Instead, Chamel stomped on the accelerator. The gunmen unloaded 18 bullets into the vehicle, but the armor withstood the assault. And when Chamel slammed on the brakes, the pickup crashed into the SUV and started spouting smoke. Chamel and Romero sped off to safety.

After the attempted robbery, Chamel repaired his Toyota Machito and set about reinforcing it further. He added secret compartments so that if he were ever attacked again, he could spray oil, drop tacks, or fire tear gas with the flip of a switch.

But the incident scared his wife. After she became pregnant around New Year's, the pair decided it was time to pack in the private security business. And when student protests over insecurity, inflation, and food shortages spread from western Venezuela to Caracas, Chamel and his wife decided to leave the country. He sold most of his equipment and cars in order to build a house overseas. But as he waited for construction to be completed, he was drawn to the blockades popping up across the capital.

Photographing protests in Caracas landed Chamel Akl in a Venezuelan jail.
Courtesy of Javier Romero Moll and Risks Inc.
Photographing protests in Caracas landed Chamel Akl in a Venezuelan jail.

Contacted by New Times February 20, a week after the protests began, Chamel said the situation was dire. "Things in Caracas are getting worse," he wrote in an email. "[The] opposition is marching peacefully, and armed groups from the government and the national guards are shooting at them. Peaceful protests are broken up by soldiers in a violent and criminal way."

"We don't know how bad things will be here," he wrote a day later. "They are bringing more Cubans to support the National Guard, and it seems they will bring Chinese police... I have a picture of a Hercules plane with a platoon of men... from Cuba. If things go bad here and they shut [down] communications during a civil war, I will keep in touch with you to send the info to the world."

For the next five weeks, Chamel snapped photos of soldiers or police and posted their locations on Twitter. "PNB waiting near the Sante Fe exit, Prados del Este highway," he wrote March 28 under a picture of an armored truck belonging to the National Bolivarian Police, or PNB in Spanish. "PNB morning watch at the Santa Fe exit," he wrote March 29 under a photo of the police station that would go up in flames two days later.

Chamel may have been monitoring the cops, but he didn't attack them, Romero says. Instead, he was at home with his pregnant wife when someone attacked the Santa Fe police station, shooting two cops and setting fire to the structure.

The alibi wasn't enough to stop Chamel and his older brother Richard from getting arrested, however. They were among 30 people swept up after the police ­station shootout. Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres held a news conference in which he called the Akls "terrorists" who were armed to the teeth and intent on "calling to arms other sectors of society."

But Wilson says the equipment seized from Chamel's SUV was standard security gear: bulletproof vests to protect clients, flares for emergencies, and cans of petrol to avoid dangerous pit stops. The Glock was licensed, Wilson adds. And the gas mask makes sense given the Venezuelan police's penchant for gassing guarimbas, or protests.

The tear gas, tacks, and oil were added after Chamel's near-death experience, Romero says, not to sow terror in the streets of Caracas.

The only object that doesn't belong is the pipe bomb. "I have no idea where that came from," Wilson says.

But Romero has an idea. "It was planted by the police," he claims.

Romero says there are several indications his brother-in-law is innocent. During his TV interview, police commander Contreras said the arrests were the result of a "long investigation" into the Akls. "If they had really shot two police officers, why would cops wait all day to arrest them?" Romero says. Besides, "Chamel is not stupid enough to burn down a police station a few blocks from his own house."

But the biggest sign that the government's story is bogus is that prosecutors almost instantly dropped the most serious allegations against the brothers. On April 4, Chamel and his brother were dragged from their dirty cell in Catia's "Black Cat" prison to a courtroom. Instead of being charged with arson and attempted murder, they were charged with manufacturing weapons, selling weapons, and "possessing weapons to commit crimes" — all stemming from the mysterious pipe bomb.

The government has refused to let the brothers hire private attorneys, Romero says. Instead, public defenders now have 45 days to prove their innocence, or the Akls could face life behind bars.

Their supporters believe the men were targeted because of their politics, not terrorism.

"This shows he's a little too antigovernment, a little too enthusiastic," Wilson says. "But if he was trying to overthrow the government and doing terrorist stuff, would he really be posting everything on Twitter?"

Romero claims his brother-in-law's arrest is no accident, but rather part of a strategy to stifle opposition.

"Anyone who can be a threat to the government, they are trying to take them out of the picture," he says. Romero is afraid his sister will never see her husband again. She has fled the country — he won't say to where — and he has little faith in judges appointed by Chávez and his followers.

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