Venezuela transfixed by siege of rebels led by former action hero

Several killed after security forces raid hideout of rebel leader Óscar Pérez

A Venezuelan police helicopter has been recorded attacking the pro-president Maduro supreme court and a government ministry with bullets and grenades. Video: Reuters

 

In a fatal shootout on Monday that transfixed Venezuela, security forces surrounded the Caracas hideout of a rebel band led by a rogue helicopter pilot who was once an action movie actor and is now the government’s most-wanted man.

“They don’t want us to surrender, they want us dead!” the rebel leader, Óscar Pérez, shouts in one of a series of videos posted on Twitter that showed him bloodied and under siege.

In a statement on Monday, Venezuelan officials said they had dismantled what they called a dangerous terrorist group, saying five members had been captured. Two police officers were killed and five were injured, they said.

Photos posted on social media sites that were said to have been leaked from the scene of the firefight showed what were believed to be the bodies of dead rebels.

Pérez rose to fame last year during street protests against President Nicolás Maduro as a daring dissident police officer revolting against the government. In June, he and a small group commandeered a helicopter in the capital, Caracas. They used it to drop grenades onto the supreme court building and open fire on the interior ministry in a brazen midday attack.

An image of an injured Óscar Pérez from a video that appeared on social media on Monday. Photograph: Social Media Website via Reuters
An image of an injured Óscar Pérez from a video that appeared on social media on Monday. Photograph: Social Media Website via Reuters

Pérez then unfurled a banner calling on Venezuelans to rebel against Maduro, to the cheers of protesters below. He later released a video in which he and a masked band repeated their calls of rebellion.

While no one was injured in that attack, it was an embarrassment for the government, and it vowed to capture him. It also signalled the rise of one of the most improbable figures in Venezuela’s political turmoil last year: a police officer who had once starred in a low-budget action movie about a crime squad. Now, it seemed, he was playing a real-life version of the character he had portrayed.

Social media videos

On Monday, Venezuelans were glued to the unfolding events on social media. In the morning, Pérez announced that his location had been discovered. Then he began releasing a series of videos. “We’re negotiating with the officials and the prosecutors,” he says calmly into the camera in one of the first messages, appearing in a dark room. Other rebels can be heard in the background shouting into phones.

In a later video, posted after daybreak, Pérez turns the camera outside, where government officials can be seen calling up to him. “We’re not criminals,” he tells them. “We’re patriots who are fighting for our convictions.”

In the videos, Pérez is heard saying repeatedly that his group will surrender because it is accompanied by civilians. He says they do not want a fight. But in a later video, the two sides appear to have stopped talking and begun fighting. A rebel in a helmet and flak jacket can be seen taking cover beside a wall while another holds a rifle behind a filing cabinet. “Hold your fire!” someone shouts.

Members of the Bolivarian Armed Forces head to the location of an operation against a rebel group in the El Junquito neighbourhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA
Members of the Bolivarian Armed Forces head to the location of an operation against a rebel group in the El Junquito neighbourhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

While Pérez said last year that he had hoped others would take up his call, he has looked increasingly alone in recent months. After appearing in public during an anti-government rally in July, Pérez largely disappeared from public view. While some members of the security forces staged rebellions of their own in the time afterward, top military officials stayed loyal to Maduro’s government. Pérez’s abandoned helicopter was found by the government shortly after the June attack.

Disbanded protests

Perhaps most demoralising to Pérez and his followers was the disbanding of street protests against Maduro that took place after he consolidated power by dissolving the opposition-controlled Congress and establishing a new one packed with loyalists.

On Monday, a video attributed to Pérez’s mother was posted on Twitter in which she pleaded with the government to allow him to surrender. But the firefight continued.

“They’re throwing grenade after grenade,” he said, his face bloodied as he crouched behind an oven with his rifle. “They’re shooting at us. Venezuelans: Freedom forever!”

In one of the last messages, Pérez appears exhausted. His face is covered with blood and he is panting. The sounds of gunshots ring in the background. “They don’t want us to surrender,” he says. – New York Times