Robert Serra Murder Roils Venezuelan Politics

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

The gruesome murder of a Socialist legislator has brought Venezuelan politics to a new crisis point. Government sectors have placed the blame squarely on the opposition, suggesting Robert Serra’s murder was the work of fascist paramilitaries or hit men directed by Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and right wing sectors in Miami.

It is a hypothesis that cannot be discounted. Two weeks ago the government released a series of chilling videos of Venezuelan student leader Lorent Gómez Saleh in which he talks about acquiring explosives and sniper rifles and plans to carry out a “cleansing” in Caracas and Valencia. They have been given little space in the international media (although see AP’s coverage here).

The opposition has denied connection to Saleh. State media has been busy trying to establish the link.

And Serra was not an unlikely target for a selective killing given that he was the head of the National Assembly’s investigations into Saleh and his network. Furthermore Serra was a rising star in Chavismo and could well have been a future presidential candidate. Just a few days before his murder he suggested he could be on the list of “twenty cadavers” that Saleh mentions in the video.

However, it should be said that the characteristics of the crime do not seem to fit with a paramilitary hit. There were no snipers involved, no explosives, not even a motorcycle gunman. Serra and his partner were stabbed in his own home at 9:30 pm, shortly after his bodyguards had left. There were no signs of forced entry and no neighbors realized anything was amiss. Serra himself had arms in his residence, yet somehow did not manage to mount a defense. All of this suggests it was someone with access to Serra.

What is more, Serra was stabbed thirty or more times which would suggest revenge rather than a professional hit. Of course stabbing is a way to not draw attention with gunshots. But there are more efficient ways to kill with a knife than thirty puncture wounds.

Undoubtedly the crime was planned, but this does not mean it was a paramilitary hit. Serra had extensive contact with the collectives of the West side of Caracas, some of which are armed. We have seen no concrete hypotheses in this regard. But armed para-state groups being what they are, intrigue and violence are not to be unexpected.

More concretely, in the past three years two of Serra’s bodyguards have been killed in still unresolved crimes. In both cases family members criticized Serra’s response to the murders (see here and here). Others have even suggested Serra’s involvement in Santeria might be involved. And of course the motives of most murders—love, money and power—could have been involved in many other ways.

Whatever the case, the authorities should be able to collect a wealth of information on a brazen crime that had to be either an inside job or an epic security failure. Serra had his own surveillance system and used it to monitor the door. The SEBIN and military police apparently took the memories of Serra’s and other surveillance cameras around the neighborhood.

For Colombian paramilitaries to act in Caracas with such precision, extensive local collaboration would be necessary. Serra’s home is not a rural retreat nor located in a far-flung popular barrio. La Pastora is one of Caracas’s oldest neighborhoods dating to the 19th Century, extending North from downtown to the base of the Avila mountain. It is a centric and busy neighborhood with public transportation and many small businesses that would have surveillance cameras. The streets largely clear out after dark given high levels of street crime. But at 9 pm there are still people returning home from their daily activities. Serra’s house is approximately ten blocks from the Miraflores presidential palace.

And Serra was not an anonymous presence. He was gregarious and socialized with neighbors who were accustomed to seeing him come and go with armed guards, as well as the arrival of vehicles and caravans of various types.

It is still early. But anything less that a clear portrait of what happened will cast doubt on the government’s version of events. It would not be the first time that government officials suggest the death of a government supporter was a political hit, only to have actual investigations reveal something quite different.

In February this year, after three people were killed during protests—including student Bassil Dacosta and collective leader Juancho Montoya downtown–Attorney General Luisa Ortega said “as a product of these violent, fascist and terrorist actions against the Fiscal, the Public Ministery, and the Venezuelan State, three people died.” Yet subsequent investigations led to the arrest of an off duty SEBIN officer for Dacosta’s death, and a rival collective leader in the case of Montoya. No arrest has been made in the case of Robert Redman.

On April 28, former Chávez government official Eleizer Otaiza was found shot dead in the municipality of El Hatillo, on the outskirts of Caracas. President Maduro claimed that Otaiza had been attacked by hit men paid from Miami. Communication Minister Delcy Rodríguez went so far as to declare that Otaiza had been murdered by “criminal gangs” linked to opposition party Primero Justicia.

Neighbors who witnessed the crime said a local youth gang killed him because he resisted being robbed and they thought he was a police officer.

Even if investigations of the Serra murder reveal something quite different, it is not clear the government will change its angle. Despite arrests having been made (see here and here) the Otaiza murder is still portrayed as a political hit. Indeed in Serra’s funeral, Maduro insisted on his original version but suggested “the key man of the band, the one who knows all the truth: who paid for assassinating Otaiza,” is still a missing link in the police investigations.

Of course, the Serra murder and high profile accusations have likely poisoned the well for dialogue for the time being. It has led to acrid exchanges between the two political sides (see the Mesa de la Unidad Democatica’s response here). Only yesterday Maduro, said: “None of the reactions from the opposition favor a climate of dialogue for peace.”

Perhaps the most important occurrence was that Unasur Secretary General Ernesto Samper weighed in on the side of the paramilitary hypothesis. If it turns out to be wrong it will impede his ability to act as an impartial arbiter.