World News

Fugitive Venezuelan Police Officer Is Killed in Shootout

Posted January 16, 2018 2:59 p.m. EST

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Óscar Pérez, a helicopter pilot and former police officer who led an armed rebel band against the isolated and embattled government of Venezuela, was killed in a shootout with the authorities, the authorities announced Tuesday, bringing an end to a dramatic event that unfolded a day earlier in videos on social media.

Pérez, 36, rose to fame last year during street protests against President Nicolás Maduro as a dissident police officer. In June, he and a small group commandeered a helicopter in the capital, Caracas, and used it to drop grenades onto the Supreme Court building and open fire on the Interior Ministry in a brazen midday attack.

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, which vowed to capture him.

He had been a fugitive — and an online nuisance to the government — ever since, posting videos urging Venezuelans to resist what he called Maduro’s tyrannical government.

Pérez posted videos of himself early Monday, with blood dripping across his face, holed up in a house under fire. He shouted that the group wished to surrender, but that the police outside were set on killing them.

“I want to ask Venezuela not to lose heart — fight, take to the streets,” he said. “It is time for us to be free, and only you have the power now.”

In a statement Tuesday, the Venezuelan interior and justice minister, Néstor Reverol, said that Pérez was among seven dead, whom he called “insurgents and terrorists.” Two police officers were killed in the shootout and five were injured, the authorities said.

Reverol said that troops had arrested six people identified as members, collaborators and financiers of Pérez’s group. They also confiscated rifles, military uniforms, ammunition and smoke grenades.

Pictures posted on social media that were said to have been from the scene of the firefight showed bodies believed to be those of the rebels.

In one of a series of videos posted on Twitter that showed Pérez bloodied and besieged, he shouted: “They don’t want us to surrender; they want us dead!”

Pérez was one of the more improbable figures to emerge from last year’s political turmoil in Venezuela. A police officer who once starred in a low-budget action movie about a crime squad, he became a real-life version of the character he had portrayed.

On Monday, Venezuelans were glued to the unfolding events on social media. Early in the morning, Perez announced that his location had been discovered. Then he began releasing videos.

“We’re negotiating with the officials and the prosecutors,” he said calmly into the camera in one of the first messages, appearing in a dark room.

Other rebels could be heard shouting into phones in the background.

In a later video, posted after daybreak, Pérez turned the camera outside, where government officials could be seen calling up to him.

“We’re not criminals,” he told them. “We’re patriots who are fighting for our convictions.”

In the videos, Pérez was heard saying repeatedly that his group would surrender because it was accompanied by civilians. He said they did not want a fight.

But in a later video, the two sides appeared to have stopped talking and begun battle. A rebel in a helmet and flak jacket could be seen taking cover beside a wall while another held a rifle behind a filing cabinet.

“Hold your fire!” someone shouted. While Pérez said last year that he hoped others would take up his call, he looked increasingly alone in recent months.

After appearing in public during an antigovernment 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.

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

On Monday, a video posted on Twitter was attributed to Pérez’s mother, who pleaded with the government to allow him to surrender.

But the firefight continued.

“They’re throwing grenade after grenade,” Pérez 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 appeared exhausted. His face was covered with blood and he was panting. The sounds of gunshots rang in the background.

“They don’t want us to surrender,” he said.