations Minister Nicolás Maduro met with the general secretary of the World Jewish Congress, Michael Schneider, and the president of the Latin American Jewish Congress, Jack Terpins.  

In an interview with the private television channel Venevisión on Monday, Chávez said the result of the investigation is “a message to the Jewish family, which lives with us and is part of the great Venezuelan family… the Chávez government is not anti-Semitic.” The president also expressed his regret that corrupt Caracas police had been involved in the attack on the synagogue.