President Hugo Chavez has warned often since at least 1993 that he was the intended target of political assassins and (after he became president in 1999) coup plotters. But starting in the second half of 2001 the president’s allegations that plotters were conspiring to topple him from power became more frequent and more immediate. “I know who you are. I have all of you identified by name and infiltrated so I know everything you are planning,” Chavez said repeatedly in nationally broadcast speeches during the second half of 2001 and the first three months of 2002.
Chavez was telling the truth. Chavez did know the identities of the alleged conspirators because one conspiracy was instigated and directed by individuals who operated as double agents for the president. This group, which included the Perez Recao brothers and some disgruntled military officers who once had been vocally loyal backers of Chavez, was handled by Vinicio “El Principe” De Sola (no relation to the respected DeSola family of attorneys and Supreme Court jurists), a former business associate in the 1980s and early 1990’s of Jose Vicente Rangel, a thrice-losing Socialist presidential candidate in the 1970s and 1980s, and an investigative journalist who had a clandestine parallel career as a military equipment supplier before he joined Chavez’s revolution. Rangel was Chavez’s defense minister in 2001-2002, and before that as foreign minister.
This group handled by De Sola, who reported mainly to Defense Minister Rangel and certain military officers designated by the minister, was an integral strategic and tactical component of Operation Knockout, which was the code name of Chavez’s secret plan to crush his political opponents in a Bolivarian version of Communist China’s Tiananmen massacre.
Chavez also had direct knowledge of a second group of conspirators within the armed forces, led mainly by naval officers and consisting of brigadier generals and vice-admirals, none of whom exercised direct command over any infantry, armored or air force units.
President Chavez did not deploy double agents to instigate a coup conspiracy within the military involving this second group. But he did learn of the group’s existence soon after its members started to conspire because, despite their military training and supposed knowledge of security practices, the vice-admirals and brigadier generals proved to be incredibly sloppy about their own security.
Military intelligence (DIM) agents infiltrated this group by confronting some of its members and forcing them to become clandestine informants. Chavez allowed this second group to continue plotting because it never represented a threat to his regime’s survival. None of the plotters commanded armed troops and never had any tactical capability to pull off a successful coup. However, the second group’s existence did reinforce the mock coup Chavez planned to stage with the first group where De Sola, Rangel’s double agent, was a leading participant.
For Operation Knockout to succeed, Chavez needed a credible but tactically toothless coup attempt that he could control and suppress quickly in order to justify a lethal military counterstrike aimed at wiping out his political opponents and destroying Venezuela’s young civil society movement in a single crushing blow.
Chavez called his plan “Operation Knockout” because he expected to destroy his political opponents like a heavyweight boxer floors an opponent with a combination of blows. The first blow would be inflicted by his armed Bolivarian Circles. The objective was to turn peaceful street protests by the political opposition into bloody street battles between the president’s civilian supporters and foes. The eruption of street violence between opposing civilian groups would trigger deployment of National Guard forces with the 5th regional command (Core-5) in Caracas. The National Guard troops would be under orders to confront the opposition protesters and protect the Bolivarian Circles. Chavez rightly expected that the deployment of national guardsmen against opposition protesters would intensify the levels of street violence he planned to provoke. The final knockout blow would be delivered by three armored infantry battalions based at Fort Tiuna that would be deployed on the president’s orders under Plan Avila, an army contingency strategy designed for use in cases of massive civil unrest threatening Venezuela’s national security and democratic stability.
Chavez was the chief intellectual author of Operation Knockout, but its development was a group effort. Active participants in the creation and subsequent execution of Operation Knockout included then-Vice President Diosdado Cabello; then-Interior and Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin; then-Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel; then-Armed Forces General-in-Chief Lucas Rincon Romero and the senior officers in command of the National Guard, Navy and Air Force; then-Third Army division commanding general Jorge Garcia Carneiro; then-Attorney General of the Republic Isaias Rodriguez; Libertador Mayor Freddy Bernal, then-National Assembly Deputy Juan Barreto; and several of the assembly’s most radical “chavistas.”
Operation Knockout was developed in great secrecy over a period of approximately six months, starting around October 2001. In fact, some of the senior military officers who participated in drafting some elements of Operation Knockout were unaware of the scheme’s armed civilian components until April 7, 2002 – the day Chavez brought together senior military, political and government officials to discuss its imminent execution.
Operation Knockout had political, civilian and military components. The political component sought to create the conditions that would trigger violent clashes between the government and the opposition, followed by a coup attempt. Chavez was a veteran conspirator, and was certain his opponents would launch a coup eventually. But Chavez also was confident there would be a coup because he planned to encourage an attempt against himself.
The civilian component of Operation Knockout was coordinated and implemented at the highest levels of the Chavez government by Vice President Cabello and by Interior and Justice Minister Rodriguez Chacin. The vice president’s office controlled the creation, recruitment, training, financing and coordination of the Bolivarian Circles. The majority of the circles created nationally were not involved in violent political activities, although they were ordered frequently to participate in red apparel at government-sponsored Bolivarian street demonstrations and other public events of the revolution.
But a small number of Bolivarian Circles, particularly in Caracas, were created explicitly to operate as violent armed street thugs to attack opposition demonstrators. The activities of these armed groups were coordinated by the office of the vice president, based on intelligence about the political opposition generated by a round-the-clock situation room commanded by Rodriguez Chacin at the Interior and Justice Ministry. The personnel running the situation room had been recruited from military intelligence (DIM), the armed forces joint strategic command (CUFAN), the defense ministry, the political police (Disip), the criminal investigative police (CICIP), and Libertador Municipality’s PoliCaracas.
Rodriguez Chacin’s situation room conducted open source, and clandestine human intelligence and electronic intelligence operations aimed at President Chavez’s political opposition. Electronic intelligence operations included telephone and e-mail intercepts of individual opposition leaders and opposition institutions like Fedecamaras, the national federation of commerce chambers (Consecomercio), the national federation of cattle ranchers (Fedenaga), the Venezuelan Labor Confederation (CTV), Petroleos de Venezuela, and the Catholic Church, among others. Human intelligence activities were aimed at recruiting informants and infiltrating moles inside these opposition institutions.
The intelligence generated by Rodriguez Chacin’s situation room was used by the vice president’s office to plan and coordinate Bolivarian Circle deployments against public events (demonstrations, marches, etc.) organized by the government’s political opponents.
Other armed civilian groups that worked closely with Rodriguez Chacin and Cabello in late 2001-early 2002 included a clandestine security force within PoliCaracas commanded by Libertador District Mayor Freddy Bernal; dozens of gunmen financed through the Education, Health and Labor Ministries; urban militants associated with the Tupamaros based in the 23 de Enero apartment blocks near the presidential palace; and other violent groups associated with street-level Bolivarian fighters like Lina Ron. All of these groups received financial support and armaments through different national and municipal government entities.
Chavez saw these groups as reservist shock troops tasked with instigating street violence against his opponents. Their assigned mission in Operation Knockout was to physically attack opposition groups, creating conditions of extreme violence which would justify direct military intervention under a state of exception decreed by the president.
To be continued….