Venezuela’s Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz has broken ranks with the nation’s socialist government, condemning the armed forces for using excessive violence against unarmed protesters and triggering most of the 71 deaths occurring since the current wave of unrest began in March.
Ortega announced at a press conference Wednesday that her office had found evidence that the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) was responsible for one of the most prominent protester deaths that have occurred this year: 20-year-old Juan Pernalete, whom GNB officers killed with an exploding tear gas canister to the chest. Chavistas had claimed Pernalete was shot by anti-government protesters. Maduro himself had personally claimed that the growing number of deaths at peaceful protests were part of a larger conspiracy by opposition leadership, who were willing to kill their own people to disgrace socialism.
“Use of violence as a political weapon does not contribute to a climate of trust and tranquility in society,” Ortega asserted during her announcement.
Ortega also condemned the government for reportedly using military tribunals to process civilians who were arrested for peacefully protesting against socialism. According to the NGO Venezuelan Penal Forum, the police have arrested hundreds of unarmed protesters and begun charging them with crimes like “treason” and “sedition,” which are military crimes that do not exist in the civilian penal code.
Ruling chavistas have come out to condemn Ortega as a traitor for acknowledging the massacre of Venezuelans, including many under the age of 20, during the recent wave of protests. Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López issued a statement accusing Ortega of “not only affecting the morale of our armed forces corps, but instigate violence against them and feed the negative attitude that right-wing groups are trying to impose.”
Community Minister Aristóbulo Istúriz called Ortega a “traitor” and questioned the validity of the existence of an attorney general.
Diosdado Cabello, an alleged drug lord who moonlights as the Socialist Party (PSUV) second-in-command and state television host, personally apologized for Ortega. “I was president of the National Assembly when this person was appointed attorney general,” he lamented on his TV show.
The Attorney General’s office has counted 55 deaths since March, when the Supreme Court attempted to usurp the legislative power of the National Assembly, triggering daily protests for the past 56 days. The publication Runrunes suggested on Thursday that the number was much higher – 71 people – due to the Attorney General’s office not including some dead who were discounted as crime victims, not protest victims.
Among the dead whose ages are available to the public were a 14-year-old and 15-year-old boy; the average ages of those killed is 27.
The GNB has largely created the climate of violence that has caused these deaths. In the most gruesome incident documented so far, the GNB ran unarmed protesters over using armored tanks on a crowded Caracas highway when the protesters refused to move.
The opposition has repeatedly called for soldiers to no longer obey Maduro and cease attacking and killing civilians. Some reports suggest that at least some within the military ranks are listening – opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski told reporters this month that he knew of dozens of cases of desertion in their ranks. The Penal Forum NGO issued a report this week that, to their knowledge, up to 60 soldiers are facing military tribunals for expressing discontent with the direction Maduro is taking the country. Experts believe Maduro will be unable to maintain power without support from the military.