The mayor of Venezuela’s’ capital — and one of the highest-profile opposition figures in the country — was hauled out of his office Thursday on conspiracy allegations, ratcheting up the pressure on the embattled opponents of President Nicolás Maduro.
In a lengthy speech to supporters, Maduro accused Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of the Caracas Metropolitan District, of being entangled in an alleged coup plot that the government says it dismantled last week.
“He must respond for the crimes committed against peace in the country, security and the constitution,” Maduro said. “I ask for the country’s support to consolidate peace through justice — enough of conspirators.”
Ledezma’s detention came Thursday afternoon shortly after he wrote on Twitter that his office had been surrounded. Security footage on NTN24 television showed heavily armed and camouflaged guards hustling him out of his office. Eyewitnesses told local media that the officers fired into the air to disperse the crowds.
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On Twitter, opposition Deputy Ismael García said he watched hooded security forces break down Ledezman’s door and haul him off “like a dog.”
“The only reason this happened is because there is no democracy here,” said David Smolansky, mayor of Hatillo, which forms part of greater Caracas. “Every opposition leader has a number on them and it’s just a matter of time before our number comes up. Today it was Ledezma but tomorrow it could be any of us.”
News of Ledezma’s detention sparked protests around the city as people banged pots and honked horns, local media reported. The Associated Press said hundreds had gathered around the downtown offices of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, where Ledezma is reportedly being held.
Calls to the Ministry of Information were not immediately returned.
Although it’s unclear what charges Ledezma might face, Maduro reiterated claims that the United States and opposition leaders had been plotting with rogue military officers to topple him. The shadowy plan involved commandeering a fighter plane to assassinate Maduro and then bomb the presidential palace, the ministry of defense and other key offices.
Maduro said his foreign minister had met with Venezuela’s diplomatic corps Thursday to provide details about U.S. involvement in the plot.
“There are orders from the White House to destroy Venezuela and oust me,” he said.
The U.S. was quick to respond to the allegations.
“The United States is not promoting unrest in Venezuela nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government,” the State Department said in a news release. “We remain Venezuela’s largest trading partner. Venezuela’s economic and political problems are the result of the policies of the Venezuelan government.”
Earlier this year, Washington revoked the visas of unnamed Venezuelan officials who were accused of violating human rights or complicit in corruption. Maduro said the visa sanctions were part of the larger U.S. strategy to co-opt military officials for the coup.
Ledezma, 59, is a longtime politician who served as governor of Caracas state and a national senator. He became mayor in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote.
His detention comes after a small opposition march on Wednesday to mark the one-year anniversary since former presidential candidate Leopoldo López was jailed on a slew of charges, including conspiracy and inciting crowds to violence. Human rights groups and the United Nations have said the allegations are baseless.
On Thursday, a support group called Free Leopoldo said the leader had been moved by force to another prison as punishment for talking to the media.
“Today, the situation has deteriorated rapidly at Ramo Verde military prison, where Leopoldo is being held, and, for the first time, we are deeply worried about Leopoldo’s physical safety,” the group said.
Daniel Ceballos and Vicenzo Scarano, the opposition mayors of San Cristóbal and San Diego, were also arrested early last year.
On Thursday night, Maduro suggested more detentions might be coming.
“Whoever is behind these attempts at a coup has to go to jail,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who they are.”
When he announced Ledezma’s detention, his red-clad supporters gathered at the presidential palace began chanting, “This is how you govern!”
Tensions have been running high in Venezuela as an economic crisis, exacerbated by tanking crude prices, have led to shortages of basic items and massive lines. The country also devalued the bolivar this month as it restructured its exchange-rate system.
Maduro has blamed the woes on an “economic war” being waged by his enemies and the United States. On Thursday, he suggested the government might step up expropriations of companies that aren’t doing enough to keep the economy afloat.
The turmoil comes as the nation will head to the polls sometime this year to elect a new National Assembly. Maduro said he expected the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela to dominate at least 61 percent of the vote, and kick-off a string of electoral victories, including the 2019 presidential race.
“I plan to live to be 90 years old,” he told supporters. “I plan to serve you all my life.”