Venezuela’s former chief prosecutor — who says she has proof of corruption at the highest levels of the socialist administration — traveled to Brazil on Tuesday amid fevered speculation that she would ultimately seek asylum in the United States.
Ortega’s exact whereabouts have been shrouded in mystery since she fled Venezuela with her husband on Friday — taking a boat to Aruba and then a charter flight to Bogotá.
On Monday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos offered her political asylum “if she wants it,” but by Tuesday afternoon government officials said she was on the move again — heading to Brazil where she is expected to deliver remarks at a meeting of international lawmakers.
Ortega, a longtime government insider who became chief prosecutor in 2007, is likely safeguarding some of the administration’s most damning legal secrets. And she’s thought to be working with U.S. law enforcement at a time when Washington is ratcheting up sanctions on Caracas.
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President Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday suggested the U.S. was behind Ortega’s “great betrayal.”
“[She] wanted to hide behind the mask of being a leftist and a [socialist],” Maduro said. “But for some time, the ex-prosecutor has been working for the United States in hopes of damaging Venezuela.”
Maduro claims that Ortega’s husband, ruling party deputy Germán Ferrer, was behind an “extortion ring” that allowed him to amass millions of dollars in offshore accounts. U.S. authorities used that information to “blackmail” and “break” Ortega, Maduro said.
He also asked neighboring countries to detain the couple so they could face trial in Venezuela.
Ortega, who was fired on Aug. 4, says she is being persecuted for taking a stand against the administration amid four months of anti-government protests that left more than 120 dead on both sides of the political divide.
In a speech to Mexican lawmakers last week, Ortega claimed she has documents that link Maduro and his allies to Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction firm that has admitted to paying $100 million in bribes in Venezuela.
But her years as a member of the administration’s inner circle means she likely has even more damning information, including details about government officials who may have ties to drug trafficking, analysts said.
“Clearly, the position that she has had — the access she had — makes her the chief witness for the prosecution when it comes to the criminality of this regime, and they know that,” said Roger Noriega, a former OAS ambassador and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “The idea that she is going to cooperate with Washington has to be a very serious psychological blow to Maduro and the individuals around him who are steeped in corruption.”
Ronal Rodríguez, a researcher at the Venezuelan Observatory, which is part of Colombia’s Rosario University, said Ortega’s accusations could force Maduro’s closest allies to dig in.
Many in his cabinet are young enough that they have to think about their future, he said.
“Maybe they’re not worried now, but they might be in the longer term, when they’re out of office,” he said. “This could really raise the costs for them in terms of ending this dictatorship.”
It’s still unclear whether Ortega plans to stay in Brazil or some other part of Latin America. U.S. State Department officials said that as of Monday they suspected Ortega might try to travel to Miami to coincide with Vice President Mike Pence’s visit there on Wednesday. Now that seems unlikely.
Even so, Maduro seemed intent on downplaying the fallout from Ortega’s defection.
“What can she do except lie?” he asked Tuesday. “She is destined for the trash heap and to be forgotten by history.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss