Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido under pressure over alleged misappropriation of aid funds

Harriet Alexander
Guaido said his representatives in Colombia are cooperating with the authorities - Getty Images South America

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido has launched an investigation after two members of his team allegedly stole money destined to help deserting Venezuelans soldiers in Colombia.

The pair, Kevin Rojas and Rossana Barrera – sister-in-law of opposition politician Sergio Vergara, Mr Guaido’s right-hand man – are accused of taking the money designated for supporting Venezuelans in the Colombian border town of Cucuta and blowing it on hotels, clubs, designer clothes and cars.

A failed attempt to get humanitarian aid into the country on February 23 saw more than 40 soldiers abandon President Nicolas Maduro and swear allegiance to his rival, Mr Maduro. Within three days, that number had swollen to 270 and Mr Guaido, in Cucuta to try and push the aid into Venezuela, praised the deserting soldiers as heroes.

He officially designated Mr Rojas and Ms Barrera with the task of caring for the soldiers, who had defected at enormous risk to themselves and their families.

Yet Colombian police became suspicious when Mr Rojas and Ms Barrera began living a lavish lifestyle and burning through money.

Colombia's President Ivan Duque, left, greets Venezuelan soldiers who defected as he visits the border area near Cucuta on February 23

In one night alone, according to the PanAm Post, they spent over three million Colombian pesos (£700) in a nightclub and hotel.

Ms Barrera, the website reported, told Mr Guaido’s team in Caracas that she was paying for seven hotels in Cucuta, used to house the soldiers.

Yet in reality she was only paying for two; the other five hotels were paid for by Colombia’s government and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

She also claimed there were 1,450 soldiers in her care; in reality the figure was 700.

In mid May Ms Barreras, using a false email, invited members of the Bogota diplomatic elite to a fundraiser at the exclusive Pajares Salina restaurant in the city. She said the event was organised by Mr Guaido’s appointed “ambassador” to Colombia, Humberto Calderon Berti.

The fundraiser was cancelled when Mr Calderon’s team alerted other diplomatic missions in Bogota that they were not behind the event.

Aerial picture showing smoke billowing from trucks which were carrying humanitarian aid and which were set ablaze on the Francisco de Paula Santander International Bridge between Cucuta in Colombia (left) and Urena (right) in Venezuela, on February 23

Colombian authorities are said to have caught on to the excessive spending and misappropriation of funds and alerted Mr Guaido and fellow Popular Will leader Leopoldo Lopez, but reportedly received no response.

Finally, on May 27 Mr Calderon’s team called a meeting in Cucuta, and asked Ms Barrera to show her accounts. She informed them she had spent $100,000 (£80,000), but was unable to provide substantial receipts, the website claimed.

On Monday Mr Guaido said there would be a full investigation.

"Dictatorships cover up corruption," he tweeted. "We don't."

Ms Barrera and Mr Rojas are believed to still be in Colombia.

He announced that he was appointing Lester Toledo, coordinator of the humanitarian aid, to oversee the inquiry.

Juan Guaido stands on a lorry carrying humanitarian aid in Cucuta on February 23. It failed to pass the border

“We are fulfilling our promise regarding humanitarian aid with firmness and transparency,” he said. “I’ve told Lester Toledo to head an investigation into Colombia and provide a statement to all the press and international allies.”

Mr Toledo on Tuesday demanded prison sentences for those found guilty of corruption, saying they had asked the Colombian attorney general to open an investigation.

He also insisted that the $213 million (£169m) in aid sent by the United States was managed directly by Washington, and had never entered Mr Guaido’s hands.

The scandal has dealt a serious blow to Mr Guaido’s team, however, and has been seized upon by Mr Maduro.

A recent poll by opposition-aligned Datincorp found only 36 per cent of Venezuelans recognise Mr Guaido as head of state, down from 49 per cent in February.

Mr Maduro, whom Mr Guaido has repeatedly vowed to remove from office, has seen his recognition increase from 34 per cent in February to 41 per cent in June.

He has been quick to highlight the alleged opposition theft, saying it shows Mr Guaido's camp cannot be trusted.

"Corruption isn't new in the opposition," he said. "The evidence is coming out."