The police station burned bright as a bonfire. As cars hissed past on the Caracas highway, flames consumed the roadside structure as if it were kindling. Black smoke belched into the night sky. By the time dawn broke over the Venezuelan capital April 1, nothing was left of the building but a charred concrete shell.
The station was still smoking when Chamel Akl drove by hours later. A private security guard with a shaved head and facial scruff, he was an open critic of the Chavista government. Two months of violent street protests had scared away most international businessmen — his usual clients — so he had taken to tweeting the location of cops and soldiers he spotted around the city.
They were watching him as well, however. And when Chamel pulled up in front of his brother's house after dinner, cops suddenly swarmed his armored SUV. They dragged the brothers out at gunpoint, cinched their hands behind their backs with zip ties, and pushed them into the back of a paddy wagon.
Venezuela's many state-owned TV stations trumpeted the arrest of the "terrorists" responsible for attacking the police station and shooting two cops. A stocky police commander appeared onscreen with an arsenal of weapons supposedly seized from Chamel's car, including a Glock, bulletproof vests, and a pipe bomb. "The vehicle was found to be equipped with various compartments," said Eduardo Contreras of the Bolivarian National Police, "including one for spreading oil on the road, another for storing and releasing tacks, and another equipped with tear gas."
Most damning of all were reports linking the Akls to Risks Incorporated, a Miami-based private security company blamed for torture in Mexico and atrocities in Haiti.
But the Akls are far from terrorists. They are simply scapegoats in a bloody standoff between student protesters and the socialist government that began in February, friends and family members say. They have become pawns in a political power struggle. And if the struggle doesn't go their way, they could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
"The government is saying all these lies about Chamel," says his brother-in-law, Javier Romero Moll. "[Officials] don't care if they aren't true, as long as they have someone to pin all these horrible things on."
In any other country, the April 1 inferno would have been an April Fool's Day prank. But in Venezuela, where both soldiers and students have been killed in violent protests, it was deadly serious.
Adding to the drama were Chamel's ties to Risks Inc. Venezuelan officials have long suspected American involvement in the country's internal crises. When Hugo Chávez narrowly survived a 2002 coup, he blamed George W. Bush (not without reason). Chávez often accused the United States of propping up his political opponents (probably also true). And when the strongman succumbed to illness last year, his handpicked successor, President Nicolás Maduro, accused the U.S. of giving Chávez cancer.
Since then, Maduro has only grown more suspicious of foreign influence, especially from Venezuelan exiles in South Florida. "There are plans coming out of Miami to fill Venezuela with blood," he said in February.
Chamel's connections to an American private security company, therefore, could not have been better scripted by Chavista conspiracy theorists. After all, Risks Inc. is infamous throughout Latin America. In 2008, Mexican media accused the company of teaching cops how to torture. Three years later, it was allegedly behind slum demolitions in Port-au-Prince.
But Risks Inc.'s bad reputation is overblown. As New Times reported last August, the company is owned by a former British soldier named Andy Wilson. Known as "Mad Willy" during his days patrolling Northern Ireland in the early 1990s, Wilson once went AWOL to join the French Foreign Legion, only for the legion to send him back.
After his daring — and often drunk — adventures in the army, however, Wilson sobered up. He moved to Miami in 2001 and started Risks Inc. Most of his business is teaching wealthy Latin Americans how to handle a gun or escape would-be kidnappers. But occasionally, cops call on Wilson to whip their forces into shape. In Mexico, he was teaching the León SWAT team how to withstand torture from drug cartels, not commit it, he says. And in Haiti, his police pupils were combing a neighborhood for criminals, not crushing dissent.
Wilson met Chamel Akl around 2006 in a self-defense class. Chamel didn't have a military background, but he was a quick learner. Soon, he was flying from South America to South Florida to take courses in guns, knives, and escape tactics. He became expert enough that Wilson hired him as Risks Inc.'s man in Caracas.
It wasn't an easy job. Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world, with a murder rate mirroring Baghdad's and a booming kidnapping industry. Chamel spent a small fortune on firearms, armored cars, and bulletproof vests.
Even the most routine assignments were risky, remembers Romero, Chamel's brother-in-law and occasional employee. In November 2012, he and Chamel were returning to Caracas after dropping a client off at the airport when they were attacked. A pickup truck pulled up next to Chamel's SUV at a stoplight and lowered its windows. "Get out of the fucking car or we'll kill you!" a pair of gunmen yelled.
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.
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?"
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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.
Even if Chamel is released, his reputation has been ruined. "How can you call them terrorists on national television without any kind of proof that these guys did it?" Romero says, adding that the family has received death threats. Meanwhile, the same state TV channel that smeared the Akls has yet to report that the most serious charges have been dropped.
"Chamel and Richard had nothing to do with the attack on the police station," Romero says. "That's the truth. But in the eyes of Venezuela, they've already got the guys who did it."