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Venezuela: New hire by mayor of Caracas stirs fears

BY Steven Dudley and Phil Gunson | The Miami Herald

Posted on Mon, Dec. 06, 2004 - CARACAS - Alberto Carias' résumé does not read like that of most top municipal security officials:

Teenage militant in an urban guerrilla group, Bandera Roja. Arrested in 1978 for planting an explosive in a church, and in 1979 for allegedly killing a policeman. Assistant to leftist Salvadoran guerrillas in the 1980s. Joined the Tupamaros, a vigilante/criminal Caracas gang. Took part in then-army Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez's failed coup attempt in 1992.

And now, after a stint as what he calls ''guerrillas in the darkness'' supporting Chávez's democratically elected government, deputy secretary of urban security for the newly elected mayor of Caracas and former pro-Chávez legislator, Juan Barreto.

Carias' appointment, say critics, is a sign of the government's increasingly intimidating style that in the past has oscillated between firing judges who decide against government policy to organizing marches alongside opposition protests. Formally securing the stewardship of the likes of Carias, they say, is another step toward quelling internal dissent.

''The Tupamaros have become the political arm of the Chávez movement,'' said Alberto Garrido, who has written 12 books on Chávez. ``This is a paramilitary group.''

Since Barreto's election Oct. 31, the pudgy middle-aged Carias, widely recognized as ''ideological director'' of the Tupamaros, has been helping the mayor to restructure the Caracas Metropolitan Police.

But unofficially, Carias does what he's always done for the government: protect Chávez's leftist-nationalist ''Bolivarian revolution'' on behalf of Venezuela's poor.


''We are a guerrilla force. We have taken off the masks, but we won't turn over our weapons,'' he told The Herald during an interview in Barreto's parliamentary office.

Carias' presence there may surprise some, but his role in Chavez's government is increasingly public as the president's power rises. After sweeping the October elections, Chávez backers control Congress, 21 of 23 governorships and the capital.

'These guns are to protect a constitution and a president ratified three times by the people, to defend the people and, most of all, to defend the `nobodies,' '' Carias said.

The Venezuelan Tupamaros have their origins in a failed urban guerrilla movement in Uruguay that used the same name.

When the military government in that country crushed the group in the 1970s, some of its members fled to places like Caracas, where they rustled up recruits and were one of many vigilante and criminal gangs in the shanties on the western edge of the city.

Carias says the group made contact with Chávez in the 1980s while Chávez was still in the army.

Chávez eventually recruited them to help him stage a coup against President Carlos Andres Pérez in 1992. Carias says he and his men fought in the coup, which failed. Carias went to jail.

When he got out, he aligned his forces with Chávez's new political party, the Fifth Republic Movement. Now Barreto, one of Carias's longtime associates, has brought the Tupamaro into the government's fold.

It might look to some like putting the fox in charge of the hens. But Barreto sees nothing odd in having former urban guerrillas ''restructure'' an old enemy, the Metropolitan Police, once controlled by his anti-Chávez predecessor.

''The Tupamaros are a legally constituted party,'' Barreto told reporters recently.

''When I look at the résumés and the professional attitude of potential colleagues, I'm not looking to see what movement or political force they belong to,'' he said.

The mayor has appointed Carias and another leading Tupamaro to a ''restructuring commission.'' The Tupamaro leadership has said they do not officially represent their organization, but do not hide their affiliation either. Their job will be to recommend ways of putting the police force, with which they have often traded shots, ``at the service of the people.''

During the early years of the Chávez government, the Tupamaros allegedly specialized in executing local hoodlums and drug-traffickers, many of them thought to be in league with crooked cops. They also carried out minor bombings in pursuit of their leftist cause. At clandestine news conferences they wore camouflage fatigues and ski masks and brandished automatic rifles.

Although they claim to have ''hung up'' their weapons, they have a dual identity.

''The Tupamaros have moved very intelligently,'' Garrido said. ``They've promoted themselves as a vigilante group and grew as a quasi-police force. And they control [the poor neighborhoods] as a parallel force.''

The Tupamaros' presence in the government troubles some because of their continued ties to violent groups. Carias says his organization maintains links with another urban vigilante group, the Carapaicas, as well as a pro-Chávez rural guerrilla organization known as the Bolivarian Liberation Forces.


Carias also says his group has ''fluid communication'' with foreign guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. ''I can't say anymore about that,'' he added.

Nor will Carias reveal how many members the Tupamaros have, although Garrido says they've had a growth spurt in the past two years.

But not everything is rosy within the Tupamaros' ranks. The group has a policy of ''critical support'' for the Chávez government, and some members are allegedly unhappy about the role Barreto has assigned them.

For his part, Carias exudes an air of confidence about the future.

''God knows what he's doing,'' Carias said. ``[And] God pegged us to govern.''

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