CARACAS — Masked security forces staged middle-of-night raids Tuesday to haul away two leading Venezuelan opposition leaders already under house arrest, possibly signaling an expanded crackdown on dissent after widely denounced elections to boost the authoritian government.
The moves against Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma could intensify the international fallout after Sunday’s election that created a new super congress stocked with backers of the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
The vote was decried as fraud by the opposition and prompted the Trump administration on Monday to slap sanctions on Maduro. After the election results were announced Sunday, Maduro gave a bellicose victory speech on national TV that included threats to jail political leaders encouraging protests.
Authorities only last month released López, 46, into house arrest after nearly three and a half years behind bars. At the time, the government called the decision a humanitarian gesture, citing his poor health, though supporters saw the move as an attempt to reduce international pressure.
In a video posted on Twitter by Lilian Tintori, López’s wife, masked security forces in riot gear can be seen in front of what appears to be the family’s house, leading a man from the door and putting him in an official car.
“They just took Leopoldo from home,” Tintori tweeted. “We don’t know where he is or where they took him. Maduro is responsible if something happens.”
Venezuela’s most prominent political prisoner and former mayor of a district in Caracas, López was arrested in early 2014 and handed a 13-year jail term. He became a symbol of resistance for opponents of the government, his portrait printed in bright colors on the T-shirts and flags of protesters who chant, “Free Leopoldo!”
At the time of his release, López, who was forbidden from speaking to the press, issued a statement saying he was ready to return to prison “fight for freedom.”
Roland Carreño, a senior member of López’s party, confirmed on Twitter that López had been taken to the Ramo Verde military prison southwest of Caracas.
Also taken into government custody early Tuesday was Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas. His wife, Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, posted a video on Twitter showing a dramatic melee as authorities entered their home and hauled him away.
“What’s happening, my friend,” a woman in her pajamas asks a squad of masked, uninformed men in her house. The men appear to be from the government’s Bolivarian Intelligence Service.
“They’re taking Ledezma!” another voice shouts in the background.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Ledezma’s wife said her husband had posted a Twitter video on Monday, despite being in house arrest, and suggested that may one reason he was hauled away.
In the video, Ledezma, with a Venezuela flag in the background, called the constituent assembly vote a fraud, criticized the armed forces and rejected the government-controlled supreme court. He also critiqued the opposition for its lack of strategy.
Lopez last week had also released a video on twitter, encouraging people to keep fighting and reject Sunday’s vote.
“One more time Nicolás Maduro shows off his dictator-like qualities,” said Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma. She insisted the move smacked of desperation, saying “the fact that Antonio is again in prison means Maduro knows he’s on his way out.”
Early Tuesday, Ledezma’s daughter, Oriette Ledezma, issued a video statement saying her father was “kidnapped” by Maduro’s forces.
“He was in his pajamas,” she said. “We don’t now where they took him. A group of masked men in camouflage took him …. We make the regime responsible for his life and physical integrity.”
She added, “this is for Venezuela and the rest of the world because they keep violating the human rights,”
Ledezma was previously arrested in December 2015. Maduro at the time said he was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. In May of that year, he was remitted to house arrest after receiving surgery for a hernia.
In 2013, Ledezma, from the Alianza Bravo Pueblo party, was reelected as mayor. In January 2017, Maduro created a higher executive post in the city, “Chief the greater state of Caracas,” and named pro-government official to the job.