Who is the rebel ex-officer behind Venezuela army base raid?

A man walks past the military base of Paramacay Fort in Venezuela's third city, Valencia on Aug 6, 2016.
A man walks past the military base of Paramacay Fort in Venezuela's third city, Valencia on Aug 6, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

CARACAS (AFP) - Patriot? Traitor? Juan Carlos Caguaripano, the alleged leader of a rebel group in Venezuela that raided an army base over the weekend and made off with weapons has been called both.

For the enraged government of President Nicolas Maduro, he is little more than a former officer of the National Guard, discharged in 2014 after multiple disciplinary offences - and now a wanted "terrorist". The 38-year-old ex-captain had his own harsh words for Maduro, however, in a video he posted before the Sunday attack on the base.

Appearing alongside more than a dozen uniformed men, he declared a "legitimate rebellion" against Maduro's "murderous tyranny". He said the video was recorded in the barracks of an armored brigade in the northwestern city of Valencia where the attack occurred. The government denies that.

According to another dissident officer who knows Caguaripano and backs his fight, Captain Javier Nieto Quintero, the raid netted around 100 assault rifles from the base's arms depot.

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Speaking from hiding, Nieto told AFP that Caguaripano, who escaped with around 10 of his men, "is free, well, in communication and safe". The video wasn't the first time Caguaripano was recorded voicing his opposition to Venezuela's government.

In 2014, the medium-build, dark-skinned man appeared in uniform to denounce the "repression" of security forces in the middle of a wave of anti-Maduro protests that left 43 dead.

 
 
 
 

Little is known about the ex-officer's private life beyond that he is the son of teachers and his father was of indigenous descent.

In his video on Sunday he asked forgiveness from his family for his use of force, but did not say whether he had children or a spouse.

Nieto told AFP that Caguaripano first showed signs of unhappiness with Venezuela's Socialist government in 1999, when late president Hugo Chavez - Maduro's mentor and predecessor - came to power.

But he described Caguaripano as "a patriot, a soldier first of all, a man true to his principles." After the ex-captain went AWOL in 2014 and put out a video criticizing Chavez, he escaped arrest by going to Panama and working for two years there, Nieto said.

Venezuela's defence minister, General Vladimir Padrino, on Monday portrayed Caguaripano in a very different light, saying he had been disciplined several times while in service for "deficiencies of honor and military ethics" as well as neglecting his troops.

Padrino called him an "enemy of the nation" and alleged he was involved in a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002.

But in an interview with CNN Spanish in April 2014, Caguaripano said he was pushed out of the military due to politics.

"They didn't open an administrative procedure. It was for political reasons. I'm not political, and so I don't recognise this dismissal and I continue to be a captain," he asserted.