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.