CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The grisly slaying of a woman has become yet another political flashpoint in hyper-polarized Venezuela, with supporters and opponents of the country's socialist administration each saying the killers were working for the other side.
The case revolves around two young men arrested last week in the killing of 52-year-old Liana Hergueta, who was hacked to pieces. Her body parts were found hidden in bags and suitcases in her car, which was parked in an upscale Caracas neighborhood near a golf course.
The brutality of the murder was shocking even in the crime-ridden capital of one of the world's most dangerous countries. Local media reported that the two targeted Hergueta, who had no political profile, because she had been insulting one of them on social media. The men allegedly lured her to her death posing as black market money-changers, a job that has become a Venezuelan fixture as currency distortions reshape the economy.
Details of the suspects' sketchy backgrounds have been trickling out for days, but the saga took a new turn Tuesday night when President Nicolas Maduro appeared on national television to accuse the perpetrators of working with a who's who of opposition figures to destabilize the government.
The two men, Jose Rafael Perez and Carlos Trejo, had been photographed alongside Venezuela's best-known opposition leaders and at various political sites, with the snapshots leaving the impression that they were present, Forrest Gump-like, for virtually all of the milestones in the opposition's protests over the past two years.
In one photo, Perez can be seen flanking Leopoldo Lopez as the opposition hard-liner fights through a crowd to turn himself into police for allegedly inciting violence during a 2014 anti-government protest movement. In another, Perez stands behind former congresswoman Maria Corina Machado as she presents herself to face charges of plotting to kill Maduro.
After their arrest, the socialist administration said the two had been working with the government critics to destabilize the country. Officials went on to suggest that the opposition politicians bore direct responsibility for Hergueta's brutal death.
But opposition media reported that the two men were actually undercover agents sent to infiltrate the anti-government movement and help authorities arrest dissidents. Runrunes, a website linked to one of the country's main opposition journalists, reported that the men posed as persecuted student leaders and befriended actual activists, then sold them out to the country's intelligence service. At least one of the activists they took up with is still in jail a year later, according to the report.
On his weekly television program Tuesday night, Maduro showed a video of Perez after his arrest in which he says he was working with opposition leaders to overthrow the government, and took $1,000 from the former top U.S. diplomat in Caracas to fund anti-government protests. Maduro, who regularly accuses the U.S. of plotting against him, presented no evidence to back the claim. On Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby called the charge "yet another baseless and false allegation."
Perez also said he received backing from conservative U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio as well as former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe — the latter a favorite Maduro target.
"I have proof that the opposition is becoming a paramilitary operation," Maduro said, later adding, "I'm asking all security organizations to help us ferret out these murderers wherever they may be."
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.
Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier