By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
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Two days later, as expected by the opposition, the National Elections Council rejected nearly half the signatures on a petition demanding a recall. As the council claimed fraud, riots raged in Caracas, its suburbs, and at least 10 other cities. An anti-Chávez activist was shot in western Venezuela. A young opposition protester was apparently shot by a sniper. An estimated 300 people were arrested, some claiming torture. Amid the chaos, Alonso says, he took to the Caracas streets to try to quell violence. Though he went on radio to urge people to continue the Guarimba, protests slowed the first week of March, when the elections council and some opposition leaders agreed to negotiate about the signatures.
Despite the melee, Alonso declared the Guarimba a total success. In a video he made about the protest, "Amazing Grace" plays over footage of shirtless men with bleeding wounds and demonstrators cowering before military police. He encourages people to use their cars to block the streets: "Next time we will triumph!"
Then he was tipped off that the police were coming for him. Toting $2000 in cash, he went into hiding.
When Robert Alonso became a fugitive, one of his first stops was a friend's house. But the man's wife became so nervous she shook uncontrollably, and the ice almost fell from her whiskey on the rocks. So he considered other options.
His story from the underground days that followed sounds as if it were cribbed from an espionage thriller. (In fact Daktari and its owner appear in a 2006 spy novel, The Beast Must Die, by best-selling French author Gérard de Villiers.) One day he would board a bus bound for a Venezuelan coast and grab some shut-eye during the voyage. At the final stop, he'd board in the opposite direction. And then he'd repeat.
On layovers, Alonso says, he ducked into funeral homes and blended with grieving families. He recalls napping in beds for sleep-deprived mourners and gulping down complimentary hot chocolate. In public he wore sunglasses and contact lenses to mask his pupils, and carried a walking stick so he'd seem blind.
At some point in April 2004, he met with other activists calling themselves the "Brigade Daktari." (A Venezuelan flag hangs on his home office wall with about 50 signatures from this mysterious meeting.) Then he left for Colombia. Carrying a GPS, Alonso says, he navigated the jungle between the two countries and then hopped a bus to Bogotá. He took a plane to Miami in late April.
He lived apart from Siomi and their two young sons in Kendall so they'd be safe. His fugitive odyssey continued. On Mother's Day, May 9, he learned Chávez had announced a victory in "the fight against terrorism." Seventy-seven alleged paramilitaries had been arrested and accused of a plot to overthrow Chávez's government. In a Sunday address the Venezuelan president said, "All these arrests were made at the farm of a citizen of Cuban origin — of the Cubans known as worms, the anti-Fidel, the Cuban counterrevolution, which moves through Central America, Miami, North America, and South America — whose name is Robert Alonso, nicknamed 'El Coronel.'"
Chávez applauded the three months of intelligence work by the government's police for cracking the operation that yielded Colombians dressed in Venezuelan military uniforms. Alonso denies being capable of carrying out such a plot, saying he was gone long by then. "Am I Superman or 007?" he asks.
When Maria Conchita Alonso heard the Venezuelan government link her bother to terrorism, the now-50-year-old Hollywood actress thought, "Oh please. Terrorists are people who don't care about anybody. Terrorists are killers that are not lovers of freedom and democracy and equality among people. [This is not] my brother."
At the time, José Prado, general manager of TeleMiami, was vacationing in Caracas. He recalls seeing news of the case clog TV. "They presented his army, but the army didn't have shoes," he says. "That was a joke." A day or so later, he contends, armed police stormed a plane he and some others had chartered to a nearby island. "The pilot said they were looking for Robert Alonso."
By May 17, a Venezuelan government news release reported that more than 100 Colombian paramilitaries had been captured in connection with the Daktari plot. In another strange twist, a dead body had been found.
The men went on trial in October 2005. One Colombian suspect said he accepted work as a farm hand near Bogotá, but then was shuttled to Daktari, where Alonso greeted him. The man claimed that while he stayed on the property, he and the others did military exercises with sticks and were shown videos of armed men assaulting buses.
But apart from a pistol found on one man, no weapons were seized, and some people questioned whether the government had crafted the plot. A detainee shouted "sham" in court. Eventually only 27 of the 100-plus Colombians were convicted, and three Venezuelan officers were sentenced, for conspiring. A month and a half ago, Chávez freed the convicted Colombians. It was a way to promote peace within the neighboring nation, he said.
As to the alleged paramilitaries, Alonso and his wife say the Colombians were likely sent to his property as payback for the e-mail alerts urging chaos to overthrow Chávez. "If it was a real crime scene, why would they let those people in our home to destroy the evidence?" Siomi says, referring to the day her underwear starred on the news.