March 20 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan police yesterday arrested an opposition mayor of the city that spawned nationwide protests, accusing him of fomenting rebellion as the government tries to stem unrest that is in its second month.
A judge authorized the arrest of Daniel Ceballos, mayor of Tachira state capital San Cristobal near the Colombian border, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres said on state television. Ceballos, a member of the Voluntad Popular party whose leader is being held in a military prison, was detained without being shown a warrant, Johan Merchan, a party press coordinator, wrote in text message to Bloomberg News.
Ceballos’s capture comes as President Nicolas Maduro toughens his response to anti-government protests that have resulted in at least 31 deaths, including a National Guard officer this week in San Cristobal. Maduro is beefing up the military presence in urban areas after he warned protesters March 15 to “prepare” for a government crackdown.
“No one in the opposition should think they’re above the law,” Maduro said on state television. “They thought they were untouchable, there you have the untouchables.”
Following Ceballos’s arrest, Enzo Scarano, municipal mayor of San Diego in Carabobo state, was sentenced to 10 months of prison for failing to comply with a judicial order to remove protesters’ barricades, the Supreme Court’s constitutional division said in a statement on its website.
“Scarano was ignoring the law and disregarding a Supreme Court order,” Maduro said. “And now conscience-stricken, he cries in a cold jail cell, the cold cell of Venezuelan justice.”
The sound of people banging pots and pans filled the air of San Cristobal after Ceballos’s detention as youths took up positions at barricades surrounding the Pueblo Nuevo district that has become the center of protests.
“This arrest will help return San Cristobal to peace,” Rodriguez said yesterday. “This is an act of justice.”
Demonstrations that have extended across the nation originated in the city Feb. 4 when students protested the lack of security at Andes University, Gaby Arellano, a protest leader at the school, said in a telephone interview.
“Ceballos was always on the side of the students, supporting the protest but never the violence,” Carlos Humberto, a student leader at Santiago Marino Polytechnic in San Cristobal, said by phone, adding protesters will meet today to discuss their next steps. “His illegal detention will just broaden our ranks.”
Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo Lopez on Feb. 12 organized marches in Caracas to support the students in Tachira and protest issues including the world’s fastest inflation and shortages of basic goods from milk to medicine.
Lopez was detained less than a week later and accused by Maduro of inciting violence. He denies the charges.
Venezuela’s public prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz said today that 31 people have been killed nationwide in protest-related violence since Feb. 12. Another 461 people have been injured, she said, according to state news agency AVN.
Ceballos was arrested in a Caracas hotel while meeting with other mayors from the opposition alliance of politicians. He was apprehended and led away by armed men who didn’t identify themselves, according to Arellano, who said she witnessed the event.
Some demonstrators lobbed Molotov cocktails and stones in San Cristobal last night, while hundreds more gathered around bonfires in the city’s Libertador district to strengthen roadblocks set up by protesters.
“This arrest will just lead to more violent protests,” Ana Vergudo, a 20-year-old nursing student, said at a barricade on Carabobo Avenue in Pueblo Nuevo. “The government’s deceitful act just strengthens our resolve.”
Ceballos’s wife, Patricia Gutierrez, wrote on her Twitter account last night that his arrest was illegal because authorities declined to sign an arrest warrant.
“What does the government hope to achieve with the fascist detention of San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, peace or war,” opposition Governor Henrique Capriles wrote on his Twitter page. “Nicolas, it’s clear you want more confrontations.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andre Soliani at firstname.lastname@example.org Randall Woods, Robert Jameson