A botched attempt by alleged Venezuelan military agents to abduct a notorious gold trader from Brazilian territory seems to reflect Venezuela’s growing paranoia about the vulnerability of its southern border with Brazil.
On November 14, five armed men kidnapped Antonio Andrés Fernández, known locally as “Toñito,” from outside a residence in Pacaraima, in northern Brazil. They forced him into the back of a truck at gunpoint, attempting to inject him with a syringe of an unknown substance, according to the Miami Herald.
When the syringe was knocked aside in the struggle, the assailants shot Fernández in the leg and drove him towards the nearby Venezuelan border, where a military vehicle was waiting to receive him, according to witness testimony and video.
Immediately after crossing the border, the truck got stuck in mud and undergrowth, where it was overrun by local people. They succeeded in rescuing Fernández and returning him to Brazilian territory, where he was treated in a local hospital under the guard of the Brazilian Federal Police.
“Toñito” is a divisive figure in the Venezuela-Brazil border region, especially in the municipality of Gran Sabana, in the south of Venezuela’s Bolívar state. Some know him as a Robin Hood figure – the owner of numerous businesses in the border town of Santa Elena de Uairén, and an outspoken critic of Venezuelan President Maduro through his Brazilian radio station, Cumache.
To others, he is a mafia boss and gold trafficker, who started out stealing cars before rising to riches through extortion, illegal mining and money laundering. He was targeted in the Venezuelan government’s 2018 “Manos de Metal” crackdown on illegal gold traffickers and remains one of Bolívar’s most wanted criminals.
InSight Crime Analysis
For a country teeming with illegal gold traffickers and criminal gangs, it is striking that Venezuela would risk provoking further international wrath with such an audacious incursion into foreign territory.
The explanation seems to lie in Venezuela’s conviction that Fernández, aside from being a wanted criminal, is also a backer of armed dissident movements along the volatile southern border region.
In December 2019, Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez named Fernández as having helped finance Operation Aurora, an attack against a Venezuelan infantry battalion near Gran Sabana on December 22, 2019. The attack was reportedly carried out by a group of 12 men from the local Pemón indigenous group, led by two military defectors and assisted by collaborators within the base.
The dissidents stole 112 assault rifles and other munitions, including grenades and RPGs, and fled in two vehicles with three military hostages. One vehicle, carrying 82 rifles and grenades, was later detained. One of the military defectors accused of orchestrating the operation was captured in the vehicle and allegedly confessed to receiving financing from Fernández.
The fact that the operation to abduct Fernández seemingly sought to capture him alive suggests that Venezuelan authorities believe he possesses valuable security information. This likely relates to the missing arms, and fear of further plots being hatched among military defectors, the Pemón indigenous community, or even Brazilian authorities.
According to a local official who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety, Fernández was seen as a trophy, whose capture would dissuade further dissent.
Fernández has long been close to the Pemón community. Various local leaders and opposition politicians state that Fernández was allowed to gain power in Gran Sabana’s illegal gold mines during the tenure of former Bolívar governor Francisco Rangel Gómez. The official stated that he was a direct associate of Maduro’s son, Nicolás Ernesto Maduro Guerra, known as “Nicolasito.”
However, Fernández lost out in the centralization of Bolívar’s illegal mining sector from around 2017, which has seen Venezuelan mining mafias and small-scale traditional miners like the Pemón displaced by the Colombian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), with the apparent collaboration of the Venezuelan military.
The targeting of Fernández in Manos de Metal forced him to abandon his mines and flee to Brazil, where some media reporting he may have become an informant to Brazilian authorities.
Fernández has also been linked to Emilio González, the now-exiled Pemón mayor of Gran Sabana for the Independents for Progress party (Independientes por el Progreso – IPP). González’s relationship with Fernández was utilized in 2018, as part of a successful effort to replace González with a mayor loyal to Caracas.
In June 2018, Fernández was lunching with González in Pacaraima when he was arrested by Brazilian police, reportedly at the behest of Venezuela. He was released after arguing his life would be in danger if he were returned to Venezuela, likely souring Venezuela’s relationship with Brazilian police forces.
Venezuela-Brazil relations deteriorated further after Venezuela blocked the entry of humanitarian aid from Brazil in February 2019. After Operation Aurora, it emerged that one of the military plotters had traveled through Peru and Brazil from Colombia shortly before the attack.
Photo: AP. Members of Venezuela’s FAES, an elite commando unit created for anti-gang operations, patrol a neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela.
This post was originally posted on InSight Crime – View Original Article