Ex-Venezuela spy chief says Maduro ordered illegal arrests

LUIS ALONSO LUGO
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Venezuela Maduros Spy Chief

In this July 2, 2019, photo, Gen. Manuel Cristopher, former head of Venezuela's feared SEBIN intelligence agency, poses for a portrait in Washington. In a show of nerve, he betrayed Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro, the man he met with almost every day, and secretly plotted with his enemies to launch a short-lived military uprising that Cristopher says was tantalizingly close to ousting the embattled leader. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Cruising around Caracas in a convoy with five cellphones full of valuable contacts, Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera displayed trappings that befitted his reputation as a loyal soldier who rose from an upbringing in a dirt-floored hut to become Venezuela's spy chief.

But as President Nicolás Maduro began to lean on the brawny 55-year-old to do his dirty work — in Cristopher Figuera's telling, ordering him to jail opponents and victims of torture — the Cuban and Belarusian-trained intelligence officer gradually lost faith. In a show of nerve, he betrayed the leader he met with almost daily and secretly plotted to launch a military uprising that he said came close to ousting Maduro.

Now one of the most prominent defectors in two decades of socialist rule in Venezuela has come to Washington seeking revenge against his former boss. He is looking to help the same U.S. "empire" he was taught to hate investigate human-rights violations and corruption. On Tuesday, he met with the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams.

It's unclear whether Cristopher Figuera still has influence inside the government and can collect evidence against his former comrades. But he's talking a big game.

"I'm like a soldier who raises the flag upside-down to signal distress," Cristopher Figuera told The Associated Press. "My mission is to seek help to free my country from disgrace."

In a daylong interview from the presidential suite of a Washington hotel, Cristopher Figuera for the first time provided details of what he said was Maduro's personal commissioning of abuses, including arbitrary detentions and the planting of evidence against opponents. The allegations, which the AP was unable to verify, come as scrutiny of the Maduro government's human rights record intensifies. A naval officer died in state custody last week with apparent signs of torture. His death came ahead of the release Friday of a report by a United Nations fact-finding mission.

As the deputy head of military counterintelligence and then director of the feared SEBIN intelligence police, Cristopher Figuera stood alongside Maduro as Venezuela was coming apart. During the freefall, he said, he witnessed and played a role in abuses, including not speaking out when confronted with evidence of torture by others and the arbitrary detention of a prominent journalist.

But he said Maduro's most-brazen order — and one of Cristopher Figuera's biggest regrets — was his role trying to break opposition leader Juan Guaidó's resolve by going after his inner circle.

Initially, he said, Maduro wanted to arrest Guaido's mother. When Cristopher Figuera pointed out that she was undergoing cancer treatment, the focus shifted to Roberto Marrero, Guaidó's chief of staff, who has been held since March on accusations of running a "terrorist cell" bent on carrying out assassinations.

Cristopher Figuera said he then told Maduro that he did not have legal cause.

"How can I jail him?" Cristopher Figuera recalled asking Maduro in a tense meeting with top officials at Fort Tiuna in Caracas less than 72 hours before a violent raid on Marrero's house. "He told me, 'That's not my problem. Plant some weapons on him. Do what you have to do.'"

Then followed a discussion on where to get the weapons. Cristopher Figuera suggested asking Gen. Vladimir Padrino, the defense minister, but Maduro told him to seek out another general, whose name he asked the AP not to disclose because of security concerns.

"And that's what we did," Cristopher Figuera said. "He planted the weapons, facilitating the operation, and from the SEBIN directorate I carried out the arrest."

Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez, a top Maduro aide, did not respond to a text message and email seeking comment.

For what he called his "co-responsibility" in Marrero's arrest and other arbitrary detentions, Cristopher Figuera expects one day to be called as a witness by the International Criminal Court, which is carrying out a preliminary investigation into the Maduro government at the request of several Latin American nations, France and Canada.

But he said he sleeps with a clear conscience because he never personally ordered or participated in acts of torture, even though he was sometimes asked by other security forces to take in high-profile detainees after severe beatings. During his six-month tenure at SEBIN, he said, conditions improved at the famed Helicoide prison, where key anti-government activists are held, with prisoners allowed more frequent access to their lawyers and doctors.

He said he also released dozens of prisoners who were being held by other authorities for huge sums of money, sometimes for more than a year, despite court orders for their release.

"This was a center of extortion and kidnapping," he said. "I tried to change things, but there's an entrenched culture."

Still, he acknowledges that he obediently carried out orders to spy on 40 or so of Maduro's top opponents, using wiretaps as well as electronic and on-the-streets surveillance, and reporting to his boss every two hours any noteworthy movements.

Cristopher Figuera still considers himself a Chavista — an admirer of the late Hugo Chávez — and his relationship with his newfound allies in the opposition can sometimes be rocky. For example, he still praises Cuba and rejects claims that there are 25,000 Cuban security forces in Venezuela. He puts the number at 15,000, the vast majority of them doctors sent in exchange for cheap oil.

While a coterie of about 15 Cubans make up Maduro's security detail, even serving as food tasters, he said their role inside the intelligence agencies was limited to planning and training agents, not participating in operations.

"The opposition doesn't have adequate information. They reject and stigmatize the Cubans," he said.

He claims to have tried to persuade Maduro to change course, sending him a two-page letter in early April that urged him to appoint a new electoral council and call early elections. He thought the move would have been a strategic retrenchment to regain the upper hand amid mounting international pressure.

"My commander in chief," the missive begins, "I respectfully recommend that you put the political agenda before the polarization between the government and the opposition." The letter, a copy of which he provided to the AP, references a battle from the mid-19th century civil war in which a popular general "ceded territory to the enemy to win time and then overcome his adversary."

His plea was ignored. Days later, with the help of a Miami-based Venezuelan businessman who wooed him to the opposition's side, Cristopher Figuera said he was riding around town trying to craft an elaborate exit plan for Maduro with Padrino and Maikel Moreno, the head of the supreme court. On April 30, Guaidó appeared before dawn on a highway overpass alongside dozens of troops and his mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, who SEBIN agents let walk from house arrest.

When the plan blew up — he said Moreno never issued a promised ruling recognizing Guaidó, and a broader barracks revolt never materialized — Cristopher Figuera fled to Colombia. Two weeks later, his top deputy, Maj. Jesus García, showed up dead in a rent-by-hour motel in what Cristopher Figuera believes was a retaliatory killing designed to keep him silent.

As someone who until recently was branded a torturer, he knows the road to redemption, like Venezuela's path to reconciliation, will be long. He hopes to begin by sharing with U.S. law enforcement all he knows about what he calls Maduro's "criminal enterprise." He also wants to be heard by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, whose report on her recent visit to Venezuela will be closely watched.

"I am partly responsible," he said. "But I couldn't grab a gun and shoot him. I didn't want to make him a victim."

The U.S. in February added Cristopher Figuera to a list of more than 100 sanctioned Venezuela officials, accusing him of overseeing "mass torture, mass human rights violations and mass persecution against those who want democratic change in Venezuela."

But he was removed from the blacklist shortly after he defected and recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful president in an effort by the Trump administration to spur other Maduro loyalists to flip. So far none has.

Meanwhile, Maduro has blasted Cristopher Figuera as a traitor who worked as a CIA mole for more than a year. He denies the allegations but said that at Maduro's orders he met with the CIA in the Dominican Republic in March 2018 on a mission to seek some sort of truce that would have involved the release of American citizen Joshua Holt, who had been held for nearly two years on what were seen as trumped-up weapons charges. The release would have been in exchange for shielding from oil sanctions.

"I went there afraid," he said of the meeting. "Perhaps because we're so influenced by so many Hollywood movies, but I thought maybe these guys will disappear me."

For the AP interview, he insisted on dressing in his olive-green uniform covered with medals — the first time he's worn the Prussian-styled attire since going into exile. With his deep baritone and gallows humor, he cuts an intimidating figure. Among his fellow plotters in the failed uprising, the Afro-Venezuelan was known by the code name Black Panther.

"Maduro arbitrarily degraded me and expelled me from the armed forces," he said with a stern brow. "But I'm still proud of what I am: a soldier and a patriot who is fighting for the freedom of my people."

He said he's in constant contact with high-level officials — generals, deputy ministers and heads of government institutions — all of whom despise Maduro and want to see him leave but are afraid to act. Guaidó's "Operation Liberty," which began with the April rebellion, is only beginning, he said, and Cristopher Figuera hopes to return home soon.

"In many ways," he added, "I'm still the counterintelligence director."

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Associated Press Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report. Follow Luis Alonso Lugo on Twitter: https://twitter.com/luisalonsolugo .