Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, and Caracas, Venezuela -- A Venezuelan judge on Wednesday ordered a former state governor and critic of President Hugo Chavez to remain in custody without bail while facing charges of conspiracy, incitement and spreading false information.
The incorrect information, government prosecutors said, was an assertion by former Zulia state Gov. Oswaldo Alvarez Paz in a March 8 television program that Venezuela has become a drug-trafficking hub.
"Venezuela has converted into a center of operations that facilitates the business of drug trafficking," Alvarez Paz said without directly accusing Chavez of being involved in illicit activity.
To many, including the U.S. State Department and several foreign counternarcotics agencies, Alvarez Paz's allegation rings true. Increased seizures of drug shipments from Venezuela and detection of suspected drug flights from clandestine airstrips here point to a sharp increase in trafficking over the last decade.
In 2006, U.S. Embassy officials said the amount of cocaine moving through Venezuela had quintupled since 2001 to more than 250 tons a year. The flow represented an estimated one-quarter to one-third of the cocaine produced by Colombia.
Human Rights Watch and other rights groups decried Alvarez Paz's arrest Tuesday at his Caracas home as an attack on freedom of expression. The former presidential candidate faces up to 16 years in jail if convicted.
Alvarez Paz's son, Santiago Alvarez, told reporters Wednesday after emerging from the court that the judge refused to release his father during the legal process because she deemed him a flight risk.
Opponents say the arrest is the latest effort by Chavez's government to suppress dissent. In May 2007, Chavez refused to renew the license of the nation's most popular TV network, RCTV, and more recently he has threatened to close Globovision, the remaining broadcaster critical of the government.
On Wednesday, Congressman Manuel Villalba, a Chavez supporter, asked prosecutors to investigate Globovision President Guillermo Zuloaga for having broadcast Alvarez Paz's remarks.
This month, Chavez said he would talk to the attorney general about regulating the Internet, which he said is "poisoning the minds of many people."
Mogollon and Kraul are special correspondents.