Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan politician fighting to topple Nicolás Maduro, is facing awkward questions about his relationship with organised crime after the publication of compromising photographs showing him with two Colombian paramilitaries.
In an interview on Friday, Guaidó played down the significance of the pictures, in which he posed alongside two members of the Colombian criminal gang the Rastrojos identified as El Brother and El Menor.
The photos appear to have been taken on 22 February as Guaidó used an illegal border crossing to sneak across Venezuela’s western border into Colombia to attend a Live Aid-style concert in the town of Cúcuta.
“I took hundreds of photos that day,” Guaidó told the Colombian broadcaster Blu Radio. “It was hard to know who was asking for a photo. Misconstruing these photos means playing the Maduro regime’s game.”
Lo dijimos desde el primer día: la entrada a Colombia el 23 de febrero del sr @jguaido fue coordinada con los Rastrojos. Aquí están alias el brother armado, y el segundo al mando de este grupo paramilitar, alias el menor. pic.twitter.com/qflAYBgWQf— WILFREDO CAÑIZARES (@wilcan91) September 12, 2019
On Friday Venezuela’s state prosecutor’s office said it would open an investigation into the photos.
Analysts said the images had the potential to cause severe harm to Guaidó’s credibility and his nine-month quest to force Maduro from power.
The Rastrojos are a drug-trafficking group with paramilitary origins who operate on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border. As well as the cocaine trade, they are engaged in illegal mining, kidnapping for ransom and extortion.
Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based expert for Crisis Group, said: “I think it is extremely damaging. Regardless of whether this was as innocent as they claim – which is rather hard to believe – or whether there was something more to it, it looks so bad.”
Gunson said the photos handed “a huge propaganda victory” to Maduro’s government, which is fending off accusations of ties to leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers.
Maduro sought to exploit the scandal on Thursday, claiming the images were definitive evidence of Guaidó’s ties to “paracos, murderers and narco-traffickers”.
In a televised speech, Maduro declared: “The connection between Colombian narco-trafficking and the Venezuelan right is right there in the photo. No one can deny it.”
Another senior Chavista, Freddy Bernal, claimed the photos were proof of “the criminal alliance between [Venezuela’s] fascist right” and paramilitary and terrorist groups. Maduro’s main propaganda channels also gave the scandal top billing.
Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s ambassador to the United States, rejected those claims. “There is no connection between Juan Guaidó’s interim government [and] any paramilitary or guerrilla group. Zero, zero,” he told the Colombian newspaper El Espectador.
Gunson said that whatever the truth, the photos showed “unbelievable naivety” and were an embarrassment to the international coalition backing Guaidó, which includes the US, Colombia, Brazil and the UK.
“It could almost not have come at a worse time for Guaidó,” Gunson said, pointing to the Colombian government’s plans to denounce Maduro’s ties to leftist guerrillas at the UN general assembly later this month.
Gunson said Guaidó’s claim not to have realised who he was posing with was “frankly not credible … [One of them] looks like a paramilitary out of central casting.”
The photos were published on Thursday by Wilfredo Cañizales, the director of a human rights group in Cúcuta, where February’s highly politicised concert was held.
Speaking to the Guardian, Cañizales claimed the Rastrojos had imposed a curfew along the border before Guaidó’s crossing into Colombia “to make sure no locals would take photos of him crossing illegally through the hidden paths”.
Cañizales declined to say how he had obtained the photos or why he had decided to publish them but said: “The Rastrojos are paramilitaries. They are the ones in this region who decide who lives and who dies.”
Gunson said the photos also posed uncomfortable questions for Guaidó’s backers in the Colombian government and their possible links with paramilitary groups. “There’s a lot of questions that haven’t been answered,” he said.