The apparent murder of a young lawmaker close to Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro is threatening to inflame the country's political tensions again.
Robert Serra, 27, and his partner, Maria Herrera, were found stabbed to death inside their residence in a rough neighborhood of Caracas, the capital, late Wednesday, and justice minister Miguel Rodriguez told reporters that the killing was carried out by skilled assassins, not common criminals. Rodriguez stopped short of assigning blame, but he characterized the attacks as a "contract killing."
That has left it up to Venezuelans to speculate who might have wanted Serra dead. "We are looking at an intentional homicide that was planned and carried out with great precision," Rodriguez said at a televised press conference Thursday, saying that the killers possessed "technical expertise."
In recent weeks, the government says it has uncovered "terrorist" plans to attack public institutions and infrastructure, saying that right-wing groups in neighboring Colombia were helping anti-government militants to plot Maduro's ouster. Venezuela's opposition accuses the Maduro government of inflating such threats in order to justify its crackdown on non-violent protest.
Serra was a well-known youth leader within the United Socialist (PSUV) party who distinguished himself in 2007 at the head of student rallies in support of now-deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. During Venezuela's more recent wave of anti-government demonstrations and roadblocks, Serra was one of Maduro's most ardent defenders, frequently denouncing protestors for allegedly trying to topple the president by force.
"Robert we'll follow your example, loyal and firm on the Path of the Revolution you have always defended with passion," Maduro posted on his Twitter account.
Earlier Thursday, Rodríguez urged members of Serra's party and other pro-government youths to "remain calm" while the investigation proceeded.
"We will find those responsible for this monstrosity," he said.
The deaths added to a series of homicides involving high-profile Venezuelans in recent months, including the January slaying of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear by highway bandits.
Venezuela's homicide rate is one of the highest in the world, and the country's worsening crime problems were a catalyst for the anti-Maduro street protests that roiled the country earlier this year and left at least 40 dead.
Last month, Maduro began calling on Venezuelans to voluntarily turn in their weapons to police. Critics say it’s a fantasy to think that such an appeal will decrease violence, and they urge the government to overhaul the country’s police and security forces.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles also lamented Serra's death on social media. "The death of any Venezuelan deserves our most energetic rejection, a national outcry for the violence to end, peace upon the soul of Robert Serra," he wrote.
Justice minister Rodriguez warned Venezuela's opposition not to turn the killings into what he called "a media show," and urged Venezuelans "of good conscience" to distance themselves from any attempt to use the attacks for political purposes.
Venezuelans critical of the government depicted the murders on social media as a comeuppance for Maduro, blaming him for the country's crime wave.
This post has been updated from an earlier version.