In the early hours of Jan. 15, some 500 Venezuelan law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel cordoned off and raided a safe house in El Junquito, a parish on the western edge of Caracas. Seven people were hiding there: Óscar Pérez and six of his companions.
Mr. Pérez had burst into the national spotlight on June 27, 2017, when he stole a police helicopter and dropped grenades on two government buildings in the hopes of igniting a general insurrection against the increasingly authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro.
Hours after the raid began, Mr. Pérez lay dead in the rubble of the safe house. He was killed by a bullet to the head. His six companions met similar fates, with all but one having died from gunshot injuries to the head.
Throughout the seven-hour-long raid that morning, Mr. Pérez recorded a series of videos, which he shared through his Instagram account. In many of them, he expressed a desire to surrender.
Leaked radio transmissions of the security services from the day suggest that Mr. Pérez and his men negotiated a surrender. But the Venezuelan government insists that they were killed in a gunfight that they initiated.
Was Óscar Pérez executed?
Independent investigations and traditional journalism in Venezuela are hindered by the Maduro government, which maintains its grip on power through intimidation, violence and silencing reporters. Security forces razed the safe house where the rebels died before any independent inquiry could be conducted, destroying any evidence that may have helped to provide answers in the case.
But new methods of investigation can help fill in the gaps.
Over the past four months, investigators from Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture have collaborated to undertake this inquiry. Our groups specialize in open-source forensics, a technique that consists of the collection, identification, verification, and plotting in space and time of available media online to reconstruct a narrative.
We have collected and verified about 60 pieces of evidence that were within or around the safe house on Jan. 15, including tweets, videos and photos taken by citizens, security forces and Mr. Pérez himself, as well as leaked audio of police radio communications.
We have located each piece of evidence within a navigable three-dimensional digital platform showing a model of the safe house and the environment of El Junquito around it, and have started reconstructing an account of the narrative of the day. We have found disturbing indications that Mr. Pérez and his six companions were executed.
Since coming to power in 2013, Mr. Maduro has presided over Venezuela’s economic and social collapse. Chronic shortages of food, medicine and basic necessities have become a fact of life. Mr. Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government has violently repressed two waves of protests and jailed opposition leaders.
The government of Venezuela has not been held to account for these abuses, but it should be. That is why it is important to know whether Mr. Pérez and his companions were subjected to extrajudicial executions. Their case exemplifies the nature of the Venezuelan state and the unchecked violence it is willing to employ.
But we are missing key pieces of evidence that would allow us to make a clear determination. This is a call for help.
Details of the raid come from a range of sources, from security forces to bystanders to Mr. Pérez himself. We know from videos posted on Mr. Pérez’s Instagram account that by 6:45 a.m. he had become aware that the authorities were surrounding his safe house and that he intended to surrender.
In his early videos from that morning, Mr. Pérez seems confident. He speaks calmly to the camera about his wish to surrender but calls on Venezuelans to take up his struggle against the Maduro government.
The situation seems to have changed by later that morning.
In a short clip that he shared on his Instagram account, a bloodied Mr. Pérez is stunned: His eyes dart nervously around the room and gunfire drowns out his voice. He says that the authorities are ignoring his attempts to surrender and are instead attacking the house with rocket-propelled grenades. Video we estimate to be from 9:07 a.m. shows one such attack, the second of several that took place as Mr. Pérez and his comrades said they were attempting to surrender.
In a video recorded less than an hour later, a panicked Mr. Pérez yells his last recorded words amid thunderous fire: “We are going to surrender! Stop shooting!”
Shortly before midnight, a Venezuelan journalist posted a photo on Twitter that showed Mr. Pérez lying dead in the rubble of the safe house, face up, with his left hand at the side of his head. A black mark is in the middle of his forehead — apparently a bullet hole.
Leaked radio communications between the security forces involved in the raid provide a glimpse into what might have happened between 11:15 a.m. and 11:32 a.m. “There’s a negotiation with Alpha 6, there’s a negotiation with Alpha 6. Nobody fire. Alpha 6, they’re surrendering to Alpha 6,” an officer says through the radio. Alpha 6 is Major Rafael Enrique Bastardo Mendoza. As head of the Special Actions Forces of the National Bolivarian Police, he was running the show on Jan. 15.
The Venezuelan forces might have had some allies in the fight: Since 2013, the Maduro government has increasingly relied on pro-government civilian armed groups known locally as “colectivos.” Could these groups have been responsible for the deaths of Mr. Pérez and his companions despite their intent to surrender?
In a news conference on Jan. 16, the government confirmed the deaths of Mr. Perez, his six companions and two Venezuelan police officers. By then, rumors that the rebel leader and his followers had been executed were rampant. These rumors would be fueled for several days as government officials prevented Mr. Pérez’s family from seeing his body in the Caracas morgue. A Venezuelan journalist finally obtained a copy of Mr. Pérez’s death certificate and posted it on Twitter. The cause of death as written: “Severe cranial trauma due to firearm injury to the head.” While one of his companions was killed by a shot through the neck, the others also received their decisive blows in the head.
The available evidence strongly suggests that Mr. Pérez and his companions were the victims of extrajudicial killings. Yet, given the secrecy with which the government has handled the case, there remain important gaps in the narrative.
According to the government, Mr. Pérez and his companions were violent terrorists who died before they could unleash a campaign of carnage on the Venezuelan people. In the government’s eyes, there is nothing else to be said about Mr. Pérez and the raid in El Junquito.
Our investigation undermines this official version of events. In the videos that he posted on his Instagram account during the raid, Mr. Pérez repeatedly voiced — and even shouted in the midst of battle — his desire to surrender. The leaked radio communications show that the government knew this. Placing Mr. Pérez’s actions in time and space and comparing them with the security services’ activities shows the problems with the government’s story.
But open source investigations have limits. They rely on what is available —and especially the work of citizen journalists, the people who live through and witness the events that those in power want to hide. The images and videos that they collect are the most important pieces of evidence for exposing state violence.
This is why we need help. We are looking for more videos, photos and details from the morning of Jan. 15 in El Junquito. Do you have any information that could help us know more about what happened to Óscar Pérez and his companions? Do you know anyone who might have more information?
If the answer is yes, please email our teams at Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture or message us at +447835333851 via WhatsApp or Signal. If you are concerned about security or would like to remain anonymous, use one of the following two options:
Send a message anonymously to the above phone number using preferably Signal or WhatsApp, and we will arrange the best means to communicate while maintaining your security.
We want to hear from you to help hold the government of Venezuela accountable.
Giancarlo Fiorella is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto’s Center for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies.
Aliaume Leroy is a member of the Bellingcat Investigation Team and an open source investigative journalist with BBC Africa Eye.
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