Caracas, April 7, 2010 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Eight Colombian citizens have been arrested in Venezuela on suspicion of carrying out espionage against the country's national electricity system Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissaimi announced on Tuesday.
Among the equipment seized from the suspects was a camera with images of various electricity substations around the country, transmission lines and national transport infrastructure, as well as satellite communications equipment, documents in English and Spanish, a vehicle, a number of cell phones and "other items of interest," El Assaimi said.
Speaking on state-owned television channel VTV on Tuesday, President Hugo Chavez reported that some of the suspects were carrying Colombian military identification, which he said was still to be authenticated but also called on the Colombian government to "clarify" the situation.
"One of them ... , a guy named Louis, a man of 52 years ... worked for several years, he says, as a doctor in the Colombian Army. He's Colombian born from Medellin," said the President.
Colombian Preisdent Alvaro Uribe responded today confirming that two of the suspects, Crucelda Giraldo Gil and Luis Palacio Cossio, had previously worked at the Military Dispensary in Medellin, but said the group were only "doing tourism."
According to Chavez the group operated behind the facade of a company based in Barinitas, in the state of Barinas, and had been captured "thanks to military intelligence, political intellegence and popular participation."
The president reiterated that Venezuelan intelligence agencies and state security remain in constant surveillance of all the electrical installations in the country. "We have increased surveillance and patrolling in all the plants, from the smallest to the Guri [Hydroelectric Dam, which provides 70 percent of Venezuela's electricty]. We are required to maintain close surveillance at all levels," he said.
Venezuelan National Guard officials took over an electricity installation in the state of Aragua after an explosion, thought to be an act of sabotage, occured at the plant in March.
Venezuela has been experiencing electricity shortages for several months as a result of structural problems in the sector and a record drought which has brought water levels in the Guri Dam to critical lows.
Chavez declared a state of emergency in the electricity sector in February and introduced a series of measures aimed at increasing electrity production and distribution and reducing consumption, including rationing, construction of new infrastructure, an awareness campaign and energy saving incentives.
Electricty workers, who have been denouncing structural problems for several years, accuse management sectors opposed to the process of nationalisation and unification of the sector which began in 2007, of sabotage and hampering the development of new infrastructure.
As a result a number of managers have been sacked and a process of workers control has been initiated across the sector, with workers assemblies meeting around the country over the past week to devise a strategic plan to address the crisis.
During his comments on VTV Chavez criticised the U.S. backed opposition, which had predicted a general collapse of the electricity system on April 6, of trying to take advantage of the crisis.
"[The opposition] have been working on this, announcing the collapse and trying to generate different types of sabotage," he said.
Venezuela - Colombia relations
The Venezuelan president also said that intelligence agencies had intercepted increasing numbers of radio emissions from Colombia indicating increased radio-electric penetration of Venezuelan territory, which he said was occurring in conjunction with increased hostility from U.S. government officials and officials from U.S. aligned governments across the continent.
Venezuela's relations with the U.S. backed Uribe government have been tense ever since Colombian military officials carried out an illegal operation to kidnap FARC guerrilla, Rodrigo Granda, in Venezuelan territory in 2004. Later that same year, 100 Colombian paramilitaries suspected of training as part of an opposition plot to assassinate Chavez, were arrested at a farm near the capital, Caracas.
In 2008, Venezuela and Ecuador temporarily broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia over the Colombian military's illegal cross border raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuadorian territory.
Chavez argued that the raid was a "dress rehearsal" for a potential future U.S. backed attack on Venezuela aimed at controling his country's vast oil resources.
Colombia has in turn accused the Venezuelan government of aiding the FARC guerrillas, a charge which Venezuela rejects.
In mid 2009 Venezuela again broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia after Uribe signed a deal with the U.S. allowing for the installation of seven U.S. military bases. Venezuela also moved to drastically cut trade ties with its neighbour, one of its largest trading partners, and replace Colombian imports with imports from Brazil and Argentina.
Tensions spilled over between the two heads of state at the recent Rio Group summit in Cancun, Mexico, when Uribe repeatedly interrupted a speech by Chavez and Chavez told Uribe to "go to hell."
As a result it was agreed that Dominican Republic Presisent, Leonel Fernandez, would mediate negotiations between the two governments.
However, this week Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicholas Maduro affirmed that Venezuela will not renew diplomatic relations with the Colombian government until after Uribe's presidential term expires later this year.