Venezuelan special forces who launched a deadly attack using rocket launchers and assault rifles against a former cop-turned-rebel had orders not to take anyone alive, the insurgent told an ally by telephone shortly before he was killed Monday with six of his followers.
Fearing for the lives of his fellow rebels and those of an innocent family also in the house where the shootout occurred, Óscar Pérez tried to negotiate his surrender with a National Guard major, whose agents had surrounded the house, according to a member of the Venezuelan opposition group known as Resistencia who was in touch with Pérez by phone during his last hours alive.
“He told me that it was the major himself who announced that they were not going to take anyone alive. ‘We are not going to negotiate; the order is to kill you,’ that’s what he [Pérez] was told,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“Then he [Pérez] said he had to say goodbye because he needed to save the battery and record everything,” the source said.
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Pérez, a former police officer and pilot, and at least six of his followers were killed Monday morning following a government military operation for his capture. The deadly assault was captured in a series of videos posted on social media in the midst of the assault.
The Resistencia (Resistance) member’s testimony and that of several other people who also spoke with Pérez by phone as the National Guard took aim at the group’s hideout in a village outside of Caracas — as well as video snippets recorded and disseminated by Pérez — seem to support widespread speculation that the rebels were victims of extrajudicial executions.
In a public address Tuesday night, President Nicolás Maduro verbally applauded the operation calling it “orden cumplida” or “order fulfilled.”
He also accused anti-government supporters in Miami and Colombia of financing terrorist groups in Venezuela: “...every group that is armed and financed to bring terrorism will suffer the same fate,” Maduro warned.
Earlier in the day, the regime said the deaths were the result of a confrontation between law enforcement agents and a dangerous terrorist cell. According to the government, the shooting began after Pérez and his group opened fire on the special forces team sent to negotiate the group’s surrender.
In addition to Pérez, another six members of his group — five men and a woman — died during Monday’s shooting, the government said.
Rebel associates claim that there were four other people in the house who remain unaccounted for, including a woman and two children, and are feared dead.
Two government agents also were killed and eight police officers were wounded, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said Tuesday at a press conference in Caracas.
Reverol, a controversial National Guard general who is accused by U.S. officials of drug trafficking, said that police discovered Pérez’s location as a result of an interview he had with CNN en Español and from information provided by the Venezuelan opposition during a dialogue process held in the Dominican Republic.
The Venezuelan opposition, however, flatly rejected the statement, calling it “false” and “absurd,” while CNN explained that it had strictly followed security instructions issued by Pérez’s team as part of the interview agreement.
Pérez’s group contacted the network in early January. After checking their identities, the station agreed to carry out the interview with its journalist Fernando del Rincón. The interview was recorded on Jan. 9, CNN said in an email.
While CNN continued with production, Pérez’s team asked the station to delay transmission until Jan. 11 due to security concerns and the network agreed to do so. The interview was finally broadcast on Friday, three days after its recording.
In a separate interview on Monday, following the deadly assault, Del Rincón spoke with another member of Pérez’s group. That member “assured us that a leak of information from a member of the pilot’s own team had led the authorities to locate him,” CNN said.
El Nuevo Herald interviews with several sources — all of whom declined to be identified for fear of retribution — and a review of videos posted by Pérez on social media during the assault illustrate a chain of events different from that provided by Reverol.
The Resistencia member who spoke to Pérez by phone said that once he was surrounded, he decided to turn himself in because he did not want to sacrifice the lives of his fellow rebels and of civilians who were in the house.
Other sources who spoke with Pérez during the military operation also said that he wanted to avoid a bloodbath.
At one point during the assault, Pérez even called his former boss at the Federal Investigative Police Agency, known in Venezuela by the acronym CICPC, requesting the presence of the Attorney General’s staff and of representatives of the press to ensure his safety and that of his men, another source said.
Videos posted on social media on Monday also showed Pérez trying to surrender.
In one of the videos, he was heard yelling to the National Guard major outside that he had decided to surrender because he wanted to prevent the death of the civilians inside.
But the government security force had no intention of letting him out alive, the sources said.
Shortly after dawn, a barrage of bullets fired from assault rifles destroyed the house. Unlike the 9-millimeter bullets used by law enforcement agencies around the world, the bullets for the assault rifles used by Venezuela’s special forces are capable of penetrating multiple walls.
The videos that circulated also showed the use of rocket launchers in the assault. In one of them, Pérez, with a bloodied face, announced to the Venezuelan population that the regime was using an RPG rocket launcher against his group.
In another video, taken by a stranger outside, an agent dressed in black is seen launching a rocket that hit the top of the house, causing extensive damage.
The sources interviewed by el Nuevo Herald said they believed that the rocket-propelled grenade launched by the National Guard team hit the section of the house where Pérez and his followers were huddled. Such a hit would make it unlikely they would survive the blast.
“If someone had survived the explosion, it is likely that it was finished once they entered the house,” said one of the sources who lives in the United States but was in contact with Pérez during his final hours.
It is not clear how the government agents were injured during the operation.
Pérez, a former cop and aspiring actor, gained notoriety in July of 2017 when, amid anti-government protests that left more than 100 people dead, he launched several grenades from a stolen police helicopter against two government buildings in Caracas.
This “terrorist attack,” as the government called it, caused no injuries or significant damage to the buildings.
Pérez had been on the run since then, and the government had issued a national and international alert for his capture.
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM
El Nuevo Herald staffer Catalina Ruiz Parra contributed to this report.