WILLEMSTAD, Curacao (AP) — A close ally of a charismatic but divisive politician killed by two assailants in Curacao said Monday he believes the lawmaker was slain in some sort of politically motivated attack on the Dutch Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela.
Donald Balentina, president of the Curacao political party founded by slain politician Helmin Wiels, told The Associated Press that he thinks the fiery, populist lawmaker was targeted by gunmen due to politics. He noted that Wiels, a highly influential member of the coalition government, had made several anti-corruption speeches in recent days and on Friday publicly accused a local telecommunications company of being involved in the illegal sale of lottery numbers.
"I think it was a political motive," Balentina said a day after Wiels was hit by five bullets at Curacao's Marie Pompoen beach as he sipped a beer and socialized. "Maybe they did this to shut his mouth."
The always outspoken Wiels loomed large over the small island's political landscape. The leftist, pro-independence Pueblo Soberano party he helped found emerged as the top vote getter in October elections, holding five of 21 seats in Parliament in a coalition government.
There was some speculation that Wiels, a 54-year-old former social worker, could be chosen as the top official in a new Council of Ministers being worked out, although Balentina and other allies said he was not interested in gaining the top position.
Ronald Plasterk, the Dutch interior minister and official who deals with Curacao on a diplomatic level, described Wiels as a "true leader" who was "in actuality the most powerful man" on the island.
"For the record, we don't know yet whether it's a political murder," Plasterk said in an interview with Dutch national broadcaster NOS. "He was murdered, but it could also be because of the way he took on corruption, or the drugs world or something else rotten."
Justice Minister Nelson Navarro has said Wiels had received threats and typically had security throughout the week. He apparently declined security on Sunday.
Wiels often seized the political stage with passionate criticism of the Netherlands. He called for complete independence, saying stronger links needed to be forged with South American neighbors.
Last year, he said it would likely take a decade before Curacao would be ready to become totally independent. The island is an almost entirely autonomous nation, but it is still considered a "constituent country" of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the former colonial ruler controls Curacao's defense and foreign policy.
Wiels also wanted to expel the U.S. military planes stationed for more than a decade at the Willemstad airport for multinational counter-drug missions in the Caribbean.
For years, he regularly railed against corruption and low government performance in education and other sectors. His impeccably dressed image was often seen on television and in newspapers.
The U.S. Consulate General in Curacao condemned the slaying of Wiels, calling him a "passionate advocate for the disadvantaged and unemployed" who "bravely fought against corruption and to expand education opportunities for Curacao's youth."
The killing unleashed a tide of emotion on Curacao, where numerous cars could be seen flying the island's flag along with the flag of Wiels' political party. Mournful supporters gathered at the party's headquarters, lit by a couple of candles.
A small bundle of flowers formed a makeshift memorial at the spot where Wiels was declared dead. His body was driven away in a hearse Sunday night and people lining the road leaned in to tap the roof and windows.
Police released few details, but said they were looking for two assailants who sped off in a gold-colored car after shooting Wiels. Witnesses said one of the gunmen appeared to be wearing a mask.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte condemned the slaying, and offered sympathy and help from his government. "A lot is still not clear, but nothing can justify a cowardly deed like this," he said in a statement.
The island of some 150,000 people is about 40 miles off Venezuela. It's best known for its diving opportunities and historic city center, a U.N. World Heritage site.
Associated Press writer Karen Attiah reported this story in Willemstad and David McFadden reported from Kingston, Jamaica. AP writer Toby Sterling in Amsterdam contributed to this report.