MADRID - When the Basque terrorist group ETA’s most wanted fugitive, Josu Ternera, accused of ordering a 1987 bombing that killed 11 people in Spain, was arrested across the border in France on May 17, he was using a Venezuelan passport with the false name of Bruno Marti.
Days later, Spanish police dismantled the Guerrilla Army of the Free Galician People (EGPCG), another separatist group that had conducted bombings in northwestern Spain. That group’s leader, Jose Gil, had attempted an escape to Venezuela.
When Anna Gabriel, a head of the Catalan far-left separatist organization CUP, fled Spain last year to avoid arrest for allegedly inciting violence, her first stop was: Venezuela.
“There is clear evidence of Venezuelan support for terrorist and separatist movements,” says Ramon Peralta, a senior law professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, who believes that there are ideological ties between extremist groups and the Venezuelan government, which provides them key assistance.
'Keep close contact'
A Spanish foreign ministry spokesman told VOA, “Interior Ministry officials stationed at (Spain’s) embassies in countries where there is a terrorist presence keep close contact with the local governments about the matter” and that “investigations have been conducted into ETA‘s presence in Venezuela over recent years.”
Venezuela harbors the largest concentration of ETA fugitives, according to Spanish police, who say 13 members of the group are currently living there. About 50 militants from political organizations associated with ETA such as Batasuna, Bildu and Askapena have also traveled regularly to the South American country.
Some ETA members are under government protection in Cuba, where their asylum was in some cases negotiated by the Spanish government.
A retired police official said that he met with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro to arrange the deportation to Cuba of an ETA gunman from Algeria when the north African country expelled the group about 30 years ago. Spanish officials say that Cuban authorities have regularly reported on his status.
But Venezuela has been less cooperative, according to Spanish police sources, who say that the government of President Nicolas Maduro has provided little information about the activities of ETA and refused to extradite its members, some of whom are on the Maduro government payrolls.
Analysts say alleged Basque bomb maker Arturo Cubillos has worked for many years in the security department of Venezuela's agriculture ministry, from where he has assisted ETA and other groups. Spain requested Cubillos' extradition after the Colombian government accused him of conducting explosives training for leftist FARC guerrillas.
The terrorist route to Venezuela is well-trodden. When the Chilean government learned militants of an indigenous Mapuche movement seeking the independence for southern Chile had traveled there, they contacted the U.S. State Department to inquire whether they had picked up any information on the group’s possible fundraising in Venezuela, according to diplomatic cables.
Venezuela’s support network also appears to operate through well-placed agents in third countries. An individual of dual Spanish-Venezuelan nationality assisted EGPCG leader Gil in his attempt to escape to Venezuela through Portugal, where he tried to board a flight to Caracas, according to Spanish police.
Most Venezuelans have to struggle through endless bureaucracy to obtain passports. But members of ETA, FARC and other insurgent groups get VIP treatment, Maduro’s critics allege.
“Josu Ternera, who has never set foot in Venezuela, has received his passport under a false identity from SAIME (Venezuela’s Administrative Service of Identification, Migration and Immigration), while millions of Venezuelans can’t get access to identification and travel documents,” tweeted Pedro Burelli, a former executive board member of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA.
Marco Ferreira, a retired brigadier of Venezuela’s National Guard, says he was ordered to process identity documents for several suspected terrorists when he headed SAIME under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez. At that time, the department was called ONIDEX.
The list also included individuals of Middle Eastern origin, mainly Lebanese and Syrians connected with Hezbollah, according to Ferreira, who says he left ONIDEX when it came under the control of Cuba, which has taken over Venezuela’s national identification system.
The system’s database is linked to Havana via underwater fiber-optic cables and Cuban security officers now hold key posts in the renamed agency. Cuba has trained the agency’s personnel and provided state-of-the-art technology.
ETA renounced armed struggle last year shortly after FARC leaders signed a peace deal with the Colombian government. Ternera, prior to his capture, announced that the Basque struggle for independence was entering a “new phase.”
Venezuelan President Maduro has openly backed separatists in Catalonia, where militant groups conducting campaigns of intimidation against opponents of independence have adopted the name of Colectivos from Venezuela’s pro-government thug squads.
Human Rights Watch, in a report last year, said the armed pro-government groups, along with security forces, attacked demonstrators at rallies attended by thousands of Venezuelans.