According to Western corporate media outlets and human rights groups, Venezuela’s far-right opposition leader Leopoldo López is a hallowed saint.
The New York Times glorified López as the would-be “savior” of Venezuela, akin to none other than Martin Luther King Jr., while Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have dubbed him a noble “prisoner of conscience” and “Venezuela’s most prominent political prisoner.”
The real Leopoldo López, however, has repeatedly shown himself to be a violent extremist committed to overthrowing Venezuela’s government no matter the cost. And the right-wing political opposition factions under his control have revealed links to drug trafficking, death squads, and organized crime in neighboring Colombia.
This December, López traveled to Colombia for a series of meetings and photo ops. He flew to the country’s border with Venezuela on a plane registered with a Florida-based company that had sold an aircraft to a Colombian who was busted for trafficking hundreds of kilograms of cocaine in Honduras.
López proceeded to meet with far-right Colombian politicians who are closely connected to drug cartels and paramilitaries that have massacred civilians. His hosts included the notoriously corrupt former President Álvaro Uribe, and his handpicked successor, Iván Duque.
Colombia has helped support some of López’s radical right-wing regime-change plots, including an attempted invasion of Venezuela in May 2020.
While top Colombian officials demonize their neighbor’s elected Chavista government as a “dictatorship,” López’s meetings in Colombia took place the same week as the 86th massacre of human rights defenders in the country that year, with a death toll of more than 290 social movement activists.
The role of the US government in sponsoring Venezuela’s extreme right-wing opposition is well known. The support that Venezuela’s anti-Chavista opposition has received from government institutions, paramilitaries, drug cartels, and organized crime networks in neighboring Colombia is however less well understood.
At the height of the US-backed regime-change attempt in 2019, Venezuelan coup leader Juan Guaidó – a protegé of Leopoldo López – was photographed meeting with members of the Rastrojos, a Colombian paramilitary involved in drug trafficking.
The Rastrojos have been responsible for massacres of civilians, political assassinations, drug trafficking, weapons dealing, and kidnappings. The paramilitary group is linked to former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who met with Leopoldo López in December 2020.
Photos from February 2019 showed Guaidó posing with two leaders of the paramilitary group – Alberto Lobo Quintero, known as “el Broder,” and Jhon Jairo Durán, known as “el Menor.”
These drug traffickers reportedly helped Guaidó illegally cross the border into Colombia to carry out a US-backed coup attempt on February 23, in which opposition hooligans supported by Washington tried to ram a truck full of US supplies across a bridge into Venezuela, but ended up setting the convoy on fire instead.
While Juan Guaidó was selected as interim president because of his former position in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, he was little more than a stand-in for the Venezuelan right-wing’s kingmaker: Leopoldo López Mendoza, scion of one of Venezuela’s most influential oligarchic clans.
Since leftist leader Hugo Chávez won his first presidential election in 1998, López has reigned over an extremist right-wing hellbent on removing him from power. López has helped oversee numerous violent coup attempts in Venezuela, and was a leading force behind the bloody “guarimba” barricades that paralyzed the country.
In April 2002, when the military briefly overthrew President Chávez, López was mayor of the affluent Chacao municipality in Caracas. López directly assisted the coup by leading a mob that surrounded the house of a government minister, brutalized the top-level official in the street, then kidnapped him. Latin America expert Greg Grandin described López years later as “a thug. Ted Cruz with a mob.”
Flush with US financial support, López helped found the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party that became a vehicle for Guaidó’s bid for regime change.
Venezuelan political analyst Diego Sequera explained to The Grayzone, “Leopoldo López is the only Venezuelan that actually the US government really cares about; everyone else is just prop; it’s just like secondary characters.”
In May 2020, a group of mercenaries backed by a US firm linked to the Donald Trump administration tried to invade Venezuela, with the goal of overthrowing the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
The Wall Street Journal later revealed that López was the mastermind of the comically botched military invasion. In a June 26 article titled “Venezuelan Opposition Guru Led Planning to Topple Maduro,” the newspaper disclosed that López “was behind a months-long effort to contract mercenaries to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro,” and had “considered at least six proposals from private security contractors to carry out military incursions to spur a rebellion in Venezuela’s armed forces and topple” the Chavista government.
López collaborated with allies of Guaidó and fellow members of their Popular Will party. They ended up deciding to contract the Florida-based mercenary firm Silvercorp USA, planning the invasion with Jordan Goudreau, a US Army veteran, and Clíver Alcalá, a former Venezuelan general who defected to Colombia.
López’s allies then introduced Goudreau and Alcalá to right-wing Venezuelan opposition leaders in numerous meetings in the Colombian capital Bogotá, seeking millions of dollars of financing for the operation, the Wall Street Journal reported.
These mercenaries trained dozens of fighters, mostly Venezuelan defectors, in camps in northeastern Colombia. Then on May 3 they launched the attack from Colombian territory.
The US government denied involvement in the attempted May 2020 invasion. But the former US Special Operations officer who helped plan the coup attempt, Jordan Goudreau, has said in a breach-of-contract lawsuit that he met with two administration officials at the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort to discuss the plot, and was assured that he had the White House’s support.
Two former US soldiers participated in the failed invasion, and are currently being imprisoned in Caracas.
The Wall Street Journal made it clear that López has pushed for the most extreme, violent strategies to overthrow the government. “López expressed the view that negotiations and the electoral route would take too much time,” it reported.
Juan Forero, the Journal’s South America bureau chief and a staunch supporter of Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, noted on Twitter that “Leopoldo Lopez’s party was key in selling Trump on plan to back Guaidó.”
The various coup attempts planned by Leopold López, Juan Guaidó, and their sponsors in Washington and Bogotá had repeatedly failed. So this December, López adopted a new PR strategy.
On December 11, he flew from his new home in Spain (where he also has the support of the government) to Cúcuta, a Colombian city on the border with Venezuela. There López posed for photos with Venezuelan immigrants, in a marketing exercise designed to portray himself as a noble, bleeding-heart defender of his people.
But Venezuelan journalists soon uncovered a scandal: The plane that ferried López to Cúcuta was owned by a Florida-based company that had previously sold a plane to a Colombian who was busted in Honduras for transporting 500 kilograms of cocaine.
The Venezuelan investigative journalism publication La Tabla analyzed photos of López with the aircraft to uncover its links to Colombian drug trafficking.
López flew on a small AC90 plane with the tail number N690SE. The aircraft’s flight log can be publicly accessed using a tracking website. With these resources, as well as photos of the plane on Instagram, La Tabla found that it was owned by Skyline Enterprises Corp.
This company is registered with the United States government and based in Florida in the city of Miramar, a suburb of Miami.
Skyline Enterprises has been in the spotlight before for indirect links to drug trafficking.
In 2018, the Miami New Times published an article titled “Drug Traffickers Are Buying Up Planes in South Florida.” The investigation revealed that the company had sold a plane in 2009 to a Colombian customer. Then in 2010, that plane was found in Honduras with 500 kilograms of cocaine.
The director of Skyline, Gilbert Gonzalez, denied knowledge of the drug links, telling the newspaper, “We check as much as we can the background of the people or the companies,” but once it is sold, “you could turn around and give it to your cousin… It’s kind of hard to track.”
When the cocaine-filled plane was intercepted by Honduran authorities in a remote region of the country in 2010, the pilots landed and opened fire at security forces, according to a local media report.
One of the co-pilots, a Honduran national, was killed. The other co-pilot, a Colombian national, was arrested. The plane had a valid Colombian license when it was seized with the 500 kilos of cocaine.
La Tabla discovered that the same aircraft caught trafficking cocaine in Honduras was later found in 2020 in Colombia. The plane crashed north of the capital Bogotá.
It is unclear how the aircraft ended up back in the hands of its Colombian owner. Honduran authorities denied that it was the same plane, but La Tabla conclusively confirmed that it was indeed the aircraft.
The right-wing government in Honduras, which was installed in a US-backed coup d’etat, is notoriously corrupt and closely linked to drug trafficking.
According to public records, the plane was registered with a man named Henry Moreno Cortázar.
But the photo op in Cúcuta was just the beginning of Leopoldo López’s PR campaign in Colombia. On December 15, López tweeted a photo of himself with far-right former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.
Uribe is the most powerful politician in Colombia, the beneficiary of extensive and well-documented links to the drug cartels and death squads that hold sway in the country.
In 2018, the National Security Archive released declassified US State Department cables that showed Washington was aware its favorite ally in Bogotá had collaborated for decades with drug traffickers and paramilitaries, using cocaine money to fund his political campaigns.
A 2018 New York Times investigation acknowledged that a feared death squad used an Uribe family ranch as its headquarters, planning assassinations, kidnappings, and other crimes on their land. Álvaro’s brother Santiago Uribe was imprisoned on charges of directing a paramilitary group, called the Doce Apóstoles (12 Apostles).
The Venezuelan right-wing’s kingpin apparently had no problem with Uribe’s lengthy list of crimes, because he praised the Colombian leader in his tweet.
Uribe is “a good friend in the struggle for the freedom of Venezuela,” López insisted. He also made it clear that this drug-linked, death squad-sponsored Colombian mafioso is helping sponsor regime-change plots in Venezuela.
“We spoke about the urgent need to get out of the dictatorship to put an end to the suffering of our people,” López wrote.
Colombia’s current president, Iván Duque Márquez, is Álvaro Uribe’s handpicked successor, and follows in his far-right footsteps.
Like Uribe, Duque is linked to drug traffickers and organized crime networks in the country. Since he came to office in a deeply contested election in 2018, in which he was credibly accused of fraud, Colombian journalists have exposed Duque’s ties to a notorious drug lord named José Guillermo “Ñeñe” Hernández.
Ñeñe Hernández was an extremely wealthy rancher involved in the drug trade, who used his illicit money to fund right-wing politicians. A leaked recording exposed that Duque used under-the-table funding from Ñeñe in order to bribe Colombians and buy votes in the 2018 election. The Colombian public prosecutor and police are investigating Ñeñe, who died in Brazil under strange circumstances in 2019, for his role in drug trafficking and killings.
When Leopoldo López visited Colombia in December, he also met with Iván Duque.
The Colombian president invited the Venezuelan opposition extremist onto his program “Prevención y Acción” (Prevention and Action), a daily show in which the government discusses the measures it is taking to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
Duque took advantage of the massive audience of average Colombians who watch the coronavirus program, which is supposed to be apolitical, to bombard his citizens with anti-Venezuela propaganda.
At the end of the broadcast, Duque and López spoke for nearly 10 minutes about the situation in Venezuela.
Duque referred to Venezuela’s democratically elected government as a “dictatorship of extreme brutality,” while heaping praise on López, who he declared “has had a voice full of courage and conviction” and a “voice of freedom.”
For his part, López exacerbated xenophobia inside Colombia by insisting that, if Maduro’s government was not soon overthrown, hordes of Venezuelan immigrants would continue crossing the border, and bring the coronavirus along with them, infecting their neighbors.
López also heaped enthusiastic praise on the far-right Colombian government in the TV broadcast, calling it “an example for the world.”
That week, the corpses of human rights defenders continued to pile up, bringing the total of mass killings of social movement activists in Colombia in 2020 to 86, with nearly 300 victims.
López’s gushing praise for the Colombian government arrived as a new report revealed how the right-wing regime had arrested 10,471 students on trumped-up terrorism or rebellion charges between 2000 and 2018.
Leopoldo López’s meeting with Álvaro Uribe triggered condemnations from even staunch supporters of the Venezuelan opposition.
The avowedly anti-Chavista Americas director of the billionaire-funded US-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), José Miguel Vivanco, lambasted López for the meeting, calling it a “grave mistake” that “does a lot of damage to his credibility.”
HRW has spent years heroizing the coup-plotting Venezuelan opposition leader, portraying López as a “prisoner of conscience” and “Venezuela’s most prominent political prisoner” before he was released in a failed coup attempt on April 30, 2019.
Vivanco is closely allied with far-right forces across Latin America, and has aggressively lobbied for US sanctions on Venezuela and Nicaragua. But López’s friendly chat with Uribe was even too much for him.
Facing mounting criticism over his radical antics, and desperate to save face, Leopoldo López sought out a photo-op with the liberal mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, in what Latin American media outlets referred to as a “surprise.”
Claudia López hails from Colombia’s centrist Green Alliance party. She is an open lesbian and supports progressive cultural policies, but is careful to never diverge from certain dogmas when regional politics are concerned, harshly criticizing Venezuela and other leftist governments in Latin America.
On December 17, the mayor held an event in Bogotá featuring Leopoldo López alongside Venezuelan migrants. She praised the Venezuelan opposition leader, saying, “It makes me happy to see him free.”
In her tweet, Claudia López also went out of her way to demonize Venezuela’s democratically elected government as a “dictatorship”
The photo-op was clearly aimed at papering over Leopoldo’s extreme-right image, portraying him as a supporter of political pluralism who can make common cause with liberals. For Claudia López, it was a way of reassuring conservative critics that she would faithfully line up against revolutionary left-wing forces in the region.
But it was not enough to deflect from the ultimate agenda of Leopoldo López. His trip represented the open consolidation of an alliance between the putschist forces under his control and a Colombian government intimately intertwined with drug trafficking and criminal networks, both hellbent on crushing the leftists in their midst.
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