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Venezuelan President Blames "Right Wing" for Assassination Attempt; Some U.S. Communities Rocked by MS-13 Murders. Aired 12- 12:30a ET

Aired August 5, 2018 - 00:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Venezuela's president rushed to safety after an apparent attack. Nicolas Maduro says he was the target of an assassination attempt and he blamed Colombia, among others.

Plus, we meet a former member of the MS-13 gang, which the Trump administration wants to eradicate. I'll ask him how the MS-13 can be stopped.

Europe still in the throes of a deadly heat wave, now igniting wildfires in some areas. It is not over yet.

Live from the CNN Center here in Atlanta, I'm Cyril Vanier. Great to have you with us.


VANIER: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is defiant after emerging unharmed from what he calls an assassination attempt. The apparent attack happened while Maduro was giving a speech on live television during a military ceremony.


VANIER (voice-over): This is the picture that Venezuelans saw. You can see him and his wife react to the first explosion and then you see this. Officials say drones armed with explosives detonated near him.

There was a second explosion and soldiers broke ranks and scattered. Video also shows bodyguards surrounding Maduro with shields and taking him off the stage, when he's rushed to safety.

Hours later, Maduro addressed the nation again. He revisited a conspiracy theory that he uses often, blaming an international right wing plot for trying to oust him. Maduro also accused outgoing Colombia president Juan Manuel Santos of being behind the attack.

A source with the Colombian government tells CNN the allegation is baseless. Mr. Maduro also had this message for U.S. President Donald Trump. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICOLAS MADURO, PRESIDENT OF VENEZUELA (through translator): Preliminary investigations have indicated to us that there are various financial backers of this attempt on my life. They live in the United States in the state of Florida.

Hopefully, president Donald Trump's government is willing to fight these terrorist groups, which are attempting grave attacks against countries on this continent; in this case, Venezuela.


VANIER: OK. Let's examine what we know. CNN's Rafael Romo has been speaking with Venezuelan officials.

Can you try and reconstruct what we know happened today?

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SR. LATIN AFFAIRS EDITOR: I had an phone conversation with the Venezuelan attorney general earlier today and I asked him specifically, is there any evidence linking the Colombian government to this, as the president claims?

He refused to answer the question. I also asked, what about the claim that the United States or people living in the United States had anything to doing with it?

Again, they're talking about all of this without really showing any evidence.

VANIER: They haven't shown anything so far.

ROMO: It's the same pattern we've seen before. Something happens, it is always the far right, always Colombia, always the United States or, the empire, as they like to claim. But the attorney general was very emphatic. He says he was sitting right there, right next to the first lady and he saw the drone.

When it exploded, he said, it was a very violent explosion and that it was what the president claims to be, which is an assassination attempt.

VANIER: This is a mixed bag. There have been attacks on him before but there have also allegations made by the government of attacks that were unsubstantiated.

Is there reason to doubt the government's version of events here?

ROMO: We've heard it so many different times for so many different reasons when something happens. We had a famous incident of a former police officer who allegedly attacked a military garrison, that there was an investigation and that foreign agents were involved. That's what the president said at the beginning.

We never saw anything. We never saw an investigation. We never saw anybody prosecuted. So over the years, for the last two decades, we've seen all these rumors flying around and you never see the completion.


VANIER: Chavez made the same accusations, essentially, and pointing the finger at the same people.

ROMO: That's right. Again, no investigations, no prosecutions, no completion of any investigation or no proof that there was any direct link to any of the agents that they were talking about.

VANIER: Look, since you've reported from Venezuela, I'm wondering whether it works.

Has this impacted the mindset, especially of Maduro's supporters?

Do they believe they are under siege from an enemy, foreign or domestic?

ROMO: For the benefit of our international viewers, we have to remind people that Venezuela and Venezuelans in general are in a very difficult situation. Shortages of basic, very basic food items are commonplace. Blackouts every day right now. The IMF, the International Monetary Fund, is estimating inflation is going to reach a million percent this year.

Can you imagine?

That's the highest in the world.

VANIER: A million percent.

ROMO: They're scrambling to launch an economic program by August 20th that the president, as a matter of fact, spoke about this --


ROMO: -- right after talking about the alleged assassination attempt to change the situation.

And so many in the opposition question, did it really happen or is this another distraction so that people, regular people, don't focus on the scarcity living in Venezuela?

VANIER: Yes, 1 million percent inflation. That's -- it is stunning, very, very difficult to live under those circumstances. Thank you very much.

Rafael Romo with CNN's latest reporting on this issue.

ROMO: Thank you.

VANIER: Jennifer McCoy is professor of political science at Georgia State University. She joins us now, she's also co-author of the book, "International Mediation in Venezuela."

Jennifer, what is your analysis of what transpired? JENNIFER MCCOY, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, it looks like an attempt on the life of the president. That's what the government is claiming. And it's not the first. There has been a great deal of unrest in Venezuela and also a lot of dissatisfaction apparently, even among military ranks.

The government has been arresting and removing military personnel from the ranks, accusing many of conspiracy against it. So this is another in a pattern that has been going on for the last couple of years. Of course, we'll have to wait to see the evidence, to see what was really behind it.

VANIER: So that's what I was going to point out. Maduro regularly claims there are groups inside and outside Venezuela plotting to overthrow his regime. Often the evidence is shaky, sometimes nonexistent.

My question is, how much of these claims, including today, should we believe?

MCCOY: Well, obviously, something happened because something caused the National Guard, who were all standing up in rank there, to break rank and to run after hearing an explosion. So it's very possible that it could have been an attempt. There have been a couple of others this year.

But also some people say it was, you know, something organized by the government in order to drum up support for it. The government does regularly make accusations of conspiracies from abroad. In this case, he has accused Colombia and Venezuelans living in the United States.

VANIER: Yes, some critics of the regime just flat-out do not believe that these are bona fide attacks against the government. They believe the government's making them up.

But you're telling us there is a real threat and there are real attacks and attempts against this regime?

MCCOY: Well, there was one in the last year by a group of military personnel, who were captured and killed and who had made tapes, audio and videotapes, calling on people to stand up and rebel against the government.

And in a quite audacious act that they had, the helicopter moving over government installations. So there have been some attempts.

But it's difficult to tell this early exactly the nature of this one, who was behind it. And the fear is that the government could use this, whether real or not, as an excuse to round up even more critics or dissidents.

VANIER: How does this tie in with the current economic and political context in Venezuela?

I mean inflation is sky-high. We're into the fourth year of a recession. The economy has collapsed. There's a great deal of animus against this president.

Do you connect what happened today with this overall context?

MCCOY: Well, if it was a real attempt, then that would certainly show how vulnerable the government is because the situation is very untenable for most people living in Venezuela.

If the government -- if it was a made-up event, if it was something that the government constructed itself, it also shows its vulnerability for the dissatisfaction of life. They have announced a new economic plan that will supposedly save the economy.

But I think many outside economists do not have faith in that plan. So we are unlikely to see a dramatic improvement in living standards in Venezuela very soon.

VANIER: Jennifer McCoy, thank you so much for joining us at such short notice with your insights. Thank you.

MCCOY: Thank you.


VANIER: In Zimbabwe, funerals were held to bury those killed in post- election violence.


VANIER (voice-over): Hundreds gathered to mourn a 52-year-old mother of two. Her family says she was shot in the back while coming home from work. Six people were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters. The protesters were alleging election fraud.


VANIER: The main opposition party says it will challenge the results while the newly elected president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, appealed for unity.

Israel facing its biggest backlash yet over a new law declaring the country a Jewish state. The Druze minority led a massive protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday, demanding that the law be rescinded. They say it downgrades them to second class citizens.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denies the law infringes on their rights and the Israeli government was blindsided by this criticism, as the Druze are considered loyal supporters of the state.

The MS-13 gang has the attention of Donald Trump. He says they're animals and that they're a danger to the entire country. We'll meet a former member of MS-13 -- next.




VANIER: Bangladesh saw a large student protest on Saturday. It is it the seventh day of protests and they began after a speeding bus ran into a group of children last Sunday, killing two of them.

Since then, students have blocked streets and brought traffic to a standstill in the capital, Dhaka. They're demanding safer roads and demanding a crackdown on unlicensed drivers and unregistered vehicles.

Police fired tear gas and used batons to disperse the crowds on Saturday. More than 2 dozen protesters were injured.

Donald Trump has made fighting the street gang, MS-13, a central part of his law and order platform. Listening to the U.S. president, you could be forgiven for thinking MS-13 are everywhere, preying on every American.

Mr. Trump zeroed in on this gang, made up largely of immigrants from Central America. Now it is not the largest gang in the U.S. and it isn't just made up of undocumented immigrants.

That said, without a doubt, MS-13 is extremely violent and it poses a serious threat. CNN's Ana Cabrera has that story.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Her life was taken, stolen from her. It's not right. She had dreams. She had goals. She had a future.

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kayla Cuevas, just 16 years old, a talented athlete, nicknamed The Bullet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They named her The Bullet because she was so quick.

CABRERA: But sadly, unable to escape the violence just outside her door. Kayla and her best friend, Nisa Mickens, savagely murdered just blocks from home September 13th, 2016.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is where it happened and Nisa was found right here.

CABRERA: Attacked with baseball bats and a machete, investigators say, victims of Mara Salvatrucha, the gang better known as MS-13.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I miss her every second of the day.

CABRERA: MS-13 is one of the most violent street gangs in the United States. Federal and local officials agree, designated a transnational criminal organization with roots in Central America --


CABRERA: -- more than 30,000 members worldwide, up to 10,000 in the U.S. and as many as 1,000 on Long Island alone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have about 500 identified MS-13 members here in Nassau County. Out of the 500, we have 215 that are active.

CABRERA: How do you identify who is an active member?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Self admitted, so they'll be all tattooed up MS-13 and self admitted. They give the gang signs. When they get arrested, they ask them gang affiliate, yes, MS-13.

CABRERA: What is the gang's MO?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kill, rape, control.

CABRERA: Ruling by fear, victims of their violence and recruitment are often young. Local law enforcement says the gang first came on their radar in 2010, but they started to see an uptick in gang violence in 2013.

According to intelligence, that's when leaders of MS-13 in El Salvador made a concerted effort to grow and establish new branches of the gang, so called programs in different pockets of the U.S., including the affluent suburbs of New York City and Long Island.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why New York is the question. And the answer is that in Suffolk County at least, there is a large Salvadorian population. There is a large population from the northern triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras.

There is also a record number of unaccompanied minors coming to Suffolk County during that time.

CABRERA: Since 2014, the U.S. government has placed more than 9,000 unaccompanied minors, undocumented children and teenagers who have crossed into the U.S. without parents or guardians, with sponsors in Long Island communities.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many of them don't speak English. They don't have money in their pocket. Their parents typically aren't with them. They are seeking a sense of belonging.

And MS-13 comes to them and says, hey, we can provide that, but if you don't join the gang, this is what's going to happen to you. And you know what we know where your family lives.

TRUMP: You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals.

CABRERA: Is the immigration rhetoric that we're hearing in the current administration in D.C. helping or hurting your efforts?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Certainly, the administration's focus on MS-13 is helpful, both in terms of awareness, resources and driving the mission. But I think it is also very clear that we need to be sending a message to the immigrant population, the immigrant communities that we stand with them.

CABRERA: And you don't feel like your community is being used as a political pawn in any way. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As a police commissioner, I stay out of politics. My job is to serve and protect all the people. It doesn't matter what your political affiliation is, the color of your skin, or what your religion is. It doesn't matter to me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Her life was so short.

CABRERA: Rodriguez says she's grateful for the support of the President. And New York's governor who recently allocated more than $18 million for gang violence prevention and intervention programs. And she wants to be part of the solution to a safer community, whatever it takes to prevent another family's pain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just want them to stop what they're doing. They're hurting family members, loved ones. In the end result, you're hurting yourself.


VANIER: Well, Alex Sanchez joins me now in Los Angeles.

Alex, it's great to have you on show because you've got unique insight into this. You used to be a member of MS-13. You're out now and you cofounded Homies Unidos, a group that works to end violence and promote peace in El Salvador and in Los Angeles.

Start by telling us, why did you join the gang?

ALEX SANCHEZ, FORMER MS-13 MEMBER: I came in 1979. I was a young man, 17 years old, that came with my brother after our parents left us behind due to the uprising of the conflict between the guerrillas and the government.

And they fled, left us behind. They sent for us five years later. And we came into a community in Koreatown, that there was a lot of socioeconomic issues.

And our parents were just alien to us. We just didn't recognize them as our parents initially because we didn't know them. And we started having problems at home, physical violence as well as other problems in the streets.

And the schools, we were being bullied and I was looking for a way out. I was looking for answers. And the streets in my community had a lot of choices to make and one of those choices was a gang, besides committing suicide, besides becoming a drug addict, an alcoholic. Those were all choices that were available to our community right there. And I decided to join a gang.

VANIER: Why do you say -- because this is pertinent to the current immigration debate -- why do you say you didn't recognize them as your parents?

SANCHEZ: Because once you live -- once your parents leave you behind as a child, I was 3 years old when my father and mother left us.


SANCHEZ: My little brother was a year and a half. And after a while, you get to call somebody else Mom or Dad; in this case, it was some neighbors but many of my friends, have -- were raised by their grandmothers or grandparents.

So once they come to see them years later, they really don't know that individual anymore and the parent doesn't know their child anymore. And initially is a honeymoon stage, in which you try to show your son and you're trying to get to know your parent. But as time progresses, this sense of abandonment sets in.

VANIER: Alex, how did MS-13 become so powerful?

Ana explained to us, actually, it was centrally directed from El Salvador. They wanted to gain power and turf in the U.S.

But how did they do it?

SANCHEZ: Well, the gang evolutionizes (sic). The gang, when it started, it was into heavy metal music. They did not call themselves a gang. Once they starred getting arrested for petty things, law enforcement started calling them a gang. And they starred claiming it as such.

The criminal justice, the juvenile system shaped them into a traditional gang.

And then the deportation system exported the problem to Central America. So the issue is that the gang advances and changes and evolutionizes (sic), based on the policies that are implemented against them.

In this case, it's been suppression after suppression after suppression and it spreads out because people move, people are persecuted.

And that's why we have this problem, that it has spread throughout Central America, throughout many Central American communities because of the same reasoning, why or how they've been attacked, that's been focused on repression.

VANIER: Alex, I have to push back a little bit. This is a key idea. You're not the only person to say this. But you say the gangs become the gangs, become what they are and these violent entities essentially because of the policies of the American government?

Many people will think the gangs are the gangs because they want to do that.

SANCHEZ: No, the gangs exist because there's socioeconomic issues in most of the issues where gangs exist. MS-13 is just one of about 30,000 gangs in the United States. It's not the biggest but it's one that has been targeted due to the anti-immigration climate.

Considering this gang being mostly composed of immigrants, that's why it's become an easy target.

On the other hand, we have so many gangs in this country, in which, most of those communities where gangs exist, there's also all these socioeconomic issues that gives a way for our youth to decide to commit suicide this way.

So it's not like a child decides to, I want to be a murderer, I want to kill somebody and I want to go to prison as a way of life. No, no child does that. But that's one of the choices of the community that exists in those places because there's no employment, there's no proper education system.


VANIER: I've got to get one more in before we run out of time. Donald Trump wants to eradicate MS-13.

What do you think is the best way to do that?

SANCHEZ: The best way is what many organizations have been doing in certain communities. Los Angeles has led the way in trying to bring even former gang members to get involved and work in the communities, to eradicate the problem from the inside out, without having to force them to become informants or force them to tell on friends.

It's about reducing violence by providing resources to those communities. So that's what we intend to do in our communities. And that's what some of our friends in Long Island are trying to do as we speak.

VANIER: Alex Sanchez, co-founder of Homies Unidos, I appreciate you taking the time to come on today. We appreciate your voice. Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Thank you for having me on.

VANIER: Still ahead, firefighters in Portugal battle a major wildfire as most of the continent continues to swelter.

Is there an end to the heat wave in sight?

We'll have the latest forecast and speak to the CNN Weather Center.





VANIER: Western Europe remains in the grip of a deadly heat wave with more records being set.


VANIER: Thank you for watching. I'm Cyril Vanier. The headlines just around the corner.