Accused of conspiring to overthrow the Venezuelan government, the mayor of Caracas was arrested on Thursday when over a dozen intelligence agents stormed into his office without a warrant and fired warning shots into the air. Captured on surveillance footage, roughly a dozen agents of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service wearing bulletproof vests and brandishing assault rifles detained Mayor Antonio Ledezma and escorted him from his office while firing warning shots to scare off his staffers. Facing severe economic turmoil and increasing social unrest, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been targeting military and political opponents charging them with sedition without providing direct evidence against the dissidents.
Mayor of Caracas since 2008, Ledezma had been working in his office on Thursday when roughly a dozen heavily armed intelligence agents entered the room to arrest him. While taking Ledezma into custody, officers reportedly struck the mayor and his wife, Mitzy.
“They arrested him savagely,” the mayor’s wife recalled. “They hit him.”
According to witnesses, police fired warning shots into the air when Ledezma’s staffers attempted to intervene. Surveillance cameras recorded the federal agents approaching the mayor’s office and escorting him out of the building. The agents processed Ledezma at the intelligence agency’s headquarters before transporting him to a military prison outside Caracas where other significant political opponents are currently detained.
On Thursday night, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that Ledezma had been arrested for conspiring against the peace and stability of the nation. Maduro stated, “Mr. Ledezma, who today by order of the prosecution was captured, must be processed by Venezuelan justice to answer for all the crimes committed against the country’s peace, security, and constitution.”
In response to the accusations, Ledezma replied that government corruption had been responsible for Venezuela’s rapid decline. With the collapse in the international price of oil, annual inflation at 69%, and a currency that has fallen over 50% in value against the dollar on the black market, Maduro’s approval rating plunged to 22% last month. With Venezuelans facing rampant supermarket shortages across the country, Ledezma wrote a public letter calling for a transitional government.
According to Maduro, the mayor committed conspiracy by publishing his letter in an anti-government newspaper. Maduro also claimed that he would reveal videos and recordings next week implicating the US Embassy in the plot to overthrow him.
“Without evidence of having committed an offense, the mayor should have never been detained and should be freed immediately. If not, we will be facing a new case of arbitrary detention against government opponents, in a country where there is no judicial independence,” stated José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division.
Many opposition figures believe Maduro called for the mayor’s arrest in a desperate attempt to divert attention from the country’s economic distress while weakening his political opponents. On February 12, close Maduro ally and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello accused Ledezma and opposition Assembly member Julio Borges of plotting to overthrow the government. Cabello also announced that several military officers had been arrested for allegedly planning a coup against the government.
After his arrest, Ledezma met with his lawyer, Omar Estacio. The mayor knew that surveillance teams had been following him for weeks.
“He started to be followed around two weeks ago by cyclists, black cars, et cetera,” declared Estacio. “He had a feeling, therefore, that something like this would happen.”
In December, Ledezma ally and opposition figure Maria Corina Machado was charged with plotting to assassinate Maduro. In March, Mayors Daniel Ceballos of San Cristobal and Enzo Scarano of San Diego were arrested for failing to disperse massive student demonstrations, which resulted in 43 deaths. Ceballos resides in jail, while Scarano is receiving medical treatment outside the country.
Last February, opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez was charged with inciting nationwide unrest. Lopez has been detained in jail for a year on charges of inciting violence during the student demonstrations. According to his wife, Lilian Tintori, Lopez has been kept in solitary confinement since February 12.
Although Maduro claims to possess evidence implicating the US government in the plot to overthrow him, the Venezuelan president has produced nothing to support his accusations. But marred with a history of inflicting political instability through Central and South America, the US government has supported and orchestrated numerous coups d’etat throughout the region.
On June 27, 1954, the CIA orchestrated the coup responsible for overthrowing Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz. On April 17, 1961, the CIA implemented the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1964, the US government supported the military coup against Brazilian President Jaoa Goulart while authorizing a CIA-backed coup against Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro. The CIA also supported the coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende, which resulted in his assassination on September 11, 1973.
Although the CIA has admitted knowledge of the plot to overthrow former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on April 12, 2002, Maduro has refused to produce the evidence that he claims to possess implicating the US government in a recent plot to overthrow his government through the utilization of his political opponents. Until Maduro presents his evidence, human rights groups will continue to condemn the Venezuelan president for silencing dissenting voices.
“Over the last year people have been detained simply because the fact of being dissenters or having a critical vision of the government. The detention of the Caracas mayor adds one more person to the already long list of politically-driven detentions,” declared Amnesty International.