Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó rejected allegations Friday that he has ties to an illegal armed group in Colombia, as officials launched an investigation based on photos appearing in social media purportedly showing him posing with members of the gang.
The pictures were allegedly taken in late February when Guaidó crossed into Colombia and made a surprise appearance at a concert organized by billionaire Richard Branson aimed at helping deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela.
Government officials loyal to President Nicolás Maduro are holding up the photos as proof that Guaidó’s covert journey was orchestrated with the help of a criminal gang known as the Rastrojos, an accusation he denies.
“That day I took photos with many people,” Guaidó told Colombia’s BLU radio. “Evidently it’s hard to know who is asking you for a photo.”
The spat over the pictures comes amid Guaido’s nearly year-long bid to oust Maduro and escalating tensions between Colombia and Venezuela.
Relations between the neighboring countries have been souring for months amid the bitter power struggle and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. In recent weeks, Colombian President Iván Duque and Maduro have each accused one another of harboring illegal armed groups plotting attacks across their border.
Maduro’s Interior Minister Nestor Reverol appeared on state television Friday laying out evidence for a new probe into Guaidó, displaying images at the center of the controversy.
“They prove yet again Guaido’s association with all the terrorist actions being planned in Venezuela to disrupt the stability and peace of our democracy,” Reverol said of the images.
Gen. Luis Fernando Navarro, the commander of Colombia’s military, confirmed to local media Friday that two of the men seen in the photos with Guaidó are members of the Rastrojos who have now been captured. The photos show both men posing individually with Guaidó before a wooded background.
Navarro identified one of the men as Albeiro Lobo Quintero, alias Brother, and the other as Jhon Jairo Durán, alias Menor. Quintero allegedly turned himself into Colombian authorities sometime after the photograph was taken, while Durán was captured after being injured in a fight with another criminal group in Venezuela.
Navarro said he couldn’t confirm exactly when or where the photos were taken.
Guaidó told BLU radio that he had no recollection the photos being taken, and that he is pleased to know both men are no longer free.
“I celebrate that they’ve been detained,” Guaidó said.
Colombia and Venezuela share a 1,370-mile (2,200-kilometer) border with hundreds of illegal crossings controlled by criminal gangs.
The Rastrojos have been operating in the region for nearly two decades and at one point were considered a major drug trafficker. However, their numbers are believed to have waned after the capture of several top leaders in 2012.
Tarek William Saab, Venezuela’s attorney general and a Maduro ally, took to state TV saying the Rastrojos are one of Colombia’s most notorious cartels that deals in drugs, extortion and murder.
Saab announced the opening of the criminal probe, while rejecting Guaidó’s claim he had no idea who the men were.
“It’s unimaginable to assume these were simply photographs taken by enamored fans who wanted a photo on the border with this guy,” Saab said. “Nobody believes this story.”
Venezuelan officials have launched four other investigations into Guaidó since rising to challenge Maduro. They include accusations Guaidó sparked violent protests and orchestrated a nationwide blackout in March.
Relations between Colombia and Venezuela reached a low point in February when Maduro broke off diplomatic relations after Duque backed Guaidó in a failed push to deliver international humanitarian aid across the border.
Tensions spiked again in late August when a former Colombian rebel peace negotiator and a small cadre of dissidents announced they were abandoning the country’s historic peace accord and taking up arms again.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s government says Duque is allowing paramilitary camps in Colombia to train armed men and plot attacks against Maduro.
A dozen countries have invoked the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance which allows for a joint response among nations in the Western Hemisphere is any one is threatened.
Armario reported from Bogotá, Colombia.