Aida Merlano has been a fugitive since October but Maduro has afforded her all of the considerations. The star treatment for Maduro has given her makes observers wonder: is Maduro imprisoning her or protecting her?.
Merlano sided with Maduro from day one: every public statement she has made is an attack on Ivan Duque, Maduro’s sworn regional enemy. Not once has she complained about the treatment Maduro has given her; while pictures of Venezuelan lawmaker Juan Requesens shows him covered in what look like human filth went viral, Merlano showed up for her arraignment in high heels, pouty makeup and a short skirt.
And, of course, no handcuffs for a woman who was videotaped roping down a third-story window and into the backseat of a motorcycle in October of last year before being peacefully recaptured in Maracaibo, Zulia state, in January. She is no flight risk.
The arraignment quickly turned into a press conference –Maduro even sent an invitation to foreign and local media outlets through the official channels- where Merlano accused Ivan Duque of plotting to kill her. A very different situation from similar hearings for Venezuela’s 400 political prisoners.
Merlano asked for Maduro’s protection. She was asking to stay in jail, in a foreign country, a first, according to court reporters. Here some tips about the mysterious, rope-climbing, high-heels wearing by Merlano:
1.- Aida Merlano Rebolledo (Barranquilla, 1980) is a lawyer from Universidad Libre, although El País newspaper could not find her name in the National Lawyers’ Registry. She has been in politics since the age of 15, under the wing of Roberto Gerlein, a Conservative Party politician and businessman with whom Colombian media said the twice-married Merlano supposedly had an affair. She has two sons with her first husband, a taxi driver.
2.- She was elected a state legislator for the first time in 2011, with record-high voting, and she repeated the feat in 2014, this time as a national lawmaker before Colombia’s Chamber of Representatives. In 2018 Gerlein decided to forsake the seat he had been holding since 1974 and allow Merlano to run. She won.
3.- Finally, she was a senator for only a few days. Elected on March 11th, 2018, her campaign office was raided by police a few days after. The cops found a box with the Colombian equivalent of $80,000 in cash and records of what courts determined as a convoluted vote-buying scheme.
Merlano is arrested and charged with corrupting voters, criminal association and weapons charges. She was sent to the El Buen Pastor prison in Bogota and in September 2019 sentenced to 15 years in prison. She is described as a former senator but she never attended a single Senate session.
4.- Colombian magazine Semana, said Merlano used “the most sophisticated vote-buying system so far known in this country.” Voters received $12 and had to leave a receipt, which police found. Merlano also used QR codes in a digital system controlling every voter and leaving a print and digital trail, a technology similar to the Nicolas Maduro used since 2016 in every election, and the reason why his 2018 reelection was deemed fraudulent.
Merlano’s system also was used to keep a tally of ringleader’s expenses. All of that information allowed Colombian authorities to accuse Merlano of spending half a million dollars in her campaign, double the maximum of $250,000 allowed by law.
5.- Two weeks after sentencing Merlano managed an escape that Colombian press dubbed “Hollywood-esque”. She famously climbed down a rope dangling from a third-story window (she had requested to go to the dentist) and hopped into the backseat of an awaiting motorcycle from the Rappi deliveries company. An Escobar-worthy dragnet fell on Bogota first, and Colombia later, but she could not be recaptured, giving the incoming, tough-on-crime government of Ivan Duque its first major black eye. Merlano said she had the help of Julio Gerlein, brother of mentor Roberto, and businessman Arturo Char, but that they then turned on her, sexually assaulting her and keeping her prisoner in a farm near the border with Venezuela.
6.- From the farm, Merlano also escaped, entering Venezuela through a “coyote road” known only to people smugglers’, using a fake Venezuelan ID. That situation quickly turned, however, as police found her regally ensconced in an apartment in Maracaibo city, close to the National Guard command and the federal court building. She lived there for at least two months, with a Colombian male national named Jacob Vargas, supposedly her boyfriend.
7.- January 27th: Merlano and Vargas are captured by FAES, a law-enforcement agency so violent, the United Nations has twice recommended it be disbanded. However, FAES does not fire a single shot. In the apartment, fake IDs, hair extensions and wigs were found. She was charged on the 28th with the usurpation of identity, use of false ID documents, and criminal concert and sent to Caracas.
8.- Upon learning of Merlano’s recapture, the Duque administration stated that it would only deal with the interim government of Juan Guaido per her surrender since it does not recognize Maduro. Maduro said he would not remand Merlano into Duque’s custody. Instead, he had FAES (who is ascribed to the National Police) hand Merlano over to SEBIN, the national intelligence service Maduro directly controls.
9.- That is how Merlano went from fugitive to some sort of trophy Maduro uses to make Duque even more mad at him. Duque “does not want her to return to Colombia. Aida Merlano knows a lot of truths about Colombia’s political class and it would be an untenable scandal”, Maduro said January 30th. He also called Duque and “an obstinate brute like only he can be”.