Hugo Chavez revealed he is being treated for cancer in a startling address on state television Thursday. Chavez’s low-profile stay in Cuba the past several weeks fueled speculation the Venezuelan president was seriously ill — until Thursday the government said Chavez was recovering from the removal of a pelvic abscess — and raised questions among the opposition over whether he is fit to govern. If Chavez is unfit to govern, the acting presidency should fall to Vice President Elias Jaua, although this does not seem likely at the moment. The Venezuelan government maintains Chavez is in full command of state affairs.
But the possibility of instability and violence around upcoming elections next year is real, and it’s real whether Chavez is ill or not. “Given violence in the past, especially around a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002, the potential for more bloodshed is never far away in a nation awash with guns and plenty of political grudges,” wrote Reuters journalists Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Wallis. Last weekend, the president’s brother, Barinas governor Adan Chavez refused to rule out “armed struggle” as a means to advance Bolivarian socialism. Some analysts interpret Adan’s comments as a reflection of a potential power struggle within the government if the president appears weak or risks losing re-election next year.
Meanwhile, a prison uprising at the Rodeo prison complex east of Caracas continues. Clashes between rival prison gangs led to an intervention by the army on June 12 which resulted in a firefight. More recently, two of the prison’s directors were arrested for trafficking arms and drugs into the prison. The Guardian reports the prisoners are said to “control an arsenal that includes AK-47 and R-15 assault rifles and even a 50-calibre anti-aircraft machine gun.”
It is now known why the Zetas kidnapped and killed nearly 200 mostly Mexican men from buses on Tamaulipas highways earlier this year, according to testimony from a captured Zetas member. “They were orders from above, from [Zetas’ boss Heriberto] Lazcano [that] because those guys were going to the enemy … we had to get them off and investigate them,” Zetas member Edgar Huerta Montiel said. “Every day a bus came,” he said, “And the ones who had nothing to do with it were freed. But those that did, they were killed.”
Two weeks ago, the Houston Chronicle published an account by a drug trafficker who claimed at least some of those kidnapped were forced to kill each other with sledgehammers, after which survivors would then be sent on suicide missions. The Zetas are fighting northeastern Mexico’s Gulf Cartel in a brutal war over control of trafficking routes into the United States.
In other news, the political alliances between Michoacan’s rival drug cartels appears to be in disarray after La Familia Michoacana (LFM) boss Jose de Jesus “El Chango” Mendez, or “The Monkey,” was captured by Mexican authorities late last month. It should first be noted the current LFM is not the original cartel of the same name, but a splinter group which formed after the death of LFM boss Nazario “El Mas Loco” Moreno in December of last year. Moreno loyalists formed a successor cartel, the Knights Templar, named after the Christian military order.
Then this week, after El Chango’s arrest, banners with messages claiming to represent the current LFM condemned the former boss for partnering with the “the social cancer the Zetas.” Analysts suggest a rapprochement may be underway between breakaway LFM members and the Knights Templar — who are currently in an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel against the Zetas — which may reduce violence in the state. However, other analysts such as Guy Taylor in World Politics Review (subscription required, excerpted at Sylvia Longmire’s blog Mexico’s Drug War) suggest violence will increase if LFM is dismembered.