The Nicolás Maduro regime has launched a witch hunt within the Venezuelan armed forces in recent days, arresting nearly a dozen officers and ordering the secret police to monitor anyone in contact with deserters and discharged military personnel, according to sources with close ties to the military.
Among the officers arrested are members of the Casa Militar, the unit based in the Miraflores presidential palace in charge of Maduro’s safekeeping.
“There’s a number of lieutenants detained who were already brought before a military tribunal,” said retired Gen. Antonio Rivero, who stays in contact with active-duty officers from his home in Miami. “That group is made up of about 20 people arrested.”
Most are low-ranking officers but they include a lieutenant colonel and a number of non-commissioned officers, Rivero added.
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About 27 National Guard members were arrested in January after rebelling and posting videos on social media expressing their dissatisfaction with the hunger and economic difficulties that Venezuelan society is suffering under Maduro.
The new arrests also come amid a series of declarations issued by retired and active-duty officers, in Venezuela and abroad, rejecting Maduro’s presidency as illegitimate.
Armed forces members have enjoyed privileges granted to them by the late President Hugo Chávez since 1998, but are now evaluating their next steps as the world turns against Maduro, said Esteban Gerbasi, a Miami expert on Venezuelan security issues.
“The senior commanders don’t want to leave because they live well. But they are also starting to realize that Maduro has no way to maintain his totalitarian regime” because of the international economic sanctions imposed on the government, Gerbasi said.
“He has no money, not even gasoline for transportation. But most importantly, he seems to have no Plan B for a political solution to the crisis. Maduro is on a collision course,” Gerbasi said. “With no way out for his people, what he’s proposing is, ‘you either commit suicide with me or you commit suicide with me.’ And societies don’t commit suicide.”
The regime, in fact, appears to fear that its armed forces lack the commitment to go down with Maduro as internal and international pressure rises, and it’s starting to feel that its soldiers could turn against them, experts said.
Reacting to fears that retired officers are persuading active-duty armed forces members to take up arms against the regime, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López ordered all military bases to work closely with military counterintelligence to detect signs of conspiracies.
The orders, known as radiograms, showed the Maduro regime fears the rise of rebel groups similar to that of Oscar Pérez, a police officer who organized and armed a group of active and retired police and military officers before he was killed in January 2018 by government forces that rejected his offer to surrender peacefully.
The regime announced last week that it had broken up a similar rebel group.
Interior Minister Néstor Reverol said members captured included retired military officers who joined a terrorist group to arrange for logistics and more recruits to later launch a campaign of “selective assassinations” of senior government officials.
The regime also announced the capture last week of retired Col. Oswaldo García Palomo, accused of participating in at least one plot to topple Maduro.
Maduro’s doubts about the loyalty of his armed forces have been growing since he was sworn in to a second presidential term Jan. 10, ignoring broad complaints that his election was fraudulent and warnings from the international community that he would not be recognized as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
His troubles increased two weeks later after Juan Guaidó, then president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, swore himself in as interim president. Guaidó argued that the electoral fraud meant that the post of Venezuelan president was vacant and that the country’s constitution calls for it to be filled by the National Assembly president until new elections are held.
Like a growing list of nations, recent polls indicate that the majority of Venezuelans reject the legitimacy of Maduro’s new presidential term.
A poll by the Meganalisis firm published last week showed that only 4.1 percent of Venezuelans accept Maduro as the legitimate president, while 84.6 percent support Guaidó
Over the weekend, Maj. Gen. Esteban Yánez Rodríguez, air force director of strategic planning, became the highest ranking active-duty officer to back Guaidó. He posted a video recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
Yánez’ statement is significant because he’s part of the high military command, said José Colina, a retired National Guard lieutenant who maintains contact with active-duty officers from his home in Miami.
“He’s the first member of that hierarchy to speak out from inside the country. He went into hiding immediately, but he’s an example for other officers who might be thinking of taking the same path,” said Colina.
The fact that an officer so close to the top decided to publicly break with Maduro strengthens the perception that the regime has entered a stage where its survival is unsustainable, he added.
“When an officer of his caliber takes that step, it’s because he’s seeing that a break is imminent,” Colina said. “He takes that step because what he’s seeing within the armed forces and within the country is telling him that Maduro is on his way out.”
U.S. officials are also directing those kinds of pronouncements toward the military.
“To the elite in the Military, the majority of whom do not support Nicolás Maduro, and are looking at each other wondering, well, who is going to go first? Understand that there are many of those in the top that are already sending their families away. And they will be the first ones gone,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said last week during a gathering with the Venezuelan community in Doral in a message clearly directed to the Venezuelan armed forces.
“You are going to wake up one morning to the news that Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello (the regime’s No. 2) and all these other people have left and you are going to be stuck behind, don’t let that happen, take the step that you must now,” Rubio said. “Don’t let that happen to you. Take the steps now that you must take to recover and restore the dignity of this great nation.”
Follow Antonio Maria Delgado on Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM