Turning a Corner: who Ordered Protesters Shot in Venezuela?

February 24, 2014

Caracas, February 24, 2014: By February 12, street demonstrations had been taking place across Venezuela for 10 days. They were led by student organisations and Voluntad Popular, the political party founded by opposition protagonist Leopoldo López. The government had arrested provincial leaders of both groups for alleged involvement in violent incidents which bore the hallmarks of fabrication by the authorities themselves, but no one had died.

On February 12, López – along with Caracas metropolitan mayor Antonio Ledezma, independent legislator María Corina Machado and other leaders of the more confrontational wing of the opposition MUD alliance – led a march to the offices of the chief prosecutor to demand the release of those jailed and express solidarity with the students’ cause. After the march broke up, stone-throwing radicals clashed with security forces and pro-government civilian gunmen. Two people died and several more received gunshot wounds.

At least 10 days of violence have ensued, raising the death toll to ten and creating chaos, as well as severely damaging the government’s international image. President Maduro has claimed it forms part of a slow-motion “fascist coup”, backed by the United States. He has had Leopoldo López jailed for allegedly masterminding the plot. The evidence so far available – videos, eyewitness reports and the government’s own, rather incoherent version of events – suggests the violence was indeed planned, but not by the opposition.

Those involved include members of the colectivos (armed, pro-government, motorcycle-riding militia), state security (Sebin) and men in civilian clothes whose identities gradually emerged. The dead were a young opposition demonstrator, Bassil D’Acosta, and ‘Juancho’ Montoya, a veteran colectivo leader closely linked to senior regime members. Both were shot in the head. (Another opposition demonstrator was killed hours later elsewhere.)

Maduro has attempted to distance himself by claiming some Sebin personnel defied a presidential order to stay off the streets that day. He has suggested that those involved were infiltrated by the opposition. Given that the group included an assistant and a security chief in the inner circle of interior minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres, who headed the Sebin until January this year, this hardly seems likely.

The street on which the shooting occurred (Avenida Sur 11) leads directly from the Avenida Universidad, where the demonstration broke up, to the offices of the interior ministry. Before the trouble began, a riot squad from the Policía Nacional Bolivariana had blocked the entrance to the street; but shortly after 2pm, for reasons that remain obscure, they were withdrawn. Immediately, gunmen from the colectivos entered from the opposite end and began firing on demonstrators.

After the shooting of Montoya, which took place behind government lines, the colectivo members withdrew and the demonstrators advanced further, only to run into the Sebin. With exits to the north, east and west blocked by the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana riot squads (through which the colectivos were able to pass freely), the protesters were trapped in the narrow defile of Avenida Sur 11, their only escape being the way they had come.

Although it could be argued that the Sebin fired in panic as the crowd of demonstrators advanced, video evidence shows them shooting calmly, sometimes from cover, and then proceeding to pick up the evidence – their cartridge cases.

The Sebin is an intelligence organisation with no role in crowd control. Until just before the death of Hugo Chávez, it formed part of the interior ministry. However, in December 2012 it was formally transferred to the vice presidency, then occupied by Nicolás Maduro (and now by Jorge Arreaza, Chávez’ son-in-law). Some sources suggest it is split into factions, some of them loyal to previous directors, including Rodríguez Torres.

Did Rodríguez Torres use his influence to defy Maduro’s supposed order to keep the Sebin off the streets? Or was that order never given? Late that night, a human rights worker interrogated by black-clad irregulars claiming to be linked to the Sebin, heard their leader say they had been ordered to stand down by “the minister”. But there has been no indication of any tension between Rodríguez Torres and Maduro.

Rocío San Miguel, a security expert, believes the coordination among different elements of the security forces and armed civilian groups reflects a unified command structure. The colectivo paramilitaries have a history of links with Diosdado Cabello (head of the ruling PSUV party and chairman of parliament) and Freddy Bernal (a government legislator and former mayor of central Caracas).

Maduro has said armed groups that do not obey the law have no place defending the “revolution”. But while uniformed Sebin personnel have not again been seen in the front line, the colectivos have continued to cause mayhem. A government minister, Iris Varela, gloated that the opposition was “shit-scared” of them.

There are obvious advantages to relying on civilian gunmen to terrorise the opposition. Not only do they allow the government some deniability, they avoid calling upon the armed forces to put troops on the streets, as recently done in Tachira state. It is probable the Sebin was not meant to be actively involved on February 12 (and certainly not caught on video). It is also possible that Maduro is being outflanked by hardliners, including Cabello, Bernal and Rodríguez Torres.

But it would be premature to claim a split in the government or security services over whether to deploy violence against the opposition. More likely, chavismo has turned a nasty corner.