By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The violent death of the brother of a dissident National Assembly legislator in President Hugo Chávez' home state of Barinas has quickly taken on a political dimension.
The facts of the case, such as there are, are that César José Azuaje, 28, and Joel Miguel Carballo Cordero, 27, were shot to death at a gas station on the highway from Barinas to San Cristóbal, the capital of neighboring Táchira state, in the early hours of Thursday morning, according to first reports reaching the capital later that day.
They are said to have been ambushed by several individuals who got out of a vehicle at the gas station and abruptly opened fire without warning. Azuaje was reported to have been hit by three bullets and to have died on the spot.
Two prosecutors were quickly named to lead the investigation in tandem with detectives from the scientific and investigative police, Cicpc. But by then, the inevitable speculation about what might lie behind the killings was well under way.
Azuaje's brother, Wilmer Azuaje, a maverick National Assembly Deputy who represents the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) was in no doubt where the responsibility lay for the murder of his sibling. He pointed the finger at the president's elder brother, Adán Chávez, who is governor of Barinas state.
The state government, Azuaje claimed, had orchestrated a campaign of "political persecution" of his brother via the local media during the preceding three days. The murders happened four days after the referendum lifting a ban on successive re-election.
Azuaje has been in trouble with the PSUV ever since he made a string of allegations last year about property owned by the Chávez family in Barinas state. In doing so, he whipped up a media frenzy resulting in lengthy reports claiming that the Chávez family owned or held title to as many as 17 fincas or homesteads in Barinas. Some of these properties were alleged to be held in the name of testaferros or front men, a not uncommon practice in Venezuela.
Officials at the presidential palace, Miraflores, tried to shrug off the story as so much gossip fired up by media chiefs' dislike of President Hugo Chávez and all that he stands for. But, as they say, mud sticks.
The reports portrayed a family of considerable power and influence in the state. The public was reminded that the Chávez clan has been a power in the land in Barinas for some time. Adán Chávez was preceded as governor by Hugo de Los Reyes Chávez, father of the governor and the president.
All this served to dent the president's image as just another ordinary guy from humble origins. And then there was the unspoken question: if, after all, there were humble beginning not so far back, how had the family done so well in the interim?
Azuaje's indiscretion and his persistent nosiness about the Chávez family almost certainly mean his days as a deputy are numbered. "He's finished once his term expires next year," avowed a usually well-informed source at PSUV headquarters in the capital.
"Nobody wants to know about him," that source said. "He won't get the selection. He may as well go out and buy a hot dog stand."
Azuaje appears to be unbowed by this prospect, at least in the immediate aftermath of his brother's sudden death by violent means. He argued that the supposed campaign by the Barinas state government against his brother might have induced a supporter of the president, a chavista, to have decided to act against the family.
This was a new take on the old story of Thomas a Becket and Henry II's unwise angry demand that would "nobody rid me of this turbulent priest."
Azuaje declared that his "political adversaries" knew he was poised to provide proof of electoral fraud. This was taken as a reference to enemies inside the local PSUV; for once, the mainstream opposition didn't seem to be in the frame.
His fellow PSUV legislator, Deputy Calixto Ortega tried to hose down the gossip bushfire ignited by Azuaje's allegations. He pleaded for the case to be treated "with responsibility" and, while expressing sympathy for the families of the victims, emphasized the importance of not jumping to conclusions.
Ortega suggested that the double murder may have been a "casual thing" or perhaps linked to a kidnapping, an argument that belied witness statements that the killers blazed away as soon as they'd appeared.
Despite the obvious doubts about the kidnapping hypothesis, it was taken up by another deputy, Tomás Sánchez, although his suggestion was that if it was an attempt to snatch one or both of the two men it may have had a political connotation. However, he quickly added, he wasn't blaming anybody in particular.
Ortega was evidently anxious to get the government out of the firing line, so to speak. He said it would be up to the state police to solve the case in their role of protecting the citizenry and preventing crime. This was not a responsibility that could be laid directly at the government's door, he said.
Speculation about the killings came amid reports that Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz (who, as far as is known isn't related to the deputy) had complained that it was "a reality in Venezuela that organized crime has the protection, complicity, cover and cooperation of some police officers."
Ortega Díaz appeared to be taking her cue from the president's pledge to tackle corruption and crime during his characteristically lengthy victory speech after the referendum results were announced on Sunday evening.
Her remarks were issued in a press release and were said to have been made at a recent forum. Whether they were originally intended to reach the public domain remains an open question.
It was common and "a reality," she said, to hear that those responsible for serious crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery and drugs trafficking were members of a
police corps. In addition, "numerous penal processes against common citizens originate with punishable acts constructed and fabricated by police officers," she added.
Ortega Díaz also took a swipe at the judiciary. As many as 60 percent of cases brought before the courts did not end either in a conviction or acquittal, largely because police documentation didn't conform to the legal requirements, and this was "an insult to justice" she added.
The Attorney General made it quite clear she wasn't satisfied with things as they are. She even said that the National Police Law promulgated by Chávez during the dying days of his special enabling powers at the middle of last year, was only a starting point.
Next year, she said, she intended to open two special "criminalistic units" in Caracas and Barquisimeto, the capital of Lara state, to investigate suspect police officers. In January this year, 25 police officers were accused in connection with the murders of 16 people; 19 of the officers are to face trial.
As for Cicpc, it has launched an internal investigation to find out who it was that provided a batch of statistics on crime during the last decade – in other words, the years since the president first came to power in early 1999.
Two reporters, one each from El Universal, a conservative newspaper opposed to Chávez, and Ultimas Noticias, whose editorial line is deemed broadly sympathetic but by no means uncritical of the president, have been hauled in for questioning about where or whom they got their stories from.