CARACAS, Venezuela – A dissident Venezuelan labor leader who was serving a nearly 16-year sentence for leading a crippling oil strike against President Hugo Chavez has escaped from prison, the attorney general said Sunday.
Carlos Ortega, the jailed president of the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation, or CTV, escaped along with three military officers from the Ramo Verde military prison, Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez said on state television.
Rodriguez said the government was ordering troops to secure airports and embassies nationwide to prevent the fugitives from fleeing or seeking asylum at a diplomatic compound.
"This is to prevent ... one of the most horrible crimes that have been committed against Venezuela from going unpunished — a crime of conspiracy along with a coup in which one of the leading figures was Carlos Ortega," Rodriguez said.
The possibility that members of the military conspired to help the four escape also is being investigated, under orders from Defense Minister Gen. Raul Baduel, Rodriguez said.
Ortega, who is considered a political prisoner by the opposition, was found guilty by a court last December of civil rebellion and instigation to commit illegal acts for his role in the 2002-2003 strike that aimed to topple Chavez's government.
The strike virtually shut down oil production in the world's No. 5 oil exporting country and cost Venezuela $7.5 billion, according to the government.
The government has repeatedly linked Ortega to a coup earlier in 2002 that briefly ousted Chavez before a popular uprising helped restore him to power. Ortega was never convicted of any coup-related charges.
The three fugitive military officers are brothers Col. Jesus Farias and Col. Dario Farias and their uncle, Capt. Rafael Farias.
Jesus and Rafael Farias were charged with military rebellion last October after being linked to a group of alleged Colombian paramilitaries who were detained in May 2004. The government claims that the group was plotting to assassinate Chavez with the help of the opposition and the U.S. government — charges those parties deny.
Dario Farias was arrested in April 2005 after a military standard FAL assault rifle was found hidden in his car's fender.
Private broadcaster Globovision reported that National Guard soldiers were stopping vehicles on a highway near the prison in Los Teques, just west of the capital of Caracas.
Rodriguez urged the fugitives to turn themselves in, saying their safety would be guaranteed.
"Some interested in sowing confusion have indicated that the escape of these persons is a trick to kill them. There is nothing further from the truth," Rodriguez said. "If they turn themselves in somewhere, they can be absolutely certain that, effectively, their right to life is guaranteed."