Venezuelan intelligence officers on Thursday arrested Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a major opposition leader, after they stormed into his office and hauled him away to a holding center, where he is thought to have been kept overnight.
Ledezma’s sudden arrest set off spontaneous protests in the Venezuelan capital, where people honked the horns of their vehicles and banged pots and pans to reject President Nicolás Maduro’s latest crackdown on the opposition.
During a nationwide address a few hours after the arrest, Maduro told TV viewers that he ordered Ledezma’s capture because the mayor was part of a coup plot that was allegedly thwarted earlier this month.
The mayor was reportedly beaten in the ribs before officers placed a hood on him and took him away
Ledezma, along with jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, and María Corina Machado, had signed a manifesto that was published on February 11 in the opposition daily El Nacional, calling for Maduro’s immediate resignation and a peaceful transition of power.
His arrest came on the same day inmates at the Ramo Verde military prison, where López is being held, climbed on the roof to alert the media that security forces were trying to take the opposition leader away. The 43-year-old López marked his first anniversary in prison on Wednesday as thousands of his supporters took to the streets to demand his release.
López, a former politician, is on trial for sedition, conspiracy, vandalism, arson and public intimidation for allegedly igniting a wave of nationwide protests on February 12, 2014, which left two people killed and dozens injured.
Maduro has ignored calls from various international organizations, including the UN Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR), to release López, who has been labeled Latin America’s highest-profile political prisoner.
In his address Thursday, the president called Ledezma “a vampire” and said he would face charges “for crimes committed against the country, security and the Constitution.”
The president explained that he would not allow any opposition leader to double-cross him by participating in free elections while at the same time conspiring against him.
Ledezma had signed a manifesto calling for Maduro’s immediate resignation and a peaceful transition
Ledezma’s surprise arrest was immediately reported on social networks by the mayor himself. “Police are trying to raid my office right now,” he wrote in a post on his Twitter account.
Less than an hour later his wife, using the same account, wrote: “This is Mitzy, Antonio’s wife. They beat him and took him away without an arrest warrant. I hold Maduro responsible for my husband’s safety.”
Sergio Contreras, an aide to Ledezma, said that about 25 secret police officers broke down the door to the mayor’s office and apprehended the politician.
Although Ledezma did not resist arrest, Contreras said that the mayor was beaten in the chest and ribs before officers placed a hood on him and took him away.
Earlier this month, Maduro detailed a three-point plot to overthrow his government allegedly backed by Washington, which included planned attacks by fighter planes on the Miraflores presidential palace.
The US State Department said Venezuela’s charges of coup-plotting are “baseless and false”
The US State Department said the Venezuelan government's accusations of coup-plotting are “baseless and false” and are only meant to draw attention away from mounting economic problems such as widespread shortages and inflation, which reached 68 percent last year.
“The Venezuelan government needs to deal with the grave situation it faces,” the State Department said in a statement.
Jesús Chúo Torrealba, a spokesman for MUD, a national coalition of opposition groups, demanded that the government reveal where Ledezma is being held.
The 59-year-old is a veteran politician in Venezuela, having served as a deputy, governor and secretary general of the center-left Democratic Action (AD) party during his career. After he defeated the ruling party candidate in the Caracas mayoral race in 2008, the then-Chávez government signed a law taking away many of his administrative powers.
Also on Thursday, the president ordered National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello and the attorney general to prepare a bill against groups “who bear arms and later return with sheepish smiles to participate in the elections.”
Venezuelans are expected to vote for a new Assembly in July.