Venezuela Captures Paramilitary Group Seeking to Overthrow Chavez

Venezuelan authorities captured a group of Colombian men near Caracas belonging to a larger paramilitary group that was planning to overthrow the government

The paramilitaries were wearing Venezuela military uniforms.
Credit: Venpres

Sunday, May 9, 2004 ( Venezuelan authorities captured this morning a group of 55 Colombian paramilitaries who were receiving training at a farm nearby Caracas in preparation for attacks on Venezuelan military bases and for a coup d’etat against the government of Hugo Chavez.

The raid was conducted by the civilian intelligence service DISIP, military intelligence officers and the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation Department (CICPC). The property where the paramilitaries were captured is located in the municipality of Baruta, in southeastern Caracas. Footage by state TV showed what appeared to be living quarters, with beds and kitchens.

Barracs at the property of opposition activist Robert Alonso where Colmbian paramilitaries lived for 46 days
Credit: Venezolana de Televisión

The paramilitaries 55 initially captured are part of a larger group of up to 130 men, some of which managed to escape. By Sunday afternoon, authorities managed to capture several others for a total of 71 individuals detained, including two minors. Authorities continue to pursue the irregulars through the mountains around southeastern part of the valley of Caracas.

According to Venezuela’s Defense Minister Jorge Garcia Carneiro, the group’s final goal was to overthrow the government. Garcia said that there are Venezuelan retired military officers involved in the plot. The Venezuelan military officers allegedly involved are part of the group of rebels who regularly met at Francia Square in the affluent eastern Caracas neighborhood of Altamira, to give anti-government speeches and make calls to overthrow it.

Linked to larger group

One of the detainees confessed to a TV reporter that the owner of the farm offered them 500 thousand Colombian pesos to come and work there. When they arrived 46 days ago, they were greeted by men in camouflage uniforms, who told them they would receive training for attacks to National Guard bases.

One of the paramilitaries gave details of the opposition’s plans, but asked that his face not be seen fearing retaliations against his family in Colombia
Credit: Venpres

“Eight days after we arrived, they told us that we could not escape, that we cannot give information to anybody, and that we could not see or talk to any civilians, otherwise they would kill our families,” said the detainee in a thick Colombian accent. The man was wearing a sky mask in order to avoid being identified.

The group planned to concentrate near a Caracas military base -presumably the National Guard Urban Security Command- and assault it next Wednesday. The witness explained that the goal of the operation was to steal weapons from a arms depot at the base in order to arm a militia of three to four thousand paramilitaries who would come to Venezuela.

About 100 of the irregulars are members of the Colombian military reserve, according the authorities’ analysis of Colombian documents found in the farm, and according to testimony by some of the men captured.

According to the detainee, on Saturday afternoon, some “generals and colonels”, organizers of the operation brought Venezuelan army uniforms, boots, and food. “We could not see them because we they only allowed us to see them from afar.”

“When we knew about the plan, some of us tried to escape. One of the Colombians rebelled and managed to escape, but he was caught 100 meters away. They tied him and told him that next time he tried to escape, he would be killed. They then took away our ID cards and documents,” said the detainee.

According to the witness, they held regular target practices, but access to weapons was limited, perhaps due to the fact that some have tried to escape. Part of the training consisted of a drill in which they entered into a house and killed some people.

There was no confrontation during the raid because the group was mostly unarmed. They were to be transported to another location for more training and to give them weapons.

71 of the paramilitaries have been captured so far. The Venezuelan Government assured that the detainees’ Human Rights will be fully respected.
Credit: Venpres

Cubans involved

According to authorities, the property where the paramilitaries were captured belongs to anti-government political leader Robert Alonso. Mr. Alonso, of Cuban origin, is a legal resident of the United States, and creator of the civilian resistance plan called “Guarimba”, aimed at toppling the Chavez government and which was first implemented at the end of February in Caracas during the Presidential Summit of the Group of the 15.

Mr. Robert Alonso is one of the leaders of an opposition coalition know as Bloque Democrático (Democratic Block) and he is also tied to the larger Coordinadora Democratica opposition coalition. He is the brother of Cuban-Venezuelan actress Maria Conchita Alonso.

Ismael Garcia, a pro-government member of the legislature said that the paramilitaries who managed to escape did so through a property belonging to Cuban-Venezuelan media magnate and Chavez opponent Gustavo Cisneros. According to sources such as Newsweek, Cisneros was one on the main architects of the April 11 of 2002 coup against Chavez.

Venezuelan military officer searches the farm of opposition political leader Robert Alonso.
Credit: Venezolana de Televisión

Lawmaker Tarek William Saab, who heads the Foreign Relations Commission of the National Assembly, asked that the mayor of the municipality of Baruta, Mr. Enrique Capriles Radonsky be investigated in connection with the group. Mayor Capriles has been accused of cooperating with the Guarimba plan implemented last February in his municipality, by ordering the police not to intervene to restore order.

Saab said the government of Colombia should investigate because 100 of the detainees are members of the Colombian military reserve.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe congratulated “for capturing anybody who commits illegal acts in Venezuela.” Colombia’s Ambassador to Venezuela offered the cooperation of her government in the investigations.

Media questioned

In contrast with other events, the local media, which openly opposes the government, has given little coverage to the capture of the paramilitaries. Among the media trying to downplay the events is Venevision, Venezuela’s largest commercial TV network, which is owned by billionaire Gustavo Cisneros. Only the local news network Globovision covered the news to some extend using TV footage from the state TV station.

President Chavez lamented the media’s attitude and said that “they have set this important event aside, denying society its right to be informed.” Only the state media has properly informed about the raids.

The Minister of Communication and Information Jesee Chacon condenmed the media’s attitude towards an event “without precedent in recent history in Venezuela”.

Lawmaker Saab also criticized the local commercial media for not covering the event and just giving TV space to opposition leaders who dismissed the raid as “a show created by the government”.

Bloodshed predicted by opposition

Venezuelan former President Carlos Andres Perez, who opposes the Chavez government, announced last week through Colombian radio network Caracol that the political opposition to Chavez “is willing to oust him, not through peaceful means but by force”. Perez, who lives in exile in the United States, said that he did not believe that Chavez’s ouster would spill into a civil war, but that “there will be blood spilled” to oust him. The Colombian radio network Caracol is also owned by media magnate and Chavez opponent Gustavo Cisneros.

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