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Venezuela constitutional assembly removes chief prosecutor

August 06, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A newly installed constitutional assembly ousted Venezuela’s defiant chief prosecutor Saturday, a sign that President Nicolas Maduro’s embattled government intends to move swiftly against critics and consolidate power amid a fast-moving political crisis.

Cries of “traitor” and “justice” erupted from the stately, neo-classical salon where 545 pro-government delegates voted unanimously to remove Luisa Ortega from her post as the nation’s top law enforcement official and replace her with a staunch government supporter.

They said they were acting in response to a ruling by the government-stacked Supreme Court, which banned Ortega from leaving the country and froze her bank accounts while it weighs criminal charges against her for alleged irregularities.

Ortega, a longtime loyalist who broke with the socialist government in April, refused to recognize the decision and vowed to continue defending the rights of Venezuelans from Maduro’s “coup” against the constitution “with my last breath.”

“This is just a tiny example of what’s coming for everyone that dares to oppose this totalitarian form of government,” Ortega said in the statement she signed as chief prosecutor. “If they’re doing this to the chief prosecutor, imagine the helpless state all Venezuelans live in.”

Earlier Saturday, Ortega was pushed and barred from entering her office by dozens of national guardsmen in riot gear who took control of the entrance to the building. She alleged that authorities were desperate to get their hands on dossiers containing information on dirty dealings by high-level officials, including sensitive details about millions of dollars in bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Assembly delegates later swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human rights official.

Even as the all-powerful constitutional assembly moved quickly against Ortega, there were signs it may be rethinking about extending its crackdown. Late Saturday, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was returned to house arrest after being taken into custody in the middle of the night Tuesday. Lopez was released from prison last month and placed under house arrest after serving three years of a 13-year sentence on charges of inciting violence at opposition rallies. He returned home again Saturday.

The constitutional assembly was seated despite strong criticism from the United States, other countries and the Venezuelan opposition, which fear that it will be a tool for imposing dictatorship. Supporters say it will pacify a country rocked by violent protests.

Its installation is virtually certain to intensify a political crisis that has brought four months of protests in which at least 120 people have died and hundreds more have been jailed. Maduro also wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, saying their constant conspiring to oust him shouldn’t be protected.

While members of congress say they will only be removed by force, the opposition is struggling to regain its footing in the face of the government’s strong-arm tactics and the re-emergence of old, internal divisions.

Several opposition activists have been jailed in recent days, others are rumored to be seeking exile and one leader has broken ranks from the opposition alliance to say his party will field candidates in regional elections despite widespread distrust of the electoral system.

In a sign of its cowed, demoralized state, only a few hundred demonstrators showed up for a Friday protest against the constitutional assembly, one of the smallest turnouts in months. Those who did turn out said fear of arrest — rights groups claim there are more than 600 “political prisoners” jailed during the protests — may be keeping people at home but urged Venezuelans to remain mobilized.

“We shouldn’t think the government is winning,” said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled congress, making an emotional plea for Maduro’s opponents to remain on the streets and capitalize on the government’s increasing international isolation. “The only thing it’s doing is destroying itself and committing suicide.”

President Juan Manuel Santos of neighboring Colombia called Saturday’s removal of Luisa Ortega “the first dictatorial act” of an “illegitimate” assembly and vowed solidarity with the Venezuelan people. On Saturday, the South American trade bloc Mercosur moved to suspend Venezuela for failing to follow democratic norms.

Venezuela was previously suspended in December for failing to uphold commitments it made when it joined the group in 2012. The new decision will make it harder for the country to return to good standing since the new suspension can be lifted only when the bloc is satisfied that Venezuela has restored democratic order.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the removal of Ortega an attempt to tighten the “authoritarian dictatorship” of Maduro and said her government applauded the action by Mercosur.

Maduro responded by calling Mercosur’s move part of a dirty campaign led by the Trump administration to discredit Venezuela and get its hands on its vast oil reserves. “They come walking down the middle of the street barking orders, treating rulers like their maids,” Maduro told Argentina’s Radio Rebelde in an interview.

The opposition boycotted the July 30 election for the constitutional assembly, saying the rules were rigged to further entrench Maduro’s “dictatorship.” The results have come under mounting scrutiny after the international company that provided the electronic voting machines said that “without any doubt” the official turnout had been tampered with — a charge dismissed by Maduro and the National Electoral Council.

The constitutional assembly is made up of delegates from an array of pro-government sectors such as trade unionists, students and even representatives of Venezuelans with physical disabilities. But the agenda is expected to be set by bigger-name loyalists, including Maduro’s wife, son and several Cabinet ministers who resigned to join the body.

It will have sweeping powers to upend institutions and in theory could even remove Maduro, a fact held up by government supporters as a sign of its independence.

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writers Alba Tobella in Bogota and Sarah DiLorenzo in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

Venezuelan opposition leader Lopez back under house arrest

August 06, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was returned home to serve his sentence under house arrest, days after being hauled back to prison in the middle of the night in a move that drew international condemnation.

The activist’s wife Lilian Tintori said in a message on Twitter late Saturday that she and her husband remained committed to achieving “peace and freedom for Venezuela.” Lopez was released from prison on July 8 and placed under house arrest after serving three years of a 13-year sentence on charges of inciting violence at opposition rallies. Many human rights groups considered him a political prisoner.

But he was taken back into custody last Tuesday along with former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma in what many believed was a renewed crackdown on the opposition following the election of delegates to the constitutional assembly.

Some saw his return home as a sign Venezuelan officials may be rethinking the crackdown, even as the new, all-powerful constitutional assembly ousted the defiant chief prosecutor. Cries of “traitor” and “justice” erupted as the 545 pro-government delegates voted Saturday unanimously to remove Luisa Ortega from her post as the nation’s top law enforcement official and replace her with a staunch government supporter.

They said they were acting in response to a ruling by the government-stacked Supreme Court, which banned Ortega from leaving the country and froze her bank accounts while it weighs criminal charges against her for alleged irregularities.

Ortega, a longtime loyalist who broke with the socialist government in April, refused to recognize the decision and vowed to continue defending the rights of Venezuelans from Maduro’s “coup” against the constitution “with my last breath.”

“This is just a tiny example of what’s coming for everyone that dares to oppose this totalitarian form of government,” Ortega said in the statement she signed as chief prosecutor. “If they’re doing this to the chief prosecutor, imagine the helpless state all Venezuelans live in.”

Earlier Saturday, Ortega was pushed and barred from entering her office by dozens of national guardsmen in riot gear who took control of the entrance to the building. She alleged that authorities were desperate to get their hands on dossiers containing information on dirty dealings by high-level officials, including sensitive details about millions of dollars in bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Assembly delegates later swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human rights official.

The constitutional assembly was seated despite strong criticism from the United States, other countries and the Venezuelan opposition, which fear that it will be a tool for imposing dictatorship. Supporters say it will pacify a country rocked by violent protests.

Its installation is virtually certain to intensify a political crisis that has brought four months of protests in which at least 120 people have died and hundreds more have been jailed. Maduro also wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, saying their constant conspiring to oust him shouldn’t be protected.

While members of congress say they will only be removed by force, the opposition is struggling to regain its footing in the face of the government’s strong-arm tactics and the re-emergence of old, internal divisions.

In a sign of its cowed, demoralized state, only a few hundred demonstrators showed up for a Friday protest against the constitutional assembly, one of the smallest turnouts in months. Those who did turn out said fear of arrest — rights groups claim there are more than 600 “political prisoners” jailed during the protests — may be keeping people at home but urged Venezuelans to remain mobilized.

“We shouldn’t think the government is winning,” said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled congress, making an emotional plea for Maduro’s opponents to remain on the streets and capitalize on the government’s increasing international isolation. “The only thing it’s doing is destroying itself and committing suicide.”

President Juan Manuel Santos of neighboring Colombia called Saturday’s removal of Luisa Ortega “the first dictatorial act” of an “illegitimate” assembly and vowed solidarity with the Venezuelan people. On Saturday, the South American trade bloc Mercosur moved to suspend Venezuela for failing to follow democratic norms.

Venezuela was previously suspended in December for failing to uphold commitments it made when it joined the group in 2012. The new decision will make it harder for the country to return to good standing since the new suspension can be lifted only when the bloc is satisfied that Venezuela has restored democratic order.

Maduro responded by calling Mercosur’s move part of a dirty campaign led by the Trump administration to discredit Venezuela and get its hands on its vast oil reserves. “They come walking down the middle of the street barking orders, treating rulers like their maids,” Maduro told Argentina’s Radio Rebelde in an interview.

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writers Alba Tobella in Bogota and Sarah DiLorenzo in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

Venezuelan protesters, security forces clash at air base

June 25, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Young protesters broke down a metal fence guarding an air base in Caracas on Saturday before being repelled by security forces firing tear gas in another day of anti-government protests in Venezuela’s capital.

Demonstrators threw stones, and some protesters were injured. The clashes took place after a peaceful mass demonstration next to La Carlota base where a 22-year-old protester was killed this week when a national guardsman shot him in the chest at close range with rubber bullets.

Protesters also fought with security forces outside the base Friday, and activists burned some vehicles during the confrontation. President Nicolas Maduro said in an address to troops Saturday that he had managed to break up a U.S.-backed plot to oust him. Like his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro frequently accuses the U.S. of trying to topple Venezuela’s socialist administration.

Maduro praised Venezuela’s military for standing by the government and he warned that attempts are underway to try to sow further dissent. More than 70 people have been killed and hundreds injured in almost three months of demonstrations.

Venezuela opposition leader banned from running for office

April 08, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s government has barred opposition leader Henrique Capriles — twice a major presidential candidate — from running for office for 15 years, a surprise move sure to ratchet up tensions amid a growing street protest movement

Capriles read from excerpts of the comptroller general’s order at a rally Friday night in which he urged supporters to take to the streets, beginning with a previously scheduled demonstration Saturday, to defend their political rights and demand the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.

“When the dictatorship squeals it’s a sign we’re advancing,” he said in a speech surrounded by other leading opposition figures, many of whom themselves have been targeted. “The only one who is disqualified here is you, Nicolas Maduro.”

The 44-year-old Capriles has been the most prominent leader of Venezuela’s opposition over the past decade, twice coming close to winning the presidency despite institutional obstacles that tilted races in favor of the government. He’s currently governor of Miranda state, which surrounds Caracas, and is one of the most recognizable leaders behind the protest movement that has been roiling the country this week.

Maduro didn’t comment on the order in an appearance late Friday on state TV, but urged his supporters not to be distracted by tough language coming from “Capriloca,” a play on the Spanish word for “crazy.” Leaders in the ruling socialist party have accused Capriles in recent days of trying to provoke a bloodbath through his leadership of near-daily protests, many of which have ended in tear gas and rubber bullets

“The right wing’s treason of our national interests is cause for indignation,” said Maduro. The move against Capriles is part of a broader government crackdown that began with a decision last week by the Supreme Court to gut the opposition-controlled congress of its last vestiges of power. The move was later reversed amid widespread international condemnation, but with the unpopular Maduro under increasing pressure to call elections, the constant arrests at marches and threats against party leaders may be his best way to stunt the opposition’s momentum, analysts said.

“They are trying to raise the costs of protest, plain and simple,” said Michael McCarthy, a research fellow focused on Venezuela at American University. “But this move may well backfire, as Capriles is likely to harness this smear campaign to place himself front and center in the push to hold transition elections.”

Authorities have been investigating Capriles since the beginning of the year for what they say are a half dozen administrative irregularities, including taking suspicious donations from abroad. Among Maduro’s opponents, he’s considered a moderate, having criticized a wave of protests in 2014 that led to scores of deaths. Those protests ended with the arrest of his main rival within the fractious opposition, Leopoldo Lopez, whose dogmatic politics appeals to hardliners but has often alienated poor voters who backed Hugo Chavez’s revolution but are fed up with Maduro’s inability to fix widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.

Capriles is a scion of one of Venezuela’s wealthiest families, but his sometimes vulgar talk and mannerisms echo the late Chavez’s populist style and he has tried to reach out to Chavez supporters. He prides himself on staying close to home when others in the opposition have been quick to fly off to Washington and other capitals to seek help.

While those divisions over strategy and style haven’t gone away, the opposition seems more united than it has for a long time. This week’s protests appear to have claimed their first victim Thursday night. Nineteen-year-old law student Jairo Ortiz was shot dead by a police officer near his home in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas.

The Interior Ministry said that transit police officer had been arrested but denied opposition claims that Ortiz was taking part in any demonstration.

Opposition cries dictatorship after Venezuela blocks recall

October 21, 2016

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The Venezuelan opposition’s campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro has been thrown into disarray with elections officials’ decision to suspend a recall drive against the socialist leader a week before it was to start.

In a related move, a court appeared to issue a ruling Friday blocking key opposition leaders from leaving the country. With the latest actions, the government has effectively halted the effort to stage a recall effort that polls suggest Maduro would have lost by a wide margin. The ruling is particularly dramatic because it comes just days before critics of the socialist administration were to start gathering the one-fifth of voters’ signatures needed to place the issue on the ballot.

“This is a big deal and reveals that the government was fearful of what could happen in the three-day signature collection period. They have effectively postponed the recall referendum indefinitely. This measure makes it difficult to think of Venezuela as a democracy,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Officials cited alleged fraud in a preliminary effort to get 1 percent of voters’ signatures as justification for blocking the opposition from proceeding to the next stage of the referendum on Maduro’s removal. His critics blame the late President Hugo Chavez’s heir for Venezuela’s economic collapse, bare store shelves and the jailing of opposition leaders.

The opposition immediately blasted the decision as unconstitutional. “The government is pushing toward a very dangerous scenario,” former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said on Twitter. Capriles and opposition spokesman Jesus Torrealba on Friday posted a document online that appeared to be from a local court, and barred eight leaders from leaving the embattled South American country without giving a reason.

The suspension of the recall came as a shock to many Venezuelans, who were gearing up for the chance to sign petitions next week seeking the embattled leader’s removal. To trigger a stay-or-go referendum, the opposition needed to collect and validate some 4 million signatures from 20 percent of the electorate in 24 states over three days next week.

Critics of Venezuela’s 17-year left-wing administration have made the recall their central political issue after being sidelined in Congress and in virtually all other public institutions this year. But the campaign had already become mostly symbolic after elections officials in September said no vote would take place this year.

That timing is crucial. A successful vote to oust Maduro this year would have triggered a presidential election and given the opposition a good shot at winning power. If Maduro is voted out in 2017, though, his vice president will finish the presidential term, leaving the socialists in charge.

The electoral council’s decision Thursday was in response to rulings earlier in the day by courts in four Venezuelan states that found there was fraud in the initial stage of the petition drive. During that stage the opposition had collected signatures from 1 percent of electorate.

But in standing by those low-court rulings it appeared to be ignoring its own decision in August validating the signatures and allowing the process to move forward. It gave no indication if and when the process would be resumed.

“In adherence with the constitution, the National Electoral Council abides by the decisions ordered by the tribunals and has sent instructions to postpone the process of signature gathering until new judicial instructions are known,” it said in a statement.

Although the government-stacked electoral board had already thrown a number of obstacles in the way of Maduro’s opponents, many had hoped that the next stage of the complex process would have drawn onto the streets millions of Venezuelans who polls show overwhelmingly favor firing Maduro, who they blame for triple-digit inflation and long food lines.

The ruling comes on the heels of another decision by the electoral council this week to suspend by about six months gubernatorial elections that were slated for year-end which the opposition was heavily favored to win.

Polls say a majority of Venezuelans want Maduro gone. The opposition charges that in the face of overwhelming voter discontent, the socialist party has simply decided to put off elections indefinitely.

The opposition staged its largest street demonstration in years on Sept. 1, with a rally in Caracas demanding a referendum against Maduro be held in 2016. But apart from that protest, most anti-government rallies this year have been relatively small and quick to disperse.

Hard line leaders immediately started calling for more massive street protests in the face of election authority’s ruling. “This is the time for national unity,” wrote former congresswoman Maria Corina Machado on her Twitter account. “Every single person must take to the streets, with strength and without fear, to make the transition a reality.”

Venezuelan opposition leader convicted of inciting violence

September 11, 2015

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A Venezuelan judge ordered opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez jailed for almost 14 years for inciting violence during last year’s sometimes bloody protests, handing down a maximum sentence despite U.S. calls for his release.

About 200 supporters of the country’s most-prominent jailed opposition leader gathered in a Caracas plaza expressed disbelief and sadness late Thursday when they learned of the verdict. Several wept and consoled each other with hugs.

Reflecting the passions stirred by the trial on both sides of Venezuela’s deep political divide, an elderly man died and several people were injured earlier Thursday during clashes outside the courthouse between government loyalists and Lopez supporters.

The opposition leader has repeatedly denied the charges and says he only urged peaceful demonstration against President Nicolas Maduro. Venezuela’s socialist government, however, blames him for the violence that left more than 40 people dead during street protests in 2014.

Supporters of the 44-year-old, Harvard-educated former mayor of a wealthy Caracas district say the trial was marred by irregularities. The court rejected all but two defense witnesses, both of whom ultimately declined to testify, while letting the prosecution call more than 100.

The trial was all but closed to the public, and Lopez sometimes refused to attend out of protest. His lawyers said Judge Susana Barreiros abruptly ended the proceedings last week even though many witnesses had yet to take the stand.

Combined with time served, the sentence of 13 years, 9 months, 7 days, and 12 hours was the maximum punishment for Lopez’s crimes. The prosecution focused on Lopez’s public statements last year when, under the slogan “The Exit,” he and other hardliners pushed for Maduro’s resignation just months after pro-government candidates swept regional elections.

Prosecutors say the vitriolic rhetoric encouraged protesters to burn public property and put lives at risk. Officials also accuse him of conspiring with the United States and student demonstrators to try to overthrow the government.

U.S. officials deny that accusation and have made Lopez’s release a key demand for normalizing diplomatic relations. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Venezuela’s foreign minister Tuesday to express concern about the trial days after meeting with Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, in Washington.

Activists presented in the courtroom told The Associated Press that Lopez in his closing remarks looked at the judge and said that if he’s freed he’ll go home, kiss his children, ask again for his wife’s hand in marriage and then start all over again canvassing the country.

While many of Lopez’s supporters never doubted he would be convicted, the stiff sentence came as a surprise to those who thought leniency would be shown in a bid to defuse tensions ahead of December’s legislative elections, which the opposition is heavily favored to win.

Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America, said in a tweet she was “deeply troubled” by the verdict and called on Venezuela’s government to protect democracy and human rights. Human rights groups condemned the verdict.

But at a rally of government supporters outside the courthouse before the verdict was read, a band played folk songs with lyrics supporting a guilty verdict. “Hold him responsible,” went the chorus to one song. The government did not immediately comment on the verdict.

Lopez’s lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling. Lopez, a father of two young children, has spent the past year and a half in a military prison outside Caracas where he’ll now complete the sentence. With only his family allowed to visit, he managed to release several videos from behind bars.

In May, through a recording shot in his cell, Lopez called the largest rally Venezuela has seen since the wave of anti-government protests in 2014 that led to his jailing. In June he staged a 30-day hunger strike to demand the government schedule congressional elections.

Lopez’s team accuses Maduro’s government of wanting to sentence him now in hopes that any anger will fade before the vote is held Dec. 6. Polls say Lopez continues to be one of Venezuela’s most popular politicians with approval numbers approaching 50 percent, while Maduro’s languish below 30 percent.

But the former triathlete is not universally liked by Venezuela’s chronically divided opposition. Some leaders consider him too radical and out of touch with the poor masses who still revere Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Crime, inflation and shortages have only gotten worse since last year’s protests, though many people have been hesitant to take to the streets again. Three co-defendants, all of whom had been freed before the verdict, received punishments of between 4 and 10 years by the judge on Thursday.

Trial of Venezuelan opposition leader Lopez nears end

September 05, 2015

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The more-than-yearlong trial of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez neared an end Friday as the imprisoned politician prepared to give his final remarks in a closed courtroom.

The hearing was delayed for hours as the court waited for one of Lopez’s four co-defendants, 19-year-old Marco Coello, to appear. In the afternoon, the Prosecutor’s Office announced that Coello caught a flight to Miami on Thursday.

Lopez is charged inciting violence in his role as leader of a protest movement in 2014 and could face more than 10 years in prison. His co-defendants are accused of colluding with him to hijack peaceful protests.

He denies calling for violence, saying he only called for peaceful protests, and his supporters say pro-government forces were to blame for most of the clashes that broke out. The four student protesters charged alongside Lopez had all been released on probation. Their parents seemed optimistic at a hearing earlier this week, saying the government rarely releases a person and then imprisons them again here. Coello spent more than 100 days in jail before being granted conditional release last year.

Lopez was expected to deliver his final remarks to the court very late Friday night after both sides concluded their closing arguments. The judge could issue a verdict immediately afterward. Hundreds of his supporters gathered in the streets outside the court under piercing morning sun demand his release, though few thought it likely that he would be found innocent. By nightfall the group had dispersed, but another group of supporters took up a vigil in the posh eastern Caracas district where Lopez once was mayor.

Opposition figures delivered statements calling on President Nicolas Maduro to roll back what they say has been a consistent policy of attacking and imprisoning critics. Maduro was in Qatar Friday, continuing a multi-nation tour to seek loans and action on oil prices as the socialist South American country’s economy sinks deeper into recession.

As they have done for each hearing during the 13 months of proceedings, armed soldiers shut down the area around the courthouse ahead of the audience. U.S. officials have made Lopez’s release a key demand for normalizing diplomatic relations.

Dozens of Venezuelan shot by police amid crime crackdown

August 31, 2015

MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) — Workers in the industrial complex had been hiding in bathrooms and closets for hours when the shooting stopped. The last of the four suspected thieves, a slightly built man in yellow rain boots, surrendered on the roof, crying out, “Jesus saves!”

Police put him into a truck and started to drive away. But then witnesses watched, confused, as the truck circled back. A video secretly recorded that rainy day in early August showed that police officers took the man to a concrete alley in the complex where his three companions already lay dead, held him in place, and then shot him point blank. The video does not show the deaths of the others, but two witnesses told The Associated Press they saw the trio lined up against a wall earlier in the morning, police pointing guns at their chests.

The slayings raised new concerns about a crime-fighting initiative launched this summer that aims to take back neighborhoods overrun by gangs. The program, officially rolled out in July as Operation Liberate the People, has already seen police shoot and kill more than 80 suspected criminals, according to an AP tally based on officials’ statements to the media. There have been no reports of police injuries or deaths during the blitzkrieg-style operations.

Human rights groups are accusing security forces of carrying out summary executions. But many here also say the government is right to take a more militarized approach to fighting crime. Venezuelans broadly support iron fist policing. And it’s the poor— those most likely to be caught in the crossfire— who most want to see an increased use of force, according to national polls.

In the case of the four killings, officials initially said that the men died during a shootout after they were caught stealing from a metalworking shop in the city of Maracay, outside Caracas. But after the video was leaked to the Miami-based Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Herald, eight officers were arrested and charged with homicide. The AP has not independently verified the authenticity of the video, but witnesses corroborated what it shows, and officials acted immediately after its release, apparently in reaction to what it revealed.

“The police and the thugs are one and the same here,” said Willy Contreras, a young man who works beside the courtyard where the men were killed. “Neither side cares about human rights. And we can’t, either. Killing the criminals is the only way to make sure they won’t just go free.”

President Nicolas Maduro has not addressed the case. National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello addressed the issue of human rights concerns about police killings generally in July, saying opposition groups were trying to score points by undermining what he said was an effective approach.

State officials overseeing the crime-fighting initiative did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Days after the video was released and sparked wide outrage, Gov. Tareck El Aissami of Aragua state, where Maracay is located, ordered the officers’ arrests.

Venezuela has the world’s second highest murder rate, after Honduras, according to the United Nations. Virtually everyone here has been touched by violence, and a culture of impunity means most killings go unsolved. While police generally acknowledge when they kill someone, it is not always clear that the slaying was committed in self-defense.

The government stopped publishing any data on police-related slayings in 2008, but the local nonprofit Committee of the Families of Victims counted 1,018 cases of extrajudicial killings in 2014, a 25 percent increase from 2013. That’s more than twice the number of people who were reported killed by police last year in the United States, which has 10 times the population of Venezuela.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture has called on the country to investigate an emerging pattern of extrajudicial killings. The neighborhood of warehouses and low-slung cinderblock homes where the four thieves died was the site of the summer’s first mass pacification campaign, one of dozens of similar operations that have been carried out this summer as the government works to reassert its authority after years of a more passive approach to law enforcement. In May, about 2,000 law enforcement officers stormed in to reclaim an abandoned police station, killing 10 people over two days, according to local news reports.

A similar operation in Caracas in July resulted in 14 deaths and hundreds of arrests. Analysts say the anti-crime initiative appears to be a bid to drum up support ahead of December elections, which the opposition could sweep for the first time in more than a decade. But police killings were already on the rise, according to Central University of Venezuela criminology professor Andres Antillano. He said police have killed 20 people during the past year and a half in the Caracas slum he studies.

Slayings by security forces is a pervasive problem in South America. In Colombia, scores of army troops have been jailed for killing an estimated 3,000 civilians and tagging them as rebels a decade ago to inflate body counts during the country’s civil conflict. Brazilian police kill an average of five people a day.

And with Venezuela’s out of control crime rate, police are increasingly under attack themselves, with an average of one officer killed every day, often for their weapons. Earlier this year, a security camera captured a teenager shooting a state police supervisor from behind as he ordered breakfast at a bakery in a small town near Caracas, then stealing his gun. The 18-year-old was later caught and killed by police.

Venezuelan police admit they are scared to leave their stations, and this spring held a street march demanding better protection and harsher punishment for criminals. Marion Conoropo, the cousin of one of the officers charged in the Aug. 5 killings, and a former Maracay police officer herself, says the agency is underpaid and under-protected, and officers are pushed to show results.

“You have to understand he was under so much pressure,” she said of her cousin Humberto Conoropo. “The only thing people understand here is force.” The same day the Maracay video was leaked to the South Florida newspaper, men with automatic weapons attacked the police station near the site of the slayings that had just been reopened after a pacification operation, killing one officer and injuring two others in an attack that locals widely believe was an act of retaliation.

The whitewashed walls of the police station are still stippled with bullet marks, and the carcass of a police truck, its windows punched out by the shooting, blocks the building’s entrance. Workers at the industrial complex were reluctant to condemn the killings of the four suspected thieves even as they scrubbed down bloodied cement and paint over the chest-level craters left by the bullets. They said thieves have targeted them for years, despite electric fences, surveillance cameras, and weekly protection payments to both gangs and law enforcement.

Andres De La Cruz, who says he saw three of the men standing against a wall with police pointing guns at them, said he’s still trying to forget that nightmarish morning. But he’s glad there have been no robberies since.

Colombians flee homes in Venezuela amid border crackdown

August 26, 2015

SAN ANTONIO DEL TACHIRA, Venezuela (AP) — Colombians carrying their possessions on their backs waded across a knee-deep river back into their homeland, fleeing a Venezuelan crackdown on illegal migrants and smugglers that has generated an increasingly angry dispute between the South American neighbors.

The dramatic scene came ahead of a meeting Wednesday between the nations’ foreign ministers to cool tensions that spiked after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government closed a major border crossing last week, declared a state of emergency in six western cities and deported more than 1,000 Colombian migrants it blamed for rampant crime and widespread shortages.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday delivered his strongest rebuke yet of Maduro’s actions since the crisis began. “Raiding homes, removing people by force, separating families, not letting them remove the few goods they own and marking their homes for demolition are totally unacceptable practices,” Santos said. “They recall the bitterest episodes in history that can’t be repeated.”

Maduro said he was acting to defend residents along the border after gunmen he claimed were paramilitaries linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.

The socialist leader has vowed to keep the normally busy Simon Bolivar international bridge closed, and possibly extend restrictions to other transit crossings, until Colombian authorities do their part to bring order to the porous, 1,400-mile (2,200 kilometer) border, an area long plagued by violence and drug-trafficking.

On Tuesday, more than 100 Colombians, many of whom have lived in Venezuela for years, said they were abandoning their cinder block homes in a riverside shantytown community known as “La Invasion” — the Invasion — after they said they were given 72 hours to pack up and leave by Venezuela’s army.

With makeshift pedestrian bridges between the two countries destroyed as part of a weeklong security offensive, police from Colombia helped migrants, including children and the elderly, ford the 10-meter wide Tachira River with mattresses, TVs and kitchen appliances slung across their backs and shoulders. Left behind were homes spray-painted in blue by security forces with the letter “R,” for reviewed, while those marked with a “D” are believed to be slated for demolition.

“People are carrying everything they can,” said a weeping Virgelida Serrano, a 60-year-old seamstress who has lived in Venezuela for more than a decade. “We’re going to Colombia to see what help the government gives us.”

An estimated 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, many of them displaced years ago by Colombia’s half-century civil conflict. Although their homeland is much safer now, deep roots and the higher cost of living in Colombia has dissuaded many among the poor from returning despite mounting economic woes such as widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.

Venezuela says more than 1,000 people have been deported in the past week, more than half the 1,772 people expelled last year, according to Colombian statistics. Those returning with no place to go have overwhelmed five government-run shelters in and around the border city of Cucuta to provide temporary sleeping quarters and channel donations of clothes and food to returning nationals.

Colombia’s Ombudsman said it had registered 207 accounts of mistreatment by deportees, the most frequent forced removal from one’s homes but also complaints that Venezuelan authorities broke up families and seized their belongings.

Maduro had denied security forces have used excessive force and says that all those expelled are being treated with respect, adding that he is a good friend of Colombians. He said he was forced to act to protect communities from violent mafias that smuggle goods purchased in Venezuela at ultra-low prices and resell them for huge profits across the border, further emptying already barren supermarket shelves.

Critics in Venezuela and Colombia have said the actions are an attempt by Maduro to distract Venezuelans from the severe economic crises facing his oil-rich country, which is troubled by soaring inflation and empty supermarket shelves.

As mandated by the constitution, the pro-government National Assembly approved the state of emergency decreed by Maduro during a special session Tuesday held near the border. For the next 60 days, constitutional guarantees such as the right to protest, carry weapons or move freely will be restricted, although officials have gone to great lengths to say they are using the extraordinary powers sparingly.

“I’m sorry if this is creating a humanitarian crisis in Cucuta, but we are only responsible for protecting people who are Venezuelan,” National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said, brushing aside human rights concerns and claims by critics that the closure of the border is a ploy to influence upcoming congressional elections.

“Colombia needs to take care of its own problems,” he said.

Sanchez reported from Caracas. AP writers Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona contributed from Bogota, Colombia.

Tensions up in Venezuela as police arrest opposition leader

February 20, 2015

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Police broke into Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma’s office and carted off the longtime critic of Venezuela’s socialist government, adding to tensions on the anniversary of the outbreak of protests that paralyzed the nation a year ago.

President Nicolas Maduro took to television and radio to say that Ledezma, one of the most vocal opposition leaders, would be punished for trying to sow unrest in Venezuela, which is struggling with severe economic problems.

Emotions were already running high before dozens of men in flak jackets and camouflage uniforms smashed down the door of Ledezma’s office and forcibly carried him out of the building. As news of the incursion spread across the capital, people spontaneously banged pots from their windows in protest while drivers tapped rhythms on their car horns in rush hour traffic. As night fell, a few dozen people vented their anger in front of the headquarters of the intelligence service police, where Ledezma was thought to be.

“He’ll be held accountable for all his crimes,” Maduro said in a speech that TV and radio stations across the country were required to carry. Last week, Maduro named Ledezma among government critics and Western powers he accused of plotting a coup to bring down the government, one of more than a dozen such denunciations Maduro has made since taking power in 2013. Ledezma mocked the accusation in multiple interviews, saying the real destabilizing force in Venezuela was the government’s corruption.

Tensions have been running high in Venezuela this week, with the one-year anniversary of the start of weeks of anti-government street protests that choked the country with tear gas and smoke from flaming barricades and resulted in more than 40 deaths. National police arrested several other mayors and former mayors during that unrest, including Leopoldo Lopez, who is considered by human rights groups as Latin America’s most high-profile political prisoner.

Allies of Ledezma called for more protests Friday to demand his immediate release, a call echoed by Human Rights Watch. The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, called the Venezuelan government’s accusations of coup-plotting “baseless and false” and said they are meant to draw attention away from mounting economic problems such as widespread shortages and inflation that reached 68 percent last year.

“The Venezuelan government needs to deal with the grave situation it faces,” the State Department said in a statement. Ledezma, Lopez and other hard-line leaders of the opposition had marked the anniversary of last year’s protests with a call for a national pact establishing a transitional government to rescue Venezuela from a coming “humanitarian emergency.”

Maduro on Thursday flashed a copy of the Feb. 11 statement and called it a green light and political cover for his opponents to launch a coup. The mayor has been a thorn in the side of the ruling party since he won the mayor’s post in 2008, beating out a member of the socialist party led by the late President Hugo Chavez.

The government subsequently transferred nearly all of Ledezma’s powers, including control of police and schools, to a newly created government entity. Ledezma responded with a hunger strike that drew international attention and cemented his status as symbol for what the opposition calls the government’s efforts to marginalize elected officials who do not fall in line.

His arrest was captured on surveillance video, clips of which rocketed around social media. A group of men in black and gray camouflage, wearing bulletproof vests, can be seen forcefully hustling the 59 year-old politician from his building.

A member of Ledezma’s security team, who was not authorized to give his name, said the armed officers, some of them wearing masks, used their weapons to break the door to the mayor’s office and haul him away.

Opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia wrote on Twitter that he saw Ledezma carried away. “They took him out of his office like he was a dog,” he wrote.

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