LATIN AMERICA

Venezuelan opposition leader finally taken into custody

Leopoldo López says he is turning himself in to an “unfair justice system” but vows not to go into exile

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López gets into a National Guard armored vehicle in Caracas February 18, 2014.
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López gets into a National Guard armored vehicle in Caracas February 18, 2014.JORGE SILVA / REUTERS

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, wanted by authorities on charges that he organized violent anti-government protests last week, was taken into custody on Tuesday by National Guard troops at the start of a massive rally organized in his support.

The 42-year-old former mayor of the Caracas district of Chacao was put in an armored vehicle and hauled off as dozens of screaming supporters tried to prevent his arrest.

The Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant last Wednesday night, just hours after hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets in nationwide anti-government protests called by López and his People’s Will (VP) party to demand better security, crackdowns on corruption and new elections.

At least four people have been killed and more than 60 injured since the unrest began last week. The Caracas daily Últimas Noticias has accused pro-government civilians working alongside members of the government intelligence service Sebin of being responsible for the shooting death of one student after they published a series of photographs and videos of the incident in an investigative report that has been posted on social networks.

Venezuelans also woke up to the news that President Maduro had sacked his intelligence chief

Nevertheless, Attorney General Luisa Ortega blamed López for the murders and the vandalism that took place on February 12 outside the public prosecutor’s office. López had been in hiding since the warrant was issued but vowed to reappear at Tuesday’s rally to deliver a document to the Interior Ministry.

Before he was arrested, he addressed his supporters to say that he was turning himself into “an unfair” and “corrupt” justice system, explaining that he would no longer remain in hiding nor would he leave the country. Wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, he held up a fist in defiance as National Guard officers pulled him inside the white armored vehicle.

“The state’s determination and the will of the people who are demanding peace forced the leader of the violence to turn himself in,” wrote Foreign Minister Elías Jaua in his Twitter account, in the government’s first reaction to López’s arrest.

In recent weeks, López has emerged as a hardline leader of those in the opposition who seek an immediate end to President Nicolás Maduro's socialist government.

Since early Tuesday morning, hundreds of police officers blocked off a major square in Caracas as thousands of Venezuelans poured out into the streets in support of López, who had asked them to hold a peaceful demonstration.

Venezuelans also woke up to the news that President Maduro had sacked the director of Sebin, Manuel Bernal Martínez, for failing to follow orders not to deploy his men on the streets during the last march by the opposition. On Sunday, the president admitted that there were Sebin members who “directly disobeyed orders.”

The investigative visual report by Últimas Noticias purportedly shows Sebin officers and civilians on motorcycles firing on a group of students as they were cut off and tried to escape from a Caracas neighborhood. One of the bullets hit a 19-year-old student. He was one of three people killed that day. On Monday night, another anti-government protestor was killed when he was run over by a vehicle during a demonstration in the eastern city of Carúpano.

As the opposition waited for López to show up, government supporters held their own rally with oil workers leading a march to deliver to the president the new petroleum sector contract that was signed on Maduro’s orders.

For the past week, the entire country has been bracing for more violence. On Monday, a group of military intelligence agents raided the VP headquarters and the homes of López’s parents. A surveillance video that was posted on YouTube shows the moment at which the officers pointed their guns behind the glass door of the party’s offices demanding entrance. At one point, one officer tries to kick open a second door leading to the offices from the reception area.

Maduro announced the expulsion of three US Embassy diplomats after he accused Washington of fomenting violence and aiding the opposition. A US State Department spokeswoman denied the allegations, calling the charges “absurd.”