President Hugo Chavez's political rivals are on notice that anything they say over the phone might be not only recorded by eavesdroppers but also played and flaunted on national television.
Though wiretapping without a court order is illegal in Venezuela, such recordings have been surfacing on state TV and radio and have become a standard tactic in attempts to ridicule and embarrass opposition politicians.
Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, a longtime Chavez adversary and a presidential hopeful, denounced what he called "dirty tactics" by the government after state media this month aired recordings of him and an activist gossiping over the phone and complaining about other anti-Chavez politicians.
"That made me feel indignation and made me laugh, because it's not the first time. They've already put me on that program like four times," Alvarez told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
He said he isn't sure who is tapping his phones but he's certain they are working for the government and suspects the state phone company is complicit.
"They're criminals," Alvarez said. "I sincerely believe that the hand of Hugo Chavez ... is in all of this. He's the one who conducts the orchestra."
Mario Silva, who hosts the late-night talk show "La Hojilla," or "The Razor," on state television, smiled mischievously when he played the recordings. "There are some very good things here," said Silva, who suggested the opposition's divisions were apparent in the cursing and irritated remarks by Alvarez and activist Beatriz Contreras.
In another episode, Silva denied the government was making the recordings and said he was picking them up after they were posted on YouTube by others. He said it's the work of a new, unsigned blog known as "Mesa de Alacranes," or "Table of Scorpions," a play on the name of the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Table.
"I want to clear up the following for people: The Mesa de Alacranes ... is a tweet created by opposition people who are very upset with certain decisions that are being made within the opposition," Silva said.
Silva sits on the board of directors of Chavez's socialist party and dedicates his program to mocking and at times crudely insulting the president's political opponents, among others.
It's unclear who's behind the blog and how they gained access to the recordings. The Venezuelan government did not respond to a request for comment.
That and other recordings have been released just as Chavez, who is undergoing cancer treatment, has been intensifying his verbal assaults on his adversaries and seeking to portray the opposition as riven with divisions ahead of the 2012 elections. Chavez has pointed specifically to the leaked recordings as proof of such infighting.
"Look at how the opposition ... is a sack of serpents," Chavez said in a televised speech the day after Alvarez's conversations were aired on state TV. "Did you all see La Hojilla last night?"
Chavez reiterated that the recordings came from the blog and said of the opposition, "they themselves, it seems, are sending" the videos.
"They're stabbing at each other," Chavez said. "Those people cannot come back to govern this country."
The blog has aired the conversations of several Chavez opponents and recently posted a video featuring animated scorpions and merengue music mixed with fragments of Alvarez's comments.
A Twitter account, "mesadealacranes," has begun promoting the leaks.
Eavesdropping on phone and electronic communications has become rampant in many Latin American countries. Those tapping phones have ranged from state intelligence agencies to drug traffickers and other criminals. When recordings are leaked to the news media, the intent is usually to cause political damage.
The release of recorded conversations to private media in Peru during former President Alan Garcia's term led to a major scandal over alleged kickbacks for oil concessions. Former navy intelligence officials employed by a security firm were arrested and accused of carrying out the wiretapping.
In Colombia, more than 20 former officials of the state security agency have been jailed for their alleged roles in eavesdropping on judges, journalists and political opponents of former President Alvaro Uribe. His former chief-of-staff has been jailed on criminal conspiracy and other charges, accused of ordering the eavesdropping. A congressional committee grilled Uribe about the case Thursday, and the ex-president denied ordering illegal wiretaps, as has his ex-chief of staff.
In Venezuela, there have been no arrests and the occasional stream of recordings aired over the past several years seem aimed mainly at discrediting opposition politicians. What's more, state media openly promote the recordings.
"Making private conversations public through the state media appears to be another tactic to harass government opponents," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch. "Without an independent judiciary that acts as an effective check on government power, authorities and state media representatives have limited incentives to abide by basic rules."
Opposition newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff had one of his conversations aired on state television in 2009, and he condemned the latest wiretapping in an editorial calling it disgraceful "when the abuse of power leaves us indifferent and we accept it as a normal component of the political landscape." A photo montage accompanying the article depicted Chavez listening on headphones.
Alvarez seemed unfazed by the leaks of his calls, and demanded in one subsequent newspaper column that "Chavez should quit." The president called that an indication of a conspiracy against his government, a claim Alvarez denied as absurd.
In another recording aired this month, opposition politician Daniel Santolo and another man are heard complaining about other members of the opposition. Asked about the incident, Santolo said it was not only illegal but also the sort of behavior that has no place in a democracy.
"This is a government that violates the constitution and uses state media to commit crimes," Santolo said.
Alvarez said the fact that broadcasting private conversations has become a routine political strategy means that for many Chavez opponents, "you have to be prepared for anything."
Some Chavez rivals have also faced criminal charges that they condemn as politically motivated. Alvarez was jailed for nearly two months last year and was eventually convicted on a charge of spreading false information during a TV talk show.
He called that charge bogus and has stood by his critical remarks about Venezuela cooperating with Colombian rebels and becoming a haven for drug traffickers.
The former congressman and state governor said he no longer has confidence in a judicial system that he views as under Chavez's influence.
"Everywhere in the world, they act against this sort of practice and those who are responsible are sanctioned," Alvarez said. "Not here, because all the powers are under the control of a single person."
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap