A Cop Turned Wannabe Action Star Assaulted the Venezuelan Supreme Court in a Helicopter
Guns, grenades and Instagram
A rogue police helicopter cut through the evening air above Venezuela’s Supreme Court on June 27, 2017. The chopper lingered in the air above Caracas for a moment, then swooped along the edges of the building as one of its passengers displayed a sign. “Art. 350 Libertad,” the sign read. It was a reference to Article 350 of the Venezuelan constitution and an appeal to depose Pres. Nicolás Maduro.
Then the men inside the helicopter dropped four grenades on the Supreme Court and fired 15 rifle rounds into the Interior Ministry. One of the grenades was a dud and neither the explosives nor the gunfire injured anyone.
Most of the men in the helicopter wore masks to hide their identity. The pilot did not. In social media videos of the attack, the pilot is clearly visible. He’s Oscar Perez, a helicopter pilot with the Body of Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation, or CICPC—Venezuela’s equivalent to the FBI.
Perez is also a member of the CICPC’s Special Actions Brigade, an elite hostage rescue unit.
Perez took responsibility for the attack in a series of videos he posted on Instagram. In his account description, he claimed Venezuela is both his nation and his passion. In the video explaining the reasons for the attack, masked men in SWAT-style uniforms flanked Perez as he delivered his message.
“We are a coalition of military, police and civilian officers searching for balance and against this transitory, criminal government,” Perez said. “We do not belong to any political party, nor do we have any political tendencies. We are nationalists, patriots and institutionalists.”
Perez then called his countrymen to take up arms, lock arms with the security forces and overthrow the government. “Today, we are undertaking air and land operations with the only goal of returning power to the democratic people,” he said. “And in so doing obeying the law and making others obey the law in order to reestablish constitutional order. This is why we adhere ourselves to article 350 and 333 of our Constitution.”
#27 Jun Desde el helicóptero del CICPC Lanzaron dispositivos explosivos al TSJ y están haciendo un llamado para luchar contra la dictadura pic.twitter.com/99mEZdAuZt
— freddyzur (@freddyzur) June 27, 2017
“We demand, President Nicolas Maduro Moros, that you resign immediately along with all of your minister, and for immediate general elections to be announced. To you, our brother in arms: we have to options. Either be judged by our conscience tomorrow and the people, or to liberate our people from this corrupt government today.”
Perez has a face made for the screen and his Instagram is full of other videos that appear to be police advertisements. He has the piercing eyes, strong jaw and easy smile of a matinee idol. Which is probably why he’s the face of this paramilitary revolutionary group.
It’s also probably why he produced and starred in the 2015 Venezuelan action film Muerte Suspendida, or Death Suspended, which tells the story of government agents who rescue a kidnapped businessman. Perez is one of the stars—a tough agent that fights criminal organizations and rises out of the water like a low-rent James Bond.
The whole film is available on YouTube and plays like a cheap knockoff of the Brazilian film Elite Squad.
Perez’s strange public appearances, the fact that he’s in a movie and the inability of the authorities to find him or the helicopter have caused some local citizens to speculate that the entire attack is a false flag operation. However, it’s quite possible that Perez and his buddies bought their own press and thought they could spark a revolution.
While bizarre, there is a history of similar stunts in Venezuela. In February 1992, future Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez—then a lieutenant colonel—attempted to overthrow a weakened government during a period of widespread social and political unrest sparked by Pres. Carlos Andres Perez’s destabilizing neoliberal reforms.
Chavez’s coup attempt collapsed, but he later became president, and the government now annually commemorates the failed putsch, known as Operation Zamora, as a heroic act of resistance against a corrupt, entrenched elite.
Move forward to today, and the situation rings familiar. Venezuela is struggling with one of the world’s highest homicide rates, paralyzing unrest and a full-scale economic depression. Venezuela’s economy is heavily dependent on exporting thick, expensive-to-recover crude oil to a world market now experiencing a historic oil glut.
Then there’s Venezuela’s explosive political crisis. The country’s ruling party, the PSUV, has governed since 1999, but lost its legislative majority in December 2015. Instead of the opposition balancing the powers of the government, Pres. Maduro and Venezuela’s military elite have gradually centralized control by cancelling regional elections, barring several opposition leaders from running for office and by attempting to rewrite the constitution.
Dozens of protesters have died in clashes in recent months with the security forces and pro-government motorbike militias.
“There is an impasse right now,” said James Bosworth, a security analyst with Hxagon, a Virginia-based firm which studies risks in emerging markets.
“The opposition and the population are protesting regularly. The government is refusing to negotiate any sort of reasonable exit and instead is trying to consolidate its rule through the constitutional assembly. The international community is not acting in any significant way.”
It’s important to note that Maduro is not an absolute dictator. “While he is certainly one important actor in Venezuela, there is a group of corrupt current and former military officers who jointly run the government with him,” Bosworth added. “Maduro is a useful figurehead for the junta of officials, but far from an individualist dictator that has complete control.”
Yet this combination of the state’s corruption, perceived weakness and an inability to address Venezuela’s crisis creates an opportunity for security officers to emulate what Chavez did 25 years ago—attempt to topple the government with force. One obstacle, however, remains the difficulties inherent in organizing a coup, and the security forces tightly restrict and monitor internal communications. The military writ large hasn’t yet shown a willingness to turn on the regime.
Nevertheless, a coup plotter or instigator such as Perez would have ample reason to believe he could succeed—at least in the long run—by internalizing a lesson taught by the very same regime he sought to overthrow. Attempt to topple the government by force, and fail, and you may one day be president.
There are important differences. Chavez, who commanded hundreds of soldiers in 1992, was in a much better position to seize power than Perez and his small crew were in 2017, and Chavez still failed. In any case, coup attempts have not made Venezuela a more just or democratic place for its citizens—quite the contrary.
“One tragic lesson from recent years in Venezuela is that what looks like the bottom is an illusion,” Bosworth added. “The situation can always get worse.”