Thursday, April 24, 2003

February 20, 2003
Nerves Frayed in Venezuela After Killings of Chávez Opponents

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 19 - Venezuela was still reeling today after the
weekend killings of three dissident soldiers and a protester opposed to
President Hugo Chávez, and the police and grieving relatives split over
whether the killings were politically motivated.

According to police investigations, about 12 armed men kidnapped the four
victims on Saturday night as they were leaving a protest. They were bound
and gagged, and some were tortured before the gunmen executed them, the
police said.

The last two bodies, badly decomposed and showing signs of torture, were
found on Tuesday on the outskirts of Caracas.
The case has fueled opposition fears that Mr. Chávez may be leading the
country toward armed struggle by encouraging supporters to silence
dissenting voices, more than 10 months after narrowly surviving a coup led
by rebel officers.

The police tried to soothe frayed nerves today, saying the motive for the
killings appeared to be revenge, not politics. They cited reports of a
scuffle on Saturday between the soldiers and a fellow protester, Edgar
Leonardo Machado, who has become the lead suspect in the killings.

Family members of the victims criticized the investigations as corrupt.
They accused the police of trying to avert a scandal and said the four
dead were clearly killed for their protests against Mr. Chávez.
"They want to clear themselves politically, and they say it's about
revenge," said Miguel Pinto, whose 21-year-old brother, Felix Pinto, a
member of the country's air force, was one of the dead. "My brother had no
enemies. The only enemy we have here is Hugo Chávez."

Despite occasional violence in Venezuela's political standoff, there have
been no confirmed selective killings of Mr. Chávez's allies or enemies.
Still, street clashes have claimed at least seven lives and have left
scores wounded since December.

Mr. Chávez has styled his government on Cuban socialist ideals and the
nationalist fervor of Venezuela's 19th century revolutionary leader, Simón

After gaining power in 1998, he set up community networks called
Bolivarian Circles, which were meant to spread the word of his revolution.
But the opposition says Mr. Chavez's supporters take his calls to defend
the revolution literally. They brand the groups Circles of Terror, and
they have started their own armed groups to oppose them.

The political situation, with daily marches by supporters and opponents of
the president, is growing more tense as Mr. Chávez refuses to bend to
opposition calls to hold early elections. His term in office ends in 2007.
The police say that the testimony of a 14-year-old girl will be vital to
solving the killings. The girl is thought to be the girlfriend of Mr.
Pinto, and she was abducted along with the four but survived the shooting,
the police said. She has been hospitalized and was unable to give
investigators a formal statement.

The case is mired in controversy, especially since it appears to involve a
deadly Dec. 6 shooting at the Plaza Altamira, which was witnessed by two
of the victims.

Zaida Perozo, a protester whose body was found on Monday, was wounded
along with 20 others in the Plaza Altamira and had been considering
testifying against a suspect.
Relatives of those who were killed said they feared more attacks would
follow on opposition leaders.
"This is like a chess game," Mr. Pinto said. "First they go after the
pawns and then later for top leaders."