The Venezuelan Penal Forum (FPV), an NGO active in the South American country, reports that the military has arrested between 50 and 60 Venezuelan soldiers and changed them with insufficient loyalty to dictator Nicolás Maduro.
FPV director Alonso Medina Roa appeared before the National Assembly Tuesday to report on what his organization had uncovered – that dozens of Venezuelan soldiers expressed public dissatisfaction with Maduro’s leadership, which has relied on military violence to suppress anti-socialist protests. That such a large number would do so indicates hundreds, and possibly thousands, of soldiers reject Maduro’s regime.
“Recently, the military began to process an important group of officials with the ranking of First Lieutenant that received their promoting in 2012, which is to say, these are officials that were completely formed within this ill-gotten revolution, and have not known any other doctrine than Chavismo,” he told the nation’s legislators.
Roa argued that, despite being used to kill and injure civilians, the Venezuelan armed forces also “suffer from what the rest of the population is undergoing at this time: social, economic, and political crisis.”
Medina had previously told the Associated Press that Maduro’s government had charged at least 65 military officers from different forces with crimes related to opposition to Maduro and that mass discontent had begun to plague the Venezuelan army. Medina, an attorney who represents some of the soldiers in question, added that they faced charges of sedition and treason.
The opposition – a coalition of anti-socialists and members of the Socialist International – has expanded its efforts to recruit members of the armed forces to their cause against Maduro. In early May, Miranda governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, an opposition leader, claimed that up to 85 soldiers had been arrested for insubordination. “They have been detained for the mere act of expressing discontent and having given a signal, a declaration, some comment disagreeing with how the National Guard and National Police are acting, the savage repression,” he said during a live Periscope protest.
The highest-profile case of military resistance to Maduro is that of General Ángel Vivas, believed to be the highest-ranking soldier to defect. Vivas protested the imposition of a Cuban communist motto – “Nation or death, we will overcome!” – on Venezuela’s military under late dictator Hugo Chávez, and was tried and processed for treason. Rather than turning himself in, Vivas took his weapons and went home, fortifying his Táchira residence and keeping police from arresting him safely for years. Maduro ordered a raid on his home and violently arrested him in April.
Vivas, in his 60s, has reportedly lost some of his vision and hearing through the beatings he has received in military prison. His family says doctors diagnosed him with a cracked spine. He reportedly spent time in a military prison hospital, but the government refuses to confirm this to his family, his wife wrote on Twitter.
Supuestamente trasladaron nuevamente al SEBIN al @Gral_Vivas_P . Sin poder corroborar, no lo pudimos ver ni allá ni en el Hospital Militar.
— Estrella Vitora (@Estrella_Vitora) May 21, 2017
“Supposedly they transferred Gen. Vivas to the Secret Police prison. We cannot corroborate, we could not see him there nor at the Military Hospital,” she wrote.
The Vivas family has not received any support from the opposition leadership, heavily controlled by members of the Socialist international.
In addition to Vivas, a small number of soldiers have defected and fled the country. Among them are three soldiers – identified as José Alejandro Michael Sánchez, Ángel David Mogollon Medina, and Alfredo José Rodríguez – who posted a video on YouTube in April, announcing their defection and requesting political asylum in Colombia. The men urged their colleagues to abandon Maduro’s military and reject orders to kill and maim Venezuelan civilians.
Lieutenant José Alejandro Méndez Sánchez is another among the Venezuelan soldiers who have gone public with their defection. Méndez told Spain’s La Razón newspaper that he believed a military insurrection or coup d’etat against Maduro were “possible.” In an interview with another Spanish newspaper El País, Méndez says that high-ranking military officers receive “gifts” – bribes – to remain loyal to Maduro, and “is benefitting from these gifts and… all the illegal business that these, through their power, execute to obtain large sums of money.” He noted that Maduro appeared to be promoting a large number of soldiers – implicating them in this “illegal business” to keep them from rebelling.
Maduro placed the military in control of both the nation’s dwindling food and medicine supplies, which has resulted in the creation of an elaborate corruption scheme in which soldiers demand bribes in exchange for accepting shipments of food from abroad. Not paying the bribe results in large shipments of food rotting in ports, in a country where the average resident lost 19 pounds in 2016 due to food shortages.
The military is also believed to control the Cartel de los Soles, which InsightCrime describes as a grab-bag term for “shadowy groups inside Venezuela’s military that traffic cocaine.” “There are cells within the main branches of the military – the army, navy, air force, and National Guard, from the lowest to the highest levels – that essentially function as drug trafficking organizations,” the outlet notes. The cartel reportedly works with the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist group to ship cocaine throughout the hemisphere.
Diosdado Cabello, a former soldier who now holds the National Assembly’s minority leadership, has repeatedly been accused of running the Cartel de los Soles. Vice President Tareck El Aissami, a U.S.-designated “drug kingpin,” also allegedly holds a position of leadership within the group.
The Venezuelan Defense Ministry has denied both reports of defecting soldiers and accusations of participation in the international drug trade. Cabello sued the Wall Street Journal for publishing the report accusing him of running the Cartel de los Soles.