Venezuelan officials accused Juan Guaidó on Thursday of hiring a known criminal to point a gun at the U.S.-backed opposition leader during a recent street rally, an incident captured in a widely circulated photo that drew condemnation from around the world.
Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez said in a nationally broadcast statement that authorities have arrested the alleged gunman, who he said made a full confession that directly implicates the government's opponents.
Opposition lawmaker Juan Pablo Guanipa rejected Rodríguez's claims as an attempt to “cover up the truth,” adding that the opposition doesn’t have weapons or fabricate events like the government does.
In the alleged videotaped confession, a man identified as Clímaco Medina, alias “El Caracas,” said intermediaries of Guaidó paid him $200 to point a gun at the opposition leader.
“He took out a pistol and gave it to me," the man said in the recording, which was broadcast by Rodríguez on state TV. “He said I had to point at the people, frighten them, and aim at Guaidó.”
The incident happened at a street demonstration led by Guaidó on Saturday against the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro in the central city of Barquisimeto. According to five people present at the march interviewed by The Associated Press on Saturday, about 200 armed civilians and government security forces confronted the marchers led by Guaidó.
Guaidó is backed by the United States and more than 50 other countries who recognise him as Venezuela's rightful leader following Maduro's re-election in 2018 in a race that the opposition says was marred by irregularities.
A photo provided by Guaidó's press team and published by AP shows a masked man pointing a pistol toward a group of opposition activists, including Guaidó, who can be seen staring down the armed man.
AP was not present at the rally and could not independently identify the masked man who pointed the gun at Guaidó.
A coalition of a dozen countries mostly in Latin America, as well as the U.S. and European Union, condemned the incident in the photograph as a violation of human rights that detracts from achieving a solution to Venezuela’s crisis.
Rodríguez called it an attempt by the opposition to pave the way for stronger international condemnation of Maduro's government.
“We are going to investigate this, and we are going to get to the bottom of the truth and the substance of the facts," Rodriguez said. “We are going to capture the culprits. Here is the first.”
As Venezuela has been engulfed by economic and political turmoil, pro-government vigilantes known as colectivos have risen to the fore to defend the revolution started by the late Hugo Chávez, harassing and intimidating opposition activists, frequently with the support of top officials.
Powerful socialist party boss and Maduro ally Diosdado Cabello had earlier dismissed the photo as "fake news" and said a 16-year-old who the opposition said was shot during the demonstration was injured in an unrelated incident.
Rodríguez said the confession by the armed man proves that the photo was staged. He also questioned why in the modern day of handheld smartphone's no other photos or videos have surfaced providing additional corroboration.
Saturday was the first public trip that Guaidó had taken outside the capital of Caracas since returning from an international tour to rally support. The trip included a White House meeting with President Donald Trump, who invited Guaidó as a special guest to his State of the Union address.
Guaidó has called for a demonstration on March 10, when the opposition will attempt to retake control of their legislative building in the center of Caracas. Armed civilians and security forces have forcefully blocked opposition lawmakers from entering the building since January.
Guaidó did not immediately respond to the comments by Maduro's spokesman. But he posted a video on Twitter that he said shows him in the street near his home confronting a patrol car of the SEBIN police.
The car with blacked out windows slows and then pulls away as Guaido steps toward it.
“They send their extermination group to the corner of my house,” Guaidó wrote. "And as soon as they arrive they run away."