The alleged plot to assassinate Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro last weekend with a bomb-laden drone has many unanswered questions, but one curious aspect stands out
In less than a week, half a dozen conspirators have either been named by the government or claimed responsibility for the drone incident, including a former police chief and two politicians – begging the question, who was actually behind it and was it a real assassination attempt?
Adding to the confusion, a prominent Miami journalist has claimed to have knowledge of the plot, and even offered encouragement for it to succeed, despite U.S. law that bans conspiracies to commit murder overseas, let alone a foreign head of state.
“I'm kind of shaking my head at all this,” said R. Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College. “It's possible the Venezuelans did this to justify a purge,” of the political opposition, he said. Equally, it could have been carried out by a faction within the Venezuelan leadership, or a badly executed plot,” he added.
Opinions are deeply divided as to the veracity of the incident, but it appears to indicate a grave deterioration in the stability of the Maduro government which is facing a mounting political and economic crisis of Shakespearean proportions.
Desperate to see the Maduro regime toppled, the leaders of Venezuela’s embattled opposition, at home and in exile, say time has run out for a negotiated political solution. Albeit reluctantly, they now say they are willing to consider almost any option – even military - to remove him.
“The government has closed all the options for a peaceful democratic solution to the crisis,” said Gustavo Marcano, 39, an exiled former mayor in north-eastern Venezuela who fled government persecution last year.
Maduro was unharmed when two drones purportedly carrying C4 plastic explosives went off near him while he spoke at a military ceremony in Caracas. Two days later he accused Venezuelans living in Florida of financing the plot, and named one of them as Osman Delgado Tabosky, whose family owns a small TV business, DAT TV, in the city of Valencia, according to press reports in Venezuela.
Maduro said 11 “hired assassins” trained in Colombia were offered $50 million to kill him as part of Saturday’s failed attack.
"I want to explain to the government of the United States and the government of Colombia in detail all the evidence that leads us to accomplices and direct responsible living in the state of Florida because I want us to request the extradition of all those who supported and financed this terrorist action [...] I trust the good faith of the Donald Trump government," Maduro said.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Jorge Arreaza, told reporters that he reached out to the U.S. embassy in Caracas to help obtain the extradition of Delgado Tabosky.
Delago Tabosky was linked to a failed attack by dissident soldiers at a Venezuela army base last year. However, he was denounced as a government infiltrator in a tweet by Oscar Perez, 36, a former pilot with a Venezuelan police unit. Perez was killed a few months later in suspicious circumstances during a January shoot-out with police.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the U.S. Charge d’Affaires, James Story, to a meeting on August 8, but declined to comment further on their conversation.
“ The United States denies any involvement in this incident and will investigate illegal activity within its borders if provided credible evidence,” a State Department spokesman told Univision News.
Univision tried to locate Delgado Tabosky in Miami and found a company with the same name, DAT TV, listed in Florida corporate records, under the name Osman Delgado. But a person who answered said he had no ties to Venezuela.
Some experts remain unconvinced by the Venezuelan government’s evidence of a murder plot. Ellis, the U.S. Army War College professor, highlighted a number of inconsistencies in a video of the drone incident released by the government. “Not clear how a sniper shoots a drone carrying very stable C4 and causes it to explode...or how they knew so quickly the characteristics of the explosive, etc,” he wrote in an email.
Six people have been arrested on charges of being the executors of the alleged attack – including two opposition lawmakers, Julio Borges and Juan Requesens. Borges was in Colombia and escaped arrest, but Requesens was detained. On Thursday, the government released a 45-second video of Requesens recounting his alleged participation in the plot and said that Borges asked him to facilitate the entry into Venezuela of a little-known Colombian, Juan Monasterio, one of those accused of the attack.
Another video leaked Friday showed Requesens, 29, standing in soiled underwear.
Borges, the former head of Venezuela’s national assembly, has denied having anything to do with the drones and government opponents decried the accusations against the pair as “absurd” and a smokescreen to target Maduro critics.
“The armed struggle will continue”
Meanwhile, others seem more than happy to take the credit. A former Venezuelan municipal police chief and anti-government activist told Reuters he helped organize the drone operation. In an interview, Salvatore Lucchese, a Venezuelan activist who was previously imprisoned for his role in past protests, told Reuters he orchestrated the attack with a group of anti-Maduro militants.
“We had an objective and in the moment we were not able to materialize it 100%,” Lucchese said in an interview in Bogota. “The armed struggle will continue,” he vowed.
“This is all a very bad montage,” said Marcano, the former mayor exiled in Miami. “So many people are talking about what happened with the drone that it makes no sense. It’s doing a lot of damage.”
The exploding drones are only the latest in a series of largely unexplained violent incidents linked to government opponents. In June 2017 a renegade former police officer hijacked a helicopter and dropped grenades on the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry. Then in August, Capt. Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a dissident National Guard officer, led an attack on a military base with former and active army officers and civilians calling for a national uprising. Government forces repelled the attack and rounded up the rebels.
The talk in Miami
More bizarre still, an eccentric, Miami-based Peruvian talk show host, Jaime Bayly, claimed Monday night on his popular TV program that he knew in advance about plans for the attack and had met with the group of exiled soldiers and policemen behind it. He regretted it had not succeeded, offering to buy them another drone.
"My sources, which are generally reliable, called me, they directed me to a meeting … They told me: 'On Saturday we are going to kill Maduro with drones, we have tried the drones in Caracas, they work'. And I said, 'Do it, let's go forward,' "Bayly said on his show.
“The FBI may come knocking on his door to investigate,” said David Weinstein, a former federal and state prosecutor now in private practice. He pointed to the US criminal code, title 18, section 1116: “Whoever kills or attempts to kill a foreign official, official guest, or internationally protected person shall be punished.”
The Cuba example
The incident was reminiscent of the old days in Miami when futile conspiracies to assassinate the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro were a dime a dozen, from the notorious failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to ‘weekend warriors’ with pot bellies trained with guns in the Everglades, according to Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin America expert at Florida International University.
“There probably was a genuine attempt in some crazy form, as hair-brained as it may have been,” he said. But he warned that the Cuban experience provided a telling lesson for Venezuelan exiles hoping to overthrow a foreign dictator: they have a high rate of failure and tend to backfire.
“The multiple failures to murder Castro were always lone wolf operations that lacked organizations and backing. They were under-funded, under-planned and under-executed,” he said.
Even when the CIA backed multiple assassination plots in the early years of Castro’s rule they were foiled. And when thousands of Cuban exiles trained for the 1961 invasion, the U.S. Air Force notoriously failed to provide vital cover, sealing their fate.
In 1981, the United States banned government sanctioned assassinations, a rule that is still in effect.
Instead, the White House has sanctioned top members of the Maduro regime, while calling on the South American country’s military to overthrow him under a constitutional provision that justifies rebellion against dictatorial rule.
Critics credit Maduro with one thing. “The chances of a successful conspiracy are very limited because Maduro has the help of the Cuban G2,” said another exiled Venezuelan mayor, Ramon Muchacho, 45, referring to Cuba’s widely reputed state intelligence service. “They have infiltrated the political opposition, the students and the subversive movements. They have infiltrated everything.”
Venezuelan exile leaders like Marcano and Muchacho say the options for a peaceful return to democratic rule are now virtually zero. “The government has closed all those paths,” said Marcano, “We need more international pressure. We can’t do it alone.”
Muchacho went even further calling for international intervention. “It’s not about saving democracy at this stage. It’s about saving lives.”
Asked if that included military intervention, he said, “we cannot discard the use of force.”