Several in-the-know readers took this Gringo to task after my recent stroll through the netherworld of Caracas-style “entrepreneurial journalism.” Yes, 6to Poder chief Leocenis Garcia is Venezuela’s reigning master of the journalistic dark arts – but this, apparently, is old news.
“Everybody knows Leocenis is a shakedown artist,” one reader chided me. “What’s interesting is that he may have a new partner in the game.”
Oh, really? And who might that be?
Figure it out for yourself, Gringo
And so I found myself getting drawn back down into the rabbit hole, the shadow realm where the real news happens in Venezuela, the world of shakedowns and set-ups where headlines are a thinly veiled threat with dollar signs attached and where good ink will cost you a lot more than a night with the models in Garcia’s new sex magazine. But I digress.
My first instinct was to look back to Garcia’s first stint behind bars, a two-year-plus bid at Tocuyito that he earned for basically throwing a public temper tantrum in the offices of narco-kingpin Walid Makled.
The alleged motive for the dust-up was that Makled was behind on payments to Garcia for a string of articles Garcia published to help prop up the rapidly crumbling façade of Makled as legitimate businessman. Garcia claimed he was simply trying to collect on a legitimate debt and throughout his two years behind bars insisted that he had been railroaded by Makled and his powerful friends in the regime.
Whatever version you believe, one could safely conclude from the incident that Garcia had more balls than brains and that he had no qualms about getting into business with the kind of characters who wind up on the blackest of black lists.
Correct, Gringo. You’re on the right track.
Back to Garcia’s time behind bars. On the outside, Garcia maintained his public image of the crusading corruption-fighter and fearless truth-teller. On the inside, Garcia became friends with Wilmer Brizuela, the ‘Pran’ or criminal kingpin of Tocuyito prison, one of the most brutal in Venezuela.
Brizuela was the big leagues, a cold-blooded killer who had a hand in every racket operating out of Tocuyito: kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, drugs, the lot. Within the confines of that world, he had the absolute power over life and death. This was likely Garcia’s first direct experience with someone who wielded that kind of power and by all accounts Brizuela protected Garcia while he was on the inside and the two became close.
When word of his association with Brizuela surfaced in August 2011, Garcia played it down. “What’s the big deal?” Garcia twittered.
The big deal was that Garcia was under fire for his own increasingly Mafioso-style behavior, spelled out in a blistering open letter published by Roger Figueroa, the President of the Venezuelan Chamber for the Dairy Industry on Soberania.com.
Figueroa alleged that Garcia had tried to shake him down and recounted the remarkable story of Garcia’s evolution from a cheap hustler who ripped off the work of other journalists to a self-styled gangster who Figueroa called a “mercenary of the pen, an unscrupulous man at the service of the highest bidder.”
What if the real gangster Brizuela and the fake gangster Garcia are now working together? What if Brizuela currently is supplying the muscle that Garcia lacked when he took on Makled?
No, Gringo. But you are getting closer.
The period from 2011-2013 was a turbulent one for Garcia. In September 2011 he landed back in jail after publishing a tasteless (even by his standards) piece of “The Women of the Revolution,” depicting six female cabinet members as cabaret dancers.
After his release in December 2011 he got in a very public twitter war with Patricia Poleo, who acted as interim Chief Editor of 6to Poder while Garcia was in prison, with Paleo saying she was “disgusted” with Garcia’s “dirty war.”
Next came a public spats with David Osio of Davos Financial (since mended, we understand) and a lawsuit from Juan Carlos Escotet of Banesco. Garcia was everywhere at once, building his brand and his empire.
The one thing that remained consistent was Garcia’s stance against the regime. He seemed to go out of his way picking fights with regime figures. He branded General Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal a “drug lord.” He waged a long running campaign against members of what he called the “judicial mafia.” He filed denuncias against the head of CONATEL for alleged extortion.
Finally, in late July 2013, when Garcia was reportedly about to unveil the top 15 “robolucionarios” of the regime, someone decided that enough was enough.
On July 31, 2013, Garcia was detained by uniformed agents of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCM) and confined at the entity’s headquarters in the Boleita sector of Caracas.
Garcia was accused of money laundering and racketeering and authorities produced evidence of millions of dollars in offshore accounts in Puerto Rico, Monaco and Switzerland.
Compared with GArcia’s 2011 arrest, this was serious and the media, which had flocked to his defense previously, kept a wary distance.
Garcia disappeared into the DGCM’s dungeons in Boleita, where priority political prisoners are held largely incommunicado from everyone but immediate family and lawyers.
The master of Garcia’s new world was a man considerably more dangerous than Wilmer Brizuela – arguably the most dangerous man in Bolivarian Venezuela: Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal, the head of DGCM. The drug trafficking and dealings with the FARC that landed Carvajal on the U.S. Treasury Department’s black list back in 2008 was only the half of it. Carvajal presided over a diversified organized criminal enterprise from the bowels of the Bolivarian security establishment.
Carvajal had the means and ruthlessness to disappear Garcia while in custody, and Garcia knew it. On September 14, Garcia’s brother used Leocenis’ twitter account to declare: “I make Hugo Carvajal, Director of DIM responsible for the life of my brother Leocenis Garcia president of 6topoder.”
And then, on November 28, without any warning, Garcia was released. Other controversial figures that incurred the regime’s wrath have been kept in jail for years on trumped-up charges, but Garcia was freed after a few months. The official reason was Garcia’s health. Garcia himself credited his hunger strike, which he claims lasted over 50 days.
But DGCM sources said their prisoner was never remotely in danger of starving himself to death and it was well within Carvajal’s power to force feed him. Further, If Garcia had pancreatitis or cancer (as some claimed) he hasn’t appeared to suffer any ill effects after being freed.
Even stranger, 6to Poder was allowed to reopen. And although criminal charges are still pending, its assets and bank accounts were unfrozen and restored to the group’s owners and administrators. Everything, it seemed, was back to normal – everything, that is, except for Garcia himself.
Whatever happened at DGCM headquarters, Garcia emerged from his more than 120-days confinement a changed man. In early December, Garcia held a press conference to announce that henceforth 6to Poder would adopt a more moderate editorial stance with respect to the government.
More remarkable was Garcia’s new stance toward his former captor, Carvajal himself. Before his time in Boleita, Garcia had denounced Carvajal as a drug lord. Now, 6to Poder heralded El Pollo Carvajal as one of the four most important men of the revolution (along with Diosdado Cabello, Nicholas Maduro and Jorge Arreaza) and a pillar of Venezuelan democracy. The article portrayed Carvajal as the strong, silent type, one who talked little but acted decisively, snuffing out multiple coup attempts upon Chavez’ death and spearheading the arrest of many corrupt officials. Huh?
After Maduro dismissed Carvajal as head of the DIM in January 2014, it got even weirder. The issue of 6to Poder dated Sunday 12-19 January 2014 devoted its entire front page above the fold to a massive full color photo of Carvajal with a stern gaze and set jaw: this was Carvajal, a hero of the revolution, “the man who prevented over 20 coup d’etats.”
It didn’t stop there.
• On January 10, Garcia tweeted a warning to those who would celebrate Carvajal’s ouster, saying he would be back soon.
• On January 16, El Comercio ran an item noting that many Venezuelan cabinet members had penned messages in support of “El Pollo” Carvajal, thanking him for his service as head of Military Intelligence and predicting that President Maduro would appoint him to a new role soon.
• On January 20 2014, 6to Poder re-published remarks made by Congressman Jose Avila via Twitter. According to the article, Avila said that Carvajal’s work for Venezuela has been “positive and must be recognized.”
• The next day, January 21, 2014, 6to Poder tweeted that Congressman Avila Guerrero “praised the performance of Hugo ‘El Pollo’ Carvajal.”
• On February 9, 2014 6to Poder quoted Luis Vasquez, head of Venezuela’s aluminum workers, asking President Maduro to appoint Carvajal to head state-owned aluminum smelter Venalum with a mandate to root out and dismantle widespread corruption and mismanagement. Carvajal and his “teams” were the only ones able to manage and halt inherent corruption of the basic industries and the “mafias” within the state-owned companies, Vasquez said.
• On March 2, 2014, 6to Poder published an article characterizing Carvajal as one of the most trusted allies of “El Comandante Chavez” and a member of his innermost circle and among the few senior regime figures allowed access to Chavez during the last days of his life.
• A second 6to Poder article published the same day narrated the last days of President Chavez and built up Carvajal’s role, noting that he had foiled several assassination attempts against Chavez and was responsible for guaranteeing President Chavez’s physical safety during his medical trips to Cuba.
Could all this fawning coverage of Carvajal be a coincidence?
There are never any coincidences in Caracas, Gringo. Only arrangements.
Indeed. What was clear was that Garcia’s publications since last December have been providing Carvajal, a known international criminal, with a sustained campaign of brand-washing and character rehabilitation. Other than his freedom, and the return of his newspaper and other media and financial assets, what was Garcia getting in return? What happened at DGCM headquarters during Garcia’s confinement? Did Carvajal “break” Garcia and then recruit him, a theory popular in some circles? Did he make Garcia an offer he couldn’t refuse?
Or was it the other way around? Did the two men see in each other the perfect alignment of interests? Could there be a better partner for a shakedown artist like Garcia than someone like Carvajal with muscle AND access to some of the most sensitive intelligence files in the country?
To be continued . . .