AP Exclusive: Troops that defied Maduro have fled Venezuela

International

In this Nov. 8, 2019 photo, Venezuelan soldiers, who took part in a failed April rebellion against Nicolas Maduro, stand in a prayer circle inside Panama’s Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. The group of 16 Venezuelan guardsmen who were holed up for seven months in the foreign embassy after revolting against Maduro said they have managed to flee the country. (AP Photo)

MIAMI (AP) — For seven nerve-wracking months, they slept through the day in cramped quarters on cold floors, while spending their nights in prayer, keeping fit with dumbbells made from water jugs and peering through the diplomatic compound’s curtains for fear of surveillance.

But on Monday, 16 national guardsmen who shocked Venezuela and the world alike by revolting on April 30 against President Nicolás Maduro were safely out of the country, having successfully fled the Panamanian embassy in Caracas that had been their makeshift home.

The Associated Press spoke exclusively to the group’s leaders, who provided the first detailed account of what led them to plot with Maduro’s opponents in an uprising that laid bare fraying support for the socialist leader within the armed forces.

Due to security concerns, lieutenant colonels Illich Sánchez and Rafael Soto wouldn’t reveal their location, or say exactly when or how they left Venezuela. They only said they journeyed in small groups as part of a clandestine “military operation” that counted with the support of dozens of low-ranking troops and their commanders.

“We want to clarify to all of the Venezuelan people that the decision taken April 30 was in fulfillment of the constitution, the republic’s laws and our democratic institutions,” Sánchez said in a handwritten missive sent to the AP confirming that he and the other 16 troops had all safely left the country.

The previously untold story of how Sánchez and Soto managed to dupe their superiors and plot a revolt against Maduro underscores how discontent — and fear — has been running high inside Venezuela’s barracks even as the embattled leader clings to power amid punishing U.S. sanctions imposed after a presidential election last year many say was fraudulent.

In their telling, the two longtime friends grew disillusioned watching the devastating collapse of Venezuela’s economy and started secretly plotting to remove Maduro. Eventually they teamed up with Maduro’s opponents led by National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, who is recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by the U.S. and some 60 countries.

On April 30, they stunned Venezuelans by appearing before dawn with tanks and heavily armed troops on a bridge in eastern Caracas alongside Guaidó and activist Leopoldo López, who they helped spring from what they considered an illegal house arrest.

“When I gathered my troops at 2 a.m. and told them we were going to liberate Venezuela they broke down in tears,” said Sánchez, who in a photo taken on Monday was still wearing the same Under Armour hoodie he used to sneak into the Panamanian embassy. “Nobody saw it coming, but they were all immediately committed.”

Adds Soto: “Everything was perfectly lined up for a peaceful transition.”

In hindsight the two standout officers seemed fated for the high-risk mission, having both risen through the ranks to a trusted position with direct control of troops and regular contact with Maduro’s top aides and Cabinet members.

Sánchez, 41, commanded a garrison of some 500 guardsmen responsible for protecting downtown government buildings including the presidential palace, supreme court and — most importantly — the opposition-controlled congress.

That unique position gave him cover to win the trust of opposition lawmakers, even if on tumultuous days he had to do things such as forcibly remove activists who chained themselves to the legislature.

“The only military officer authorized in Venezuela to talk to the opposition was me,” said Sánchez. “But in a polarized country, where things are either black or white, I couldn’t risk taking a political position openly.”

Soto, 43, for a time was assigned to the feared SEBIN intelligence police, leading a team of some 150 agents charged with spying on government opponents. That training gave him the assurances he needed to know how to safely communicate with fellow plotters.

In what he considers an “act of destiny,” he met López in 2018 when he was sent to his home — where the opposition leader had been transferred to finish a 14-year sentence for inciting violence — to look for a cellphone with an American chip that he had been using to communicate clandestinely.

But instead of conducting a sweep, he spent an hour talking to Venezuela’s top political prisoner, exchanging views about the country’s situation and even snapping a photo of the two together for his wife, an admirer.

“That’s where I planted a seed,” said Soto. “I managed to convince him that not all of the military was with the revolution.”

Echoing claims by the Trump administration, the two men said they were defrauded by Maduro aides, including Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, who they say ditched at the last minute a promise made to the opposition to abandon their support for Maduro. Both Moreno and Padrino have repeatedly asserted their loyalty to Maduro.

In the confusing aftermath of the failed rebellion, they scurried for protection on the back of motorcycles, stripping off their olive green fatigues and knocking, unsuccessfully at first, on several embassy doors.

Amid the chaos, López phoned then Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, who immediately embraced their cause and worked through the night personally guaranteeing their safe arrival to the embassy.

Varela in an interview recalled how two months before the U.S. invasion of Panama, in 1989, then-dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega crushed a similar revolt and then ordered the execution of more than 10 ringleaders.

“We couldn’t leave them alone,” Varela, who left office in July, told the AP. “The Sebin was 10 feet from the door. They were going to kill them all.”

Venezuela’s government has yet to comment but shortly after the failed putsch Maduro accused the men of belonging to a small pocket of “traitors” who had been hoodwinked by “far right coup mongers” backed by the U.S. Several other alleged conspirators were jailed, all were expelled and one naval captain accused of seeking to assassinate Maduro died in state custody with what his lawyer said were signs of torture.

Underscoring the risks associated with guardsmen’s flight, regional military commanders in recent days were instructed to be on high alert for the men, who they identified by photos and ID.

“Remember, they are armed and are looking to sow chaos,” reads the message, a copy of which was provided by Sánchez.

The embassy, in an upscale high-rise, would become their spartan, heavily surveilled home for the next seven months. Both men said the “humanitarian support” provided by the embassy’s staff and the Panamanian people ensured their safety.

While confined, the 16 guardsmen worked hard to maintain military discipline.

To keep out of their host’s way, they adopted an inverted sleep schedule, dozing during the day on thin mattresses strewn across the floor of a small room. Then at night, after the diplomats went home, they’d stumble out of bed to cook together on a small stove top, keep fit with dumbbells improvised from 20-liter water bottles and read religious texts in a prayer circle. Sanchez compared it Anne Frank’s cloistered hideaway from the Nazis in a secret attic.

Guaido celebrated the safe departure from the embassy of the “Venezuelan military patriots.”

“We will always protect those who stand up for the constitution,” he said on Twitter,

Soto and Sánchez cemented their friendship as young cadets, before Hugo Chavéz had come to power and upended Venezuela’s armed forces, purging anyone suspected of disloyalty. They said their loyalty was always to the institution they served, not Chavez’s revolution, and managed to win the trust of top officials by demonstrating a high level of professionalism.

They secretly turned against Chavez’s revolution in 2007, after the leftist firebrand tried to change Venezuela’s constitution to abolish presidential term limits. But at the time they lacked the ability to push for change.

“I didn’t want to stake a radical position and become another martyr,” said Sánchez. “I had to wait for my moment.”

The brutal 2018 killing of renegade police officer Oscar Pérez in a military raid on his hideout magnified the dangers they faced but also stiffened their resolve. When Guaidó declared himself interim president with the backing of the U.S. in January, the two entered headlong into a compartmentalized conspiracy with members of the opposition.

Around the same time, Soto was arrested as part of a roundup of suspected plotters inside the national guard. But after a harrowing week in the dungeons of military counterintelligence, in which he said his head was covered and he was under a constant threat of torture, his one-time boss, SEBIN director Gen. Gustavo Gonzalez López, personally came to pull him out of jail.

“He only half believed in my innocence,” said Soto. “But it wasn’t convenient for him that someone who he completely trusted was there, because he could’ve been singled out next.”

The two men’s admiration for López runs deep despite misgivings within the opposition itself about the wisdom and planning that went into the surprise uprising, much of it unknown to all but a small circle. In the run-up to the uprising, the two even managed to get past the security detail stationed outside López’s home and discuss plans face-to-face.

“We spoke easily because I knew exactly what the government was monitoring, and what we could and couldn’t say,” said Soto about the tense, adrenaline-filled two weeks prior to the uprising.

After the uprising, López — from the Spanish ambassador’s residence, where he took refuge — took care of their everyday needs to make sure morale stayed high during the long ordeal. Every Saturday they cooked hamburgers donated by opposition well-wishers.

Now, in exile, their plans are uncertain but finally they will be reunited with their families, who were granted asylum in Panama after fleeing themselves when the uprising failed.

“We left Venezuela,” said Sánchez from an undisclosed location, “but our fight to restore Venezuela’s democracy will continue.”

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman

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