CARACAS, Venezuela — Two top military officials were arrested Tuesday in Caracas as part of an investigation into what the government called an “assassination attempt” against President Nicolás Maduro earlier this month.
Col. Pedro Zambrano and Gen. Alejandro Pérez appeared in court on Monday, chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab said in a televised speech. He did not offer details about the charges.
The two are among 14 men jailed after an attack in Caracas involving two drones, which caused panic and injured several people but left Maduro unscathed. At least 20 other suspects remain at large, Saab said.
Critics say the government is using the drone incident as an excuse to intensify its campaign against political and military dissidents, and to divert attention from Venezuela’s deepening economic crisis, which is marked by hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
A third senior military officer, Gen. Héctor Hernández, was detained late Monday but was not mentioned in Saab’s address. The reasons behind his arrest are still unknown.
“I declare myself innocent of anything I’m perversely accused of,” Hernández said in a video recorded shortly before his arrest and posted by local journalists on social media. In another video, his family members are seen shouting at intelligence service officers as they attempted to enter his apartment. “Stop violating the constitution,” one relative yelled loudly.
Military experts say Hernández’s arrest, in particular, surprised and unnerved soldiers, given his reputation. “He is a man with lots of prestige within the institution,” said Rocío San Miguel, a military analyst and activist.
“The latest arrests show once again that there’s profound instability within the armed forces,” she said.
Arrests of members of the armed forces have risen, experts say, as thousands of soldiers desert because of paychecks eaten up by inflation. Others remain but have become increasingly dissatisfied. This year, San Miguel said, “military detentions have become systematic.”
Last year, a police officer, Oscar Pérez, was killed by security forces who tracked him down months after he threw grenades from a helicopter at the Supreme Court in what was seen as an attack on the government.
The government has claimed that the Aug. 4 drone attack was carried out by a group of men trained by paramilitary forces in neighboring Colombia, in a plot involving Florida residents and Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia. Santos, who left office when his term expired Aug. 7, shortly after the drone attack, dismissed the idea as absurd.
Among those detained in the wake of the drone attack was Juan Requesens, a 29-year-old opposition legislator. He has been charged with treason, terrorism and attempted homicide.
After his family and colleagues insisted on the lawmaker’s innocence, the government broadcast a video last week in which he appeared to confess to playing a role in the attack. In it, Requesens said he got a call from another legislator accused of involvement in the plot — Julio Borges, the former leader of the National Assembly — asking for help in smuggling one of the plotters to Colombia.
But another video that was widely shared on social media indicated that Requesens may have been tortured.
Borges, who is in exile in Colombia, told The Washington Post in Bogota recently that Requesens was forced to tell lies and that he knew nothing about the people mentioned in the confession. Borges has been charged with involvement in an attempted homicide in connection with the drone attack.
“There is nothing that is not in chaos in Venezuela right now, and like always for dictatorships, to cover and divert attention is the objective,” Borges said in the interview.