As President Nicolás Maduro runs for re-election, the armed forces grapple with shortages of food, evaporating salaries and desertions
CARACAS, Venezuela—The coup plot by disgruntled Venezuelan military officers in March was audacious: Seize control of the capital’s military bases, arrest President Nicolás Maduro and install a provisional government to replace his authoritarian regime.
To avoid detection for a year, conspiring officers eschewed phone calls, texts and emails, and instead sent messages via couriers, said an Army captain who helped plan the thwarted coup. They plotted during seemingly impromptu soccer matches.
Before they could act, though, Mr. Maduro’s intelligence services discovered the plot—described by military analysts as the most serious to date against his government. Authorities quickly arrested nine of the rebel officers, including the head of the largest armored battalion in the capital, and Mr. Maduro’s former interior minister.
As Mr. Maduro runs for re-election on Sunday, discontent in the barracks is at an all-time high, current and former military officers say. Shortages of food, evaporating salaries and desertions have turned the armed forces into a cauldron of conspiracies against Mr. Maduro, these people say.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, campaigning in Caracas on Thursday, is running for re-election on Sunday.
“The Venezuelan military is a time bomb, a pressure-cooker,” said the Army captain, who was interviewed in a foreign country where he fled. “It could explode at any time because everyone is unhappy.”
The Information and Defense ministries didn’t answer calls or emails seeking comment.
The Maduro government has arrested dozens of officers this year and cashiered others in a military purge. Official data isn’t available. But military analyst Rocío San Miguel said that in just January and February at least 124 servicemen were imprisoned on rebellion, mutiny, espionage and other charges, far more than in other periods.
“Maduro is conscious that the armed forces are his Achilles’ heel,” said Ms. San Miguel, president of Citizen Control for Security, Defense and the Armed Forces, a policy analysis group that has contact with military personnel.
The nine arrested would-be conspirators are in prison awaiting trial, said a defense attorney for some of them. Other plotters escaped.
Amid the worst economic crisis in decades, many Venezuelans are urging the armed forces to take matters into their own hands, in a country where the military has long been the ultimate arbiter of power. That is despite past coups in the country leading to less democracy, not more, analysts say.
A soldier uses binoculars during the Maduro campaign rally in Caracas on Thursday.
Such an uprising also has supporters within foreign governments, including the U.S., that are trying to weaken Mr. Maduro’s hold through economic sanctions and political isolation.
“I think the world would support the Armed Forces in Venezuela if they decide to protect the people and restore democracy,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) via Twitter in February.
Juan Cruz, President Donald Trump’s top adviser on Latin America, told a conference on hemispheric security in Miami last month: “There has never been a key moment in Venezuelan history that has not involved military participation.”
The Sunday election comes as the U.S. urges officers with information about crimes in the military, like drug trafficking, to become informants for U.S. antinarcotics officials or desert, said Martin Rodil, a Washington contractor who works on such operations.
The Venezuelan government uses carrots and sticks to ensure loyalty. Active-duty or retired officers run 10 government ministries and manage vital entities including the state oil company, the state arms factory and food-distribution networks, giving them lucrative business opportunities. Officers heard to question government policy wind up in “democratic reconditioning” classes in Caracas, said Cliver Alcala, a retired major general who participated in the failed 1992 coup that foreshadowed the Socialist government.
Those considering betraying Mr. Maduro face a pervasive intelligence unit, overseen by Cuban military advisers, which has snuffed out numerous plots in the planning stages, current and former officers say. In his five years in office, Mr. Maduro has put intelligence officers in each unit, stripped pensions and benefits for families of officers accused of plotting, and thrown some in jail alongside common criminals.
“There have been informants on all of the intended (coups), all of them,” said one high-ranking military officer who has helped plot against the government. “They infiltrate a lot of people, and some sell information for money.”
Another factor dissuading would-be conspirators is their doubts on whether Venezuela’s divided opposition can be counted on for support.
For some officers, the fate of Óscar Pérez stands as a cautionary tale. A former police pilot, he fired on government buildings from a stolen helicopter last year and raided arms depots while calling on people to rise up. But opposition leaders ignored him. Security agents gunned him down in January while he was trying to surrender.
“Military officers fear that the opposition isn’t up to the task,” said Ricardo Sucre, a Venezuelan navy veteran and psychology professor at the Central University in Caracas. “The first thing they say is: ‘What guarantees do we have that the civilians will do their part and that we won’t end up being sacrificed?’”
There are other, more mundane obstacles in a country reeling from shortages, said Jose Arocha, a former army lieutenant colonel. “To launch a coup, you need people, you need time, you need logistics,” he said. “You need transportation. There isn’t even transport or tires or anything these days.”
Impatient for change and increasingly desperate, some troops are simply going AWOL.
One army veteran estimated that as many as 1,000 soldiers, including cadets and mid-ranking officers, have deserted in the past year and said that many more have requested formal discharges. The government has begun running ads in Caracas newspapers demanding missing troops return to their posts.
One air force lieutenant, who deserted in March after a decade in uniform, said in a telephone interview from Argentina that the collapse of the currency had reduced his monthly paycheck to the equivalent of $10. Unable to afford a car or an apartment, he rode a bicycle to the base and moved in with his wife’s parents.
“What kind of military forces its officers live with their in-laws?” he said.
Miguel Rodríguez Torres, center, a former Interior minister under Mr. Maduro, was arrested for a coup attempt earlier this year.
Miguel Rodríguez Torres, center, a former Interior minister under Mr. Maduro, was arrested for a coup attempt earlier this year. PHOTO: LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
While rank-and-file troops suffer, the air force lieutenant said, commanding officers have been getting rich through a variety of scams, such as using military aircraft to transport gold from wildcat mines back to Caracas, former and current military officers said.
An Army lieutenant, who was stationed along the Colombian border and deserted in February, said his commanders were deeply involved in smuggling cocaine across the frontier.
All of these factors fueled the March coup plan.
Several armored battalions were to secure the capital while special forces in a nighttime raid planned to snatch top officials including Mr. Maduro and Vice President Tareck el-Aissami and fly them out of the country.
But as the final stages approached, a female army lieutenant loyal to the government learned of the plot and alerted her superiors.
Miguel Rodríguez Torres, the former Interior minister who commands wide respect among troops because of his military background, was arrested along with Lt. Col. Igbert Marín Chaparro, who commanded the Ayala Battalion, the best-equipped army unit in Caracas, tasked with defending government buildings and public officials.
In a March 1 comment on Twitter, his last before he was arrested, Mr. Marín wrote: “If you maintain honor and dignity, you may lose the battle but you will never be defeated.”