Maduro's Most Dangerous Critic Confronts System She Served

  • Luisa Ortega Diaz put socialist presidents’ enemies in jail
  • She will stand trial herself after criticizing regime abuses

Why Venezuela's Many Crises Keep Getting Worse

First, Luisa Ortega Diaz noticed people started following her family. Then, anonymous threats started to pour in. Her stepdaughter was briefly kidnapped.

Still, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor has pressed on denouncing state abuses and working to thwart President Nicolas Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution. This week, the nation’s supreme court gutted most of her powers, froze her bank accounts and banned her from leaving the country. Ortega Diaz, 59, is to stand trial July 4, accused of committing “grave errors” in her role as the nation’s top law-enforcement official.

“We never imagined it would reach this magnitude,” said German Ferrer, her husband, who is a lawmaker for the ruling socialist party.

Ortega Diaz, who served the repressive socialist regime for years, has now become the highest-profile member of the government to speak against Maduro’s consolidation of power. In years past, the government moved swiftly to silence dissidents or merely ignored them. Now, with key members of the socialist Chavista coalition breaking from Maduro, months of violent protests and an economy in tatters, authorities have confronted Ortega Diaz cautiously and methodically, using the very legal system she represents.

Over the past two years, Ortega Diaz has become a goad to Maduro and his supporters, as the president increased his crackdown on dissent. She has denounced the government for lack of due process, extrajudicial killings and ignoring prison abuses.

On Friday, her office said it would levy human-rights charges against the head of Venezuela’s intelligence agency after an investigation into illegal raids and detentions. A former national guard head was also cited this week as Ortega Diaz continues to probe the treatment of protesters.

In the civil arena, she has the power to investigate the many corruption allegations dogging the administration, and has filed motions against Maduro’s efforts to convene an assembly to overhaul the constitution, which could do away with elections entirely. Ortega Diaz has demanded that judges in the supreme court, stacked with Maduro loyalists, stand trial.

Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Caracas polling firm Datanalisis, likened her split with the nation’s rulers to a dangerous marital breakup: “It’s like divorcing the very judge who is trying to bring charges against you.”

Ortega Diaz, who couldn’t be reached for comment on her recent stands, began her career as a labor lawyer in Venezuela’s industrial belt and has headed the public prosecutor office since 2007. She quickly rose through the agency’s ranks under a close ally of former President Hugo Chavez and gained fame by putting many of political foes of the president -- and his successor, Maduro -- behind bars.

Middle Path

An uncomfortable ally for Venezuela’s opposition, many point to the fact that during the last major wave of unrest, in 2014, she oversaw the incarceration of many activists and politicians -- most notably opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

Leopoldo Lopez, center, escorted by the National Guard after turning himself in during a protest, Feb. 18, 2014.

Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP via Gettyimages

“She has two careers,” said Marino Alvarado, a human rights lawyer at Venezuela’s Prison Observatory. “The first of them criminalized protests, and she lacked the will to denounce rights abuses.”

As a youth, Ortega Diaz frequented communist and intellectual circles that enabled Chavez’s rise after he launched a botched coup in 1992 and was subsequently imprisoned. She met her husband, Ferrer, a former guerrilla fighter who studied in Cuba, while Chavez was on the campaign trail.

In a macho world where socialist politicians have been known to wear military fatigues, Ortega Diaz stands out with a blond bob, glasses and pantsuits. Those close to her describe her as a bookish and measured.

“She prefers to speak with actions rather than words,” says Gabriela Ramirez, formerly the nation’s top human-rights official, who worked with Ortega for seven years.

Building Rebellion

Her break with the government hasn’t been abrupt. Ramirez spoke of Ortega Diaz’s growing frustration with the state’s heavy hand.

“She has stayed in government due to her closeness to Chavez,” said Jesus Maria Casal, a constitutional lawyer and National Assembly adviser. “She was a believer who thought some excesses could be fixed.”

Recently, an increasing number of Chavez confidants -- from former military men to cabinet members -- have begun peeling away from Maduro, accusing the embattled president of making a mockery of his predecessor’s legacy.

With the nation wracked by triple-digit inflation, rampant crime and corruption, Ferrer insists discontent is rife with in the ruling party, but many fear reprisals.

“There are not many who are willing to deal with this,” he said of his wife’s treatment.

Ortega Diaz has pledged to press on. In a speech Wednesday, she said she wouldn’t recognize the court decision to remove her powers. Quoting Chavez, she said she would dedicate her life “to the struggle for democracy and respect for human rights.”

Nicmer Evans, a political scientist and leader of a breakaway socialist party, said Ortega Diaz appeals to the disenchanted.

“I told her, ‘Your role is to reinstate the rule of law to Venezuela’s institutions,’” he recalled of a recent meeting with Ortega Diaz. “She agreed.”

— With assistance by Noris Soto

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