The killing of an opposition politician in Venezuela highlights the difficulty of distinguishing criminal violence from electoral intimidation in the country's notoriously divisive political climate.
Luis Manuel Diaz, the leader of the opposition Democratic Action (AD) party in Altagracia de Orituco, was shot dead on November 25 at a campaign rally in that town. His killing comes just weeks ahead of hotly contested parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6.
Several prominent opposition figures have blamed the government of president Nicolas Maduro for Diaz's murder. Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sharing the stage with Diaz when the fatal shots were fired, accused the government of directing "state terrorism" against political opponents. The AD's national secretary, Henry Ramos Allup, who was also present at the event, blamed "armed bands" composed of government supporters for the attack.
Various international actors have also weighed in on the incident. The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, condemned Diaz's killing and called for "the disarmament of any armed civilian group, in particular those that depend on the government or the party of the government." The US State Department similarly denounced Diaz's murder, with spokesman John Kirby calling it "the deadliest of several recent attacks and acts of intimidation aimed at opposition candidates."
However, the campaign chief of the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV), Jorge Rodriguez, indicated that Diaz had been under investigation for homicide and ties to organized crime, and President Maduro suggested that his death was the result of a "settling of scores" between criminal rivals. Maduro also said the ministries of justice and the interior had begun investigating the incident.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although the facts of the case remain inconclusive, Diaz's killing shows just how easily violence can be manipulated for political gain in Venezuela. Opposition officials and supporters have held up the incident as evidence of electoral intimidation by an embattled government, while Maduro and the PSUV appear intent on portraying the murder as a crime with no political connection.
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This event is just one example of the often-messy intersection of crime and politics in Venezuela. President Maduro has warned on various occasions that a "Colombian paramilitary plague" is conspiring with opposition forces to destabilize his government. At the same time, his administration has faced allegations of arming and funding militant leftist "collectives" that have been accused of involvement in political violence as well as criminal activities.
Diaz may have been murdered for political reasons, or his killing may be related to his alleged criminal ties. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Either way, this latest incident is sure to inflame already heightened tensions ahead of next month's pivotal elections.