Thursday, October 16, 2014

Venezuela Blames Lawmaker's Murder on 'Colombian Paramilitaries'

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has asserted that Colombian paramilitary groups were behind the murder of a young rising star in his party earlier this month, but questions remain about the official version of events.

Socialist Party (PSUV) lawmaker Robert Serra’s murder last month kicked off a wave of speculation over the motives behind the crime. The government has labeled the killing a “terrorist act” and insinuated that Serra been killed by right-wing elements, while some analysts (see InSight Crime, The Economist) have questioned whether left-wing collectives could be behind his death.

In recent days, authorities have arrested two suspects in the case, and President Maduro has made multiple promises to provide evidence of an opposition plot.

Last night he finally delivered. As Ultimas Noticias reports, Maduro presented security camera footage detailing the involvement of eight suspects in the murder. These included Serra’s bodyguard and a criminal ring with alleged ties to neighboring Colombia. The “intellectual author” of the murder, according to Maduro, was an unnamed “Colombian paramilitary.”

Despite the presentation of suspects involved in the murder, the official explanation of Serra’s death is light on details about a potential motive.  Maduro also said that authorities had discovered related plans to assassinate National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello and Education Minister Hector Rodriguez, but he was vague about the overall plot.  

So far the government seems to be satisfied with publicly chalking up Serra’s murder to the dark forces of “Colombian paramilitarism” and leaving it at that, at least for the moment.  The AP notes that the president doubled down on claims that former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has links to groups conspiring against his government, though he did not provide any evidence.

An alternate version of the murder was put forward by leading pro-opposition newspaper El Nacional on Tuesday, in an investigation that cited anonymous sources familiar with the case. The paper also claimed that Serra had been betrayed by his bodyguard, but asserted that the incident was in fact a planned robbery gone awry. As proof, El Nacional reported that the assailants forced Serra to open up a safe containing an unspecified amount of dollars and two automatic rifles. Here the narrative falls apart, however, as the report claims Serra was stabbed “for unknown reasons,” and his female assistant was killed to silence any witnesses.

Obviously, both of these narratives are problematic. But considering the polarization of the country’s political and media landscapes, the full truth seems unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

News Briefs
  • Also on Venezuela, David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz profile recent remarks by members of the opposition who have signaled their willingness to renew dialogue with the government, though the two note that the Maduro administration’s response to the Serra murder has likely hurt the potential for talks to restart anytime soon.  
  • The Wall Street Journal has the latest poll numbers in Brazil’s presidential race, noting that both Ibope and Datafolha show Aecio Neves and Dilma Rousseff in a technical tie. Both surveys show 45 percent for Neves and 43 percent for Rousseff.
  • Following up on Fidel Castro’s republication of the New York Times’ recent editorial endorsing an end to the U.S. embargo, the NYT has an analysis of Castro’s Granma column and its significance. As the Times points out, it is noteworthy that the former leader chose to leave in the paper’s criticism of the Castro regime as an “authoritarian government” that silences criticism.
  • Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina is again flirting with drug policy reform in remarks to the international press. In a Reuters interview this week, the president told the news agency that lightening sentences on drug offenders was among several “steps we could take time to analyze.” Reuters reports that the president also remarked that a civil society commission launched to assess drug law reforms -- which released a preliminary report last month -- would have its final recommendations ready “in March or the second quarter of next year.”
  • Four days after Bolivia’s general elections, electoral authorities have finally declared President Evo Morales the official winner of the presidential race, beating  Samuel Doria Medina by nearly 60 to 26 percent. La Razon reports that ten percent of the ballot sheets in the legislative elections have not yet been counted, however, meaning that it is still unclear whether Morales’ MAS will obtain a two-thirds majority. The results so far suggest that the MAS falls just short of reaching this goal, albeit closer to it than exit polls indicated on Sunday.
  • Reuters also reports on the Perez Molina administration’s attempts to lobby the U.S. for more aid money to stem the northward flow of migration, noting that Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Morales said a promised $300 million to Central America was “nothing” considering the scale of the problem. Instead, Morales said that the U.S. should support a plan to spend $10 billion in the region over the next decade, saying the U.S. have an obligation to do so. “If they don't support it, the crisis will kick off again, you can count on it,” Morales told Reuters.
  • The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff writes that the fact that none of the 28 bodies belong to the students did not come as a surprise to many in Iguala, who are used to criminal groups using the area where the graves are being found as a dumping ground for bodies. As he notes, many Mexicans “are asking how the country can possibly tout its modernization efforts if it continues to be a place where gangsters casually kill and bury their victims.”
  • The Mexican military’s investigation into the alleged massacre of 22 suspects in Tlatlaya has deepened. According to Animal Politico, three officers -- including a brigadier general -- have been placed under house arrest in connection with the case, bringing the number of military personnel under investigation to 16.
  • Police in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday announced the arrest of 55 people associated with an illegal abortion ring, an operation linked to the recent deaths of two women who are believed to have died from complications from the procedure, NYT and O Globo report.