Masked Venezuelan intelligence police detained the vice president of the National Assembly late Wednesday in a dramatic operation in eastern Caracas, marking the first senior opposition official taken into custody by the socialist government in retaliation for a failed military uprising last week aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro.
Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano live-tweeted the detention, saying his van was surrounded by forces from Venezuela’s SEBIN police force. When he refused to exit, Zambrano said, his vehicle was forcibly towed to the infamous Helicoide prison, a notorious holding area for political prisoners.
The move came after Zambrano became one of 10 opposition officials charged with treason, conspiracy and rebellion by the pro-Maduro Supreme Court in connection to the April 30 plot.
Thus far, the leader of the uprising — opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has been recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by the United States and more than 50 other nations — has not been charged.
Zambrano’s detention — which opposition leaders feared could be the first in a sweep — drew swift American condemnation. The Trump administration has strongly backed the Venezuelan opposition, and late Wednesday, the United States threatened unspecified “consequences” if Zambrano is not released.
“The arbitrary detention of @AsambleaVE First VP Edgar Zambrano by Maduro’s oppressive security forces in Venezuela is illegal and inexcusable,” Kimberly Breier, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, wrote in a tweet late Wednesday.
The State Department pulled diplomatic staff from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas this year after severing diplomatic ties with Maduro.
“Maduro and his cronies are directly responsible for Zambrano’s safety,” Breier tweeted. “If he is not immediately released, there will be consequences.”
Though the administration appears to be conflicted over using force to drive Maduro out, it has not ruled out military intervention.
Several Latin American nations, including Argentina, Chile and Peru, also quickly denounced the detention and demanded Zambrano’s release.
Guaidó confirmed the detention in a separate tweet.
“We alert the people of Venezuela and the international community. The regime kidnapped the first vice president of the National Assembly Edgar Zambrano,” Guaidó tweeted. “They are trying to disintegrate the power that represents all Venezuelans, but it won't succeed.”
The pro-Maduro Supreme Court stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its authority in 2017, but it’s widely recognized internationally as the only democratic institution left in Venezuela, making Zambrano the second-highest opposition figure in rank after Guaidó, who is the body’s president.
Zambrano's van was surrounded by heavily armed intelligence police in black vans near the headquarters of his Democratic Action party in eastern Caracas. Dozens of party members sang the party's anthem as Zambrano resisted and refused to get out of his van — leading the special forces to tow the car away with Zambrano in it.
Zambrano tweeted: “We were surprised by the SEBIN. When we refused to leave our vehicle, they used a towing truck to bring us forcefully directly to the Helicoide.”
The move could signal a crackdown by a government that had thus far shown itself to be reluctant to arrest the senior opposition conspirators of last week’s failed plot.
At dawn on April 30, Guaidó and other opposition leaders including Zambrano made a surprise appearance at the La Carlota military air base in eastern Caracas and declared the “final phase” of their plan to oust Maduro. They called on military and civil loyalists to turn against him.
But the bid fell apart after top loyalists within the government, the military and the Supreme Court who the opposition says had secretly pledged to turn against Maduro either backed out or had been duplicitous all along.
In the hours after of the plan’s collapse, more than 20 military personnel who did rebel against Maduro sought asylum at the Brazilian Embassy, while Guaidó’s mentor — Leopoldo López, who had escaped house arrest — fled to the Spanish Embassy, where he is currently staying as “a guest.”
In various statements, the United States has suggested that arresting Guaidó would be a red line — and the socialist government has thus far dealt carefully with the opposition leader.
But it has taken legal aim at other “plotters.”
Guaidó’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, 49, has been in prison since March 21, when his house was raided before dawn by armed intelligence forces. Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said Marrero was part of a “terror cell” and that weapons had been found in his apartment. Marrero’s team said the weapons were planted and denied the terrorism charges.
The Supreme Court this week charged 10 opposition officials, including Zambrano, with treason and other high crimes. The pro-government legislature known as the Constituent Assembly has also lifted the immunity from prosecution granted to lawmakers for seven of the 10 opposition officials, also including Zambrano. Some of those officials who have had their immunity lifted have sought sanctuary in other embassies in Caracas. But Zambrano had refused to do so and continued to participate in National Assembly sessions.
During a session on Tuesday, he said, “We have to assume, with courage and democratic will, the calling of our people who are suffering the dramatic consequences of this political model.”
In the past week, the socialist government has also detained 82 street protesters, according to Foro Penal, a nonprofit legal group that defends and denounces political imprisonments. Three hundred people have been injured at protests, including at least 40 wounded by bullets, and four killed. There are currently more than 800 political prisoners in the country.