Venezuelan minister accuses Guaidó chief of staff of leading 'terrorist cell'

Maduro’s interior minister alleged a cache of ‘weapons of war’ had been apprehended with Roberto Marrero as face-off escalates

The face-off between Nicolás Maduro and his US-backed challenger Juan Guaidó has escalated dramatically after Venezuelan intelligence agents seized Guaidó’s chief of staff and accused him of leading a “terrorist cell” plotting a wave of political assassinations.

The charges – which opposition leaders rejected as a ploy to attack and intimidate their movement – were announced late on Thursday by Maduro’s interior minister, Néstor Reverol.

“We would like to inform the national and international communities that our intelligence services have dismantled … a terrorist cell that was planning to carry out a series of targeted attacks,” Reverol said in a broadcast on state channel Venezolana de Televisión.

Reverol claimed the supposed cell “had hired Colombian and Central American mercenaries to kill political leaders, military officials, supreme court judges and carry out acts of sabotage against public services to generate cause in Venezuelan society”.

He alleged Guaidó’s aide – the 49-year-old lawyer Roberto Marrero – was a key leader of the “criminal organization” and claimed a cache of “weapons of war” had been apprehended with him.

As he was taken into custody by masked agents on Wednesday, Marrero told neighbours two rifles and a hand grenade had been planted at his home in the capital, Caracas.

Speaking during a visit to the northern state of Aragua, Maduro claimed the alleged cell “had a number of objectives: barracks, hospitals, underground stations”.

“Let it be clear, the government will not hesitate to imprison terrorist groups,” Maduro added, according to the pro-government newspaper Últimas Noticias.

Marrero’s detention was splashed on the front pages of state-controlled tabloids in Venezuela on Friday morning in a apparent bid to discredit Guaidó’s movement to topple Maduro, which began in January when the young opposition declared himself the country’s rightful interim leader.

“Guaidó’s right hand planned terrorist acts,” read the headline of the Diario VEA newspaper.

Opposition leaders and western governments – most of which recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate caretaker president – denounced Marrero’s detention as a craven attack on Maduro’s foes.

“This is the start of a new onslaught of persecution,” said Juan Pablo Guanipa, a key Guaidó ally in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city.

Writing in the Miami Herald, the US vice-president, Mike Pence, said Marrero’s “kidnapping” was “the most recent example of Maduro’s brutality and despotism”.

“We will not tolerate Marrero’s imprisonment or the intimidation of the legitimate government of Venezuela. And those responsible will be held accountable. Maduro must release Marrero now,” Pence wrote.

Guanipa claimed Maduro’s move was designed to frighten the opposition and undermine Guaidó’s campaign without directly targeting Guaidó. The United States national security adviser, John Bolton, has repeatedly warned any action against Guaidó would spark a “significant” US response.

But Guanipa said Maduro was mistaken if he believed his gambit would silence dissent. “The Venezuelan people are fed up, they are tired, they are desperate. I believe this cry of ‘enough!’ from the Venezuelan people is now totally irreversible.”

Raúl Gallegos, a Venezuela specialist from the Control Risks consultancy, said Marrero’s detention was partly an attempt to check the opposition’s momentum but primarily a way of testing the US’s commitment to Guaidó.

“What we are seeing is an example of Maduro playing with the US and testing the US to see how far it is willing to go … I believe this is essentially the government testing Trump.

“There are a number of ways the Trump administration can make life even harder for the Maduro administration by imposing tougher sanctions,” added Gallegos, the author of Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela.

That might make it harder for Maduro to rule. “But the ones that are going to suffer the most, most likely, are going to be the Venezuelan people.”


Tom Phillips in Barquisimeto

The GuardianTramp

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