Not considered a serious rebel while alive, Venezuelan emerges as powerful symbol after death

A member of the national police shoots rubber bullets during a demonstration in Caracas to protest the death of the insurgent Óscar Pérez. The graffiti reads: “Oscar Perez Lives.”
A member of the national police shoots rubber bullets during a demonstration in Caracas to protest the death of the insurgent Óscar Pérez. The graffiti reads: “Oscar Perez Lives.” AFP/Getty Images

He had to die to be taken seriously.

Óscar Pérez, 36, stepped into the spotlight pulling a couple of daring stunts to try to jump-start an insurrection against the Nicolás Maduro regime. But the former cop, who also was a pilot and aspiring actor, was distrusted — even openly rejected — by most in the Venezuelan opposition movement. Until he was killed by government forces.

While it remains to be seen if Pérez’s example ends up inspiring the rebellion for which he risked his life, his death did become the perfect illustration of the extremes to which the Maduro government is willing to use violence in order to squelch any potential uprising.

“Óscar Pérez’s death showed the world the true nature of the regime,” former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana said in a telephone interview.

“After seeing Óscar Pérez’s execution live [in videos posted on social media], when he had already surrendered and was prepared not to shoot, the world took notice of how a narco-dictatorship violates the norms of international law, commits crimes against humanity and is willing to kill its opponents,” Pastrana said.

Even his burial on Sunday was a scene of heavy security.

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Carolina Gil, a supporter of rebel policeman Óscar Pérez, mourns at the burial site covered with a Venezuelan flag at a cemetery in Caracas, Venezuela. Fernando Llano AP

Only two of Pérez’s relatives were allowed to attend the interment at a Caracas cemetery surrounded by National Guard officers. The National Guard, along with the National Bolivarian Police, also was responsible for last week’s operation that resulted in the rebel’s death, along with six supporters.

They died on Jan. 15 in a shootout at a house used as a hideout in a small mountain community outside of Caracas. It was the end of a six-month manhunt for the former policeman, which began after he led a helicopter attack on government buildings in June and called for an uprising against the government.

Venezuela officials have called Pérez and his group a “terrorist cell,” and blamed them for instigating the violent operation that also resulted in the death of two government security officers. The government has been accused of unlawfully killing the group after video clips recorded by Pérez and posted on social media during the shootout showed him calling out that the rebels wished to surrender.

The president made no apologies for the deaths, publicly congratulating the National Guard for dutifully fulfilling their mission: “Orden cumplida,” Maduro said. “Order fulfilled.”

Óscar Pérez, the Venezuelan policeman wanted after attacking the headquarters of the Supreme Court and the Ministry of the Interior from a helicopter, is surrounded by Venezuelan government forces.

Pérez was the last of the seven to be buried by the military over the weekend. The families received death certificates showing that he and the others had each died of a gunshot to the head.

The images of the early-morning assault of the hideout under attack with rocket launchers and assault rifles circulated through social media, shocking Venezuelans and members of the international community. The video snippets — recorded by Pérez while bullets from multiple weapons ripped through the walls around him — came in spurts and evolved in intensity. At one point, Pérez looked into the camera as blood covered his face and he shouted that he and his group were trying to surrender to no avail.

At one point, it was later learned, even as Pérez tried to negotiate a surrender, the major he was in touch with told him no one would be taken alive.

“We are not going to negotiate; the order is to kill you,” the major who headed the operation reportedly told Pérez, according to a source who spoke with the rogue policeman by phone before the final assault, in which RPG rocket launchers were used.

The videos stunned many around the world.

“The Butcher” is how German newspaper Spiegel Daily, owned by the renowned Der Spiegel magazine, labeled Maduro.

“An ordered massacre” was the term used by more than 20 former presidents from Spain and across Latin America to condemn the action from the “dictatorship.”

For many Venezuelans, it was only after they saw those images that they became convinced that Pérez was not a fake dissident. Even during the armed assault, some highly influential opposition figures kept insisting through social media that Pérez was actually a government mole and that the shootout was just a show orchestrated to confuse the population.

“For many, the appearance of this character was rather clownish,” said Venezuelan sociologist Rafael Revilla.

Pérez first appeared before the public in the 2015 Venezuelan film “Suspended Death,” where he played the role of a CICPC Investigative Police Office, which he was in real life.

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In this July 13, 2017, file photo, Óscar Pérez speaks to the press at a night vigil to honor the more than 90 people killed during three months of anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela. Miguel Rodriguez AP File

In the action-packed film, Pérez played a sort of Venezuelan Rambo who, after multiple chases, at times involving a helicopter he piloted, multiple shootouts and hand-to-hand combat, saves a kidnapped businessman from being killed.

But it was another helicopter flight — one taking place during last year’s massive antigovernment protests — that actually put Pérez on most people’s radar. Declaring himself in rebellion, Pérez flew in late June over the Venezuelan Supreme Court Palace, while his men threw a non-lethal flash bang grenade and held a banner citing Article 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which urges the population to rise up against authoritarian regimes.

The Maduro government immediately accused the group of having launched a terrorist attack with regular grenades, but then Pérez appeared in a video claiming that the operation was carefully planned so that there were no victims.

“There was no collateral damage because it was programmed that way and because we are not assassins like you, Mr. Nicolás Maduro, like you are, Diosdado Cabello [one of the main regime leaders], who daily bring grief to Venezuelan homes,” Pérez replied in a video.

And giving more details on what he was about, Pérez urged Venezuelans anew to rebel. “Be aware that the moment is now and not tomorrow. The moment of truth is now, and we must act so that we have a new dawn. ... Let us stand firm on the streets, let us keep the fury, let us act with energy. We are defending our future. We are defending our rights and fulfilling our duties. We are defending our flag.”

Although Pérez was often seen carrying weapons in his videos, the actions he undertook were executed with care to avoid bloodshed.

In the assault he carried out in December, for example, he and a small group of men assaulted a National Guard post in the city of Los Teques, south of Caracas, taking possession of 26 rifles and three pistols.

But none of the soldiers intercepted in what he dubbed Operation Genesis was harmed. They were, however, humiliated in videos with the rebels asking them: “Why do you keep defending drug traffickers and traitors of the fatherland?”

From the very beginning, leaders of the Venezuelan opposition parties didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with Pérez, especially since his popular uprising proposal went against the more peaceful approach of getting Maduro to step down from power through negotiations leading to presidential elections.

Even in Miami, where most members of the Venezuelan community have ceased to believe that Maduro would ever concede losing at the polls, opposition leaders expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the Pérez movement.

“It is a possibility, but not a probability,” José Hernández, a South Florida representative of opposition party Primero Justicia, told NBC 6, when asked if he believed that a group of police officers had turned against the government.

“What we really want, as a political party, is that Venezuelans have the option of expressing themselves through voting, not through violence,” he added.

Even if he still remained an uncomfortable figure, Pérez’s death did prompt opposition parties to change their tune and condemn the killing.

“What happened … is a crime against humanity that will be condemned all over the world,” opposition deputy Simón Calzadilla said in a radio interview.

But it remains to be seen if the deaths will lead political parties to step away from negotiations being held with the Maduro government in the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, other Venezuelans have begun to treat Pérez as a symbol of the country’s struggle to regain its democracy.

“A hero of democracy has been born, peaceful, handsome and courageous, without victims despite Maduro,” well-respected Venezuelan columnist Ludmila Vinogradoff wrote recently. “He is a hero of modern times: pacifist, idealist, romantic and media savvy. He has no deaths to his credit. He proclaimed justice and freedom for Venezuela. He did not have a speech that dazzled politicians and intellectuals, but rather a short, direct language with no left or right ideological adornments.”

A small protest, held in Caracas on Monday to honor the fallen rebel cop, was easily dispersed by the national police using tear gas and rubber bullets.

Among the graffiti spray-painted in the streets, a three word sentence read: “Óscar Pérez Lives.”

Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM