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Murder in Chile: Is Maduro’s long arm at work?

Chile, a prosperous and relatively stable nation tucked away in the southwestern corner of South America, is an unlikely locale for a shocking act of violence with overtones of international intrigue.

Nonetheless, that is precisely what occurred on Feb. 21, when security cameras showed Lieutenant Ronald Ojeda, a former Venezuelan army officer and opponent of the authoritarian regime of Nicolas Maduro, being kidnapped from Santiago apartment by masked men wearing SWAT-type black clothing.

Suspicion swiftly arose that the kidnapping had been engineered by the Venezuelan government. Ojeda had been imprisoned in Venezuela on the charge of “rebellion,” but later escaped and had been granted asylum in Chile. Chilean authorities ordered the borders to be monitored to prevent him from being spirited out of the country. Nine days later, his body was found in a shanty-town on the outskirts of Santiago, buried under cement.

The leftist government of Chilean President Gabriel Boric has been evidently discomfited by the prospect of having to face a possible crisis in relations with Venezuela — although in fairness, Boric has long been critical of Venezuela’s human rights performance. But Chile’s Communist Party, which has close links with the Maduro government, is a vital member of his governing coalition. Boric’s team has sought to tamp down speculation regarding the perpetrators during the ongoing investigation. 

The conservative opposition, meanwhile, has not hesitated to link Ojeda’s death to what it considers to be loose control of Chile’s borders and a lack of sufficient intelligence capabilities. It has also criticized an agreement on police cooperation between Chile and Venezuela, which was signed in mid-January.  For their part, Chile’s communists dismiss the idea of official Venezuelan involvement in this kidnapping and murder. The party’s secretary general has gone so far as to speculate that the CIA did it for some reason.

With the investigation in its early days, only a limited amount of information has been publicly released. Still, a young Venezuelan man who allegedly participated in the crime has been arrested. He is reportedly a member of the Tren de Aragua, a Venezuela-based narcotics cartel with a growing presence in Chile. 

As no information has surfaced connecting Ojeda to narcotics trafficking, the question arises as to whether the cartel carried out the crime at the behest of the Venezuelan government.  Another potential participant has been identified whose name apparently appeared on the payroll of the office of the then-governor of the Venezuelan state of Aragua, Tareck El Aissami.

In the years since Hugo Chavez first came to power, the U.S. has viewed Venezuela  through the lenses of its internal smothering of democracy, its support for authoritarian leftist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua, and its impact on global oil markets.  U.S. approaches have varied from Trump’s “maximum pressure” to Biden’s recent effort at negotiating a path toward minimally democratic elections.

But if Venezuela’s hand is behind Ojeda’s assassination, then we are seeing what can only be described as state-sponsored international terrorism. This would put Venezuela in the same category as such countries as Iran and North Korea, not to mention Russia, with potential consequences for future U.S. policy.

Aside from whether this would trigger further sanctions, if Venezuela is evolving into a true “rogue state,” it may have to be considered more directly in terms of the threat it could present to U.S. national security. In any event, the U.S. should lend all possible intelligence and law enforcement support to Chilean authorities in their efforts to get to the bottom of this crime.

Source: The Hill