Claiming to be primed for civil war, a Venezuelan general issued orders to prepare for the future use of snipers against anti-government protesters, according to a secret recording of a regional command meeting held three weeks ago at a military base in the northwestern Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto.
On the recording, obtained from a Washington source that has provided el Nuevo Herald with information on Venezuela for previous stories, the generals discuss the legality and risks of using snipers during the massive demonstrations taking place almost daily against President Nicolás Maduro.
The military, however, insists publicly that it is not using lethal force against demonstrators, a claim that was repeated on Wednesday by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez.
The meeting, chaired by Division General José Rafael Torrealba Pérez, took place in the last week of April as Venezuela’s socialist government continued to try to contain the unrest. Local news reports said at least four demonstrators were killed by gunfire this week, raising the death toll to at least 42, with more than 700 wounded.
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“Begin to make preparations with those individuals that can serve as snipers, beginning with psychological and aptitude tests” to make sure the unit commanders are in control of them, Torrealba instructed the military gathering. Torrealba is head of the Lara-state based Integral Defense Operational Zone (ZODI), one of several regional military operational zones.
The generals at the meeting included representatives of the army, air force and national guard, according to the Washington source.
“There will come a time when we will have to employ them [the snipers] and I want us to be ready for the moment that we have to employ them because the president will not remain at a green [preparation] phase, gentlemen,” Torrealba said, a likely reference to Maduro’s activation of the Zamora Plan, a war plan to be activated in the midst of imminent foreign invasion. “He [Maduro] has already signed a range of operations and as I said here [previously] … we could be at the beginning of a subversive urban war.”
The recording of Torrealba’s voice matches the one appearing in videos of his public speeches available on YouTube. His voice also was identified by the Washington source that supplied the tape to el Nuevo Herald.
Some of the others present were National Guard Brigadier General Hernán Enrique Homez Machado, Air Force Brigadier General Carlos Enrique Quijada Rojas, Army Brigadier General Dilio Rafael Rodríguez Díaz, Army Brigadier General Joel Vicente Canelón and Army Brigadier General Iván Darío Lara Lander, according to the source that provided the recordings to el Nuevo Herald. El Nuevo Herald could not independently verify their presence at the meeting.
But at least one person at the meeting, whose voice was not identified on the recording, raised objections to the idea of snipers.
“General, with all due respect, if we keep going with the issue of the snipers, all of us here will end up in jail,” protested one of the generals in attendance. He warned that snipers or expert marksmen should not be used because if anyone was able to photograph a sniper, the “media war is going to kill us.”
But Torrealba said he did not care about public perception and, while saying that he had no plans to use the snipers immediately and acknowledging that it would be unconstitutional, the general ordered those present to go ahead with preparations to use snipers.
He said snipers would keep demonstrators off the streets.
In the end, “it will only be us [the military] that pulls through because … once people start to see dead bodies, and dead bodies begin to appear, then everyone will begin to stay at home,” Torrealba said. “You will remember my words, the armed forces are the ones that have to solve this problem.”
One of the generals in the room claimed the demonstrations are no longer peaceful.
“Sadly, this is the beginning of a war, gentlemen,” he said. “They [the protesters] will continue until reaching the point where an [international] intervention is justified. Let’s not fool ourselves. Sadly, it fell to our generation to live with this conflict, and we have to assume it to the degree that is being demanded by our country.”
Earlier in the discussion, some of the generals argued about the need for keeping the marksmen well-hidden from demonstrator and the reporters covering the events so the military would not be blamed for causing any deaths.
The content of the recording contradicts assurances from Padrino Lopez, the defense minister, that the military does not use firearms against protesters.
“We don’t use lethal firearms. There are no rifles, handguns or machine guns,” Padrino Lopez said in a pronouncement given Wednesday to announce the initiation of the second phase of the Zamora Plan in the border state of Tachira, where the demonstrations have intensified.
“In addition, President Nicolás Maduro, with his vision of statesman, and as president, has ordered us to recall even the weapon that is use for the restitution of order, which is shotguns with plastic munitions,” he added.
While it is not known where the gunfire originated that killed the four demonstrators on Monday and Tuesday, Organization of American States Secretary General, Luis Almagro, on Tuesday blamed the Venezuelan national guard.
“The Bolivarian National Guard and its head, Major General Benavides Torres, are directly responsible for the repression that has murdered, imprisoned and tortured people,” Almagro said.
Retired National Guard Colonel Antonio Semprun, who lives in South Florida, said the violence that is taking place in Venezuela against the demonstrators surpasses all that has previously been experienced in the country in what seems to be the government’s last-ditch attempt to keep Maduro in power.
“The Venezuelan population has reached a point of no return. It is committed to reaching what is being demanded on the streets, the freedom of the nation,” he said. “And what they are doing against the people — who are unarmed, protesting in the streets — are crimes against humanity.”
Follow Antonio María Delgado in Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM