Venezuela's Maduro Says 11 ‘Hired Assassins’ Offered $50 Million

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro launched a roundup of opponents in tandem with a security sweep in the wake of Saturday’s explosive drone attack that officials say targeted the president, jailing one of his most vocal domestic opponents and seeking the arrest of another in living in exile.

Congressmen Juan Requesens was arrested by intelligence police Tuesday evening and taken from his his east Caracas apartment, security camera footage showed. Earlier today, Venezuela’s top court ordered him tried in connection with Saturday’s attack while also issuing an arrest warrant for former National Assembly President Julio Borges.

The congressmen, both members of Venezuela’s largest opposition party, Justice First, were linked to attack through a videotaped confession of a third suspect played by Maduro to his national television audience Tuesday evening. The third man -- seen seated and handcuffed in the video though his face was digitally obscured in the playback -- accused Requesens of instructing him to kill the president. A visibly agitated Maduro later insisted that Borges was involved in the plan without providing further details.

‘I Saw Death’

“I saw death in the face and I said: This is not your time yet, this is the time for life,” Maduro said during the broadcast, showcasing bloodied military uniforms, some pierced by shrapnel. “I’m sure these assassins will receive the harshest of punishments.”

The authoritarian regime has ratcheted up pressure on its remaining domestic foes as protests simmer over the near collapse of government services and inflation that’s spiraling over 86,000 percent, according to a Bloomberg index. Following the attempt on his life, Maduro pledged to deepen his socialist project and route out so-called terrorists who seek to put an end to his rule. Opposition leaders and observers warned that the attack could serve as pretext for a new wave of repression as the government looks to divert attention from the country’s economic collapse.

‘Hired Assassins’

“They have accused us of everything, from bombarding Caracas, to being involved in military conspiracies, to being terrorists,” Borges, who fled the country earlier this year, said Wednesday in a recorded response posted on his Twitter page. “The only one promoting violence is Nicolas Maduro.”

On Wednesday, Venezuela’s omnipotent Constituent Assembly, comprised entirely of ruling-party loyalists, stripped the implicated opposition lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity so the trials could proceed. “Go find some good lawyers” Diosdado Cabello, the body’s president said as the measures were passed. “They won’t able to govern for 50 years. They’re banned."

Maduro said 11 “hired assassins” trained in Colombia were offered $50 million to kill him as part of Saturday’s thwarted attack, when two explosive drones detonated during a military parade. Military officers were wounded, but the president was left unharmed. The suspects were planning a July 5 attack that was postponed due to the delayed arrival of the two drones, according to Maduro. He added that the attackers kept track of his public appearances and were told they could eventually go to the U.S.

International Pressure

Venezuelan authorities announced Wednesday they had connected 19 people to the drone attack and would seek extraditions from Colombia and the U.S. Public Prosecutor Tarek William Saab said that three people had already been charged in the assassination attempt, while three other suspects who had manage to flee from the scene were still at large.

Requesens, 29, previously the head of one of Venezuela’s largest student unions, rose to prominence in 2014 during a wave of anti-government protests. After being elected a congressman in 2015, he continued to advocate for street demonstrations against the socialist regime, and was a key organizer of last year’s unrest that spanned months and claimed dozens of lives.

In July, congressmen Jose Manuel Olivares, who had been rallying the health sector to protest low wages, abruptly fled to Colombia after claiming to have received threats that authorities were planning to jail his wife. In response, Requesens urged fellow lawmakers to do “everything we can to remove Nicolas Maduro from power” in a session last month.

Borges, who headed the opposition-controlled congress in 2017, now resides in Bogota. During his tenure as president of the National Assembly, he traveled the globe urging world leaders to ratchet up pressure on the ruling socialists for their alleged human rights abuses. Borges also warned investors that any accords not approved by Congress would be deemed illegal, and would not be honored by a new government.

Maduro and other top-ranking officials regularly blame Borges for the government’s financial woes, accusing him of soliciting sanctions. They have warned he will face jail if he ever returns to Venezuela.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.