The Slatest

Will Venezuela’s President Use the Mysterious Drone Attack to Seize More Power?

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s speech during a military ceremony on Saturday was interrupted by a loud bang that the government has linked to drones carrying explosives.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s speech during a military ceremony on Saturday was interrupted by a loud bang that the government has linked to drones carrying explosives.
Juan Barreto/Getty Images

The Venezuelan government’s account of Saturday’s attempted assassination-by-drone of President Nicolás Maduro has raised more questions than it has answered.

Here’s what we know: A video of the event shows the chaos that ensued when the drones exploded, with Maduro abruptly stopping his speech and soldiers in the crowd fleeing. The president was unharmed, but seven National Guard soldiers were injured. Hours later, Maduro appeared on national television to accuse the outgoing Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, and far-right elements in the U.S. of plotting the alleged attack. A little-known group called “Soldados de Franelas” claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The group regularly posts anti-Maduro content but little else is known about them.

The government has said that attackers used two DJI M600 drones that each had 1 kilogram of C4 plastic explosive, CNN reported. One drone flew over the presidential stage but was diverted by the authorities to detonate outside the area the attackers had targeted. The other drone lost control and landed in an apartment building, exploding on the first floor, according to the government. (That explosion was later confirmed by two residents in an interview with the Washington Post.)

Colombia and the U.S. have denied involvement, with National Security Advisor John Bolton calling on Venezuela to produce “hard information” of a U.S. link to the explosion.

To make matters even more complicated, seven journalists covering the story were stopped and interrogated by security forces, with some of their cameras confiscated, according to Venezuela’s National Union of Press Workers.

Along with doubts about what really happened, there is also now increasing worry that Maduro may use the incident to consolidate power.

“The official ‘investigation’ of today’s alleged assassination attempt against president Maduro takes the usual course: begin with the conclusion and work backwards,” Phil Gunson, a consultant with the nonprofit International Crisis Group, tweeted on Saturday.

“He will use it to concentrate power, whoever did this,” David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, told the Associated Press on Saturday. “He’ll use it to further restrict liberty and purge the government and armed forces.”

And it comes at a turbulent political moment, as Venezuela’s inflation nears 1 million percent and dozens of soldiers have been arrested for rebellion and desertion. It recalled an attack last year, in which intelligence police commander Oscar Pérez launched grenades at government buildings in Caracas from a helicopter. (He was killed in January after a nine-hour siege.)

Hundreds of soldiers have deserted their posts this year, driven by low wages, food shortages and a government crackdown on dissent within the ranks. International scrutiny has intensified after Maduro won an election in May that was widely considered fraudulent.