Among those still being sought is Carlos Javier Benavides, president of Zulia’s landowners association and activist in the opposition political party A New Era (UNT).
The ﬁre took place in the early morning of January 8th when the INTI ofﬁce in the town of Santa Barbara was set ablaze, devastating some 70 percent of the agency’s infrastructure and destroying important documents relating to land tenancy in the state.
INTI, the government agency in charge of carrying out Venezuela’s land reform policies, had spearheaded government plans to expropriate 47 massive unproductive estates in and around the state of Zulia in recent weeks.
The order to expropriate the landholdings, known as latifundios, was announced by President Hugo Chavez in December in order to provide land and work opportunities for impoverished small farmers displaced by recent torrential rains.
The torching of the INTI ofﬁce occurred just days after the announcement, raising suspicion of opposition and landowner involvement in the arson.
Interior and Justice Minister, Tarek El Aissami, conﬁrmed this suspicion on Sunday, declaring that criminal investigations of the ﬁre had led to an arrest warrant being issued for the opposition activist Benavides.
“We have collected evidence that links [Carlos Benavides] to the planning of the terrorist act. For this reason the Public Attorney’s Ofﬁce has solicited, and the corresponding tribunal has emitted, an arrest warrant”, El Aissami informed.
Among the opposition activists already detained for the crime are Carlos Soto, also described to be a leader of the party A New Era (UNT) and businessman Jose Urdaneta.
According to El Aissami, Soto and Urdaneta “formed part of a group of people that delivered a portion of the payment for the criminal and terrorist act”.
Landowners and opposition groups have rejected the government’s investigation, calling it politicized and without merit.
Manuel Cipriano, head of the national landowners’ association FEDENAGA, said that the accusations against opposition activists come as “no surprise”.
“We [landowners] are least interested in carry out a crime like this because we knew that it would be blamed on us”, Cipriano said.
Venezuelan Vice President, Elias Jaua, defended the investigations, however, reiterating the forensic transparency and the political motivation of the crime.
“The motivation of those who burned the INTI headquarters is political. It’s not that the investigation is being politicized. It’s a political act of sabotage and terrorism”, Jaua said on Tuesday.
INTI AN OPPOSITION TARGET
Since the passage of the Land Law by President Hugo Chavez in 2001, INTI has worked with small farmers throughout the country to redistribute unproductive latifundios.
This mandate has put it on the front lines of the battle raging over land tenancy in Venezuela for the past ten years.
In 2002, INTI ofﬁcial Jose Huerta was shot in the state of Zulia while another employee, William Prado, was murdered in the state of Guarico last August.
Former INTI worker and leader of land occupations, Nelson Lopez, was also murdered in the state of Yaracuy in February of 2009.
Many of the attacks against government ofﬁcials have come in the form of contracted killers – thugs paid to carry out the crimes of wealthy landowners in efforts to intimidate farmers from reclaiming unproductive lands.
The masterminds of these crimes, known in Spanish as “autores intelectuales” or intellectual authors, are rarely prosecuted due to the power and inﬂuence they continue to wield at the local level.
With the detention and successful prosecution of those behind the arson in Zulia, however, that trend may be ending.
“We’re going to deepen the investigation and arrest the people that haven’t been apprehended”, El Aissami said of the ﬁre. “Justice will be done. We can’t return to the past when impunity reigned”, he declared.
The state of Zulia, one of Venezuela’s largest and most powerful, is governed primarily by the opposition UNT party. Previous governor and mayor Manuel Rosales, who ruled for over 20 years in various positions in the state, ﬂed Venezuela in 2009 after charges of severe corruption were levied against him and an arrest warrant had been issued. Current governor Pablo Perez, while from the same party, has taken a more moderate position. Differing from others in his party, who refused to even acknowledge a crime had been committed, Perez called for a thorough investigation and for the “full extent of the law” to be employed against those responsible.