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This report is based on an investigation by journalists in Caracas who cannot use their names because of security concerns.
Audio recordings from Venezuelan police radio communications, taken during the Jan. 15 raid to capture rebel pilot Óscar Pérez and six others, confirm they were captured alive after negotiating their surrender with the commander of the raid, National Bolivarian Guard Commander Rafael Bastardo.
But two hours later, the seven bodies were delivered to the Caracas morgue. The cause of all the deaths was gunshots to the head, according to the death certificates given to their relatives, suggesting they were executed after they surrendered.
Pérez, 36, was a pilot with a Venezuelan police unit. Last summer, he dropped flash grenades from a police helicopter over the headquarters of the Supreme Court of Justice and called for a rebellion against President Nicolás Maduro. Security forces had been searching for him ever since, and on Jan. 15 they received a tip and mounted a full-scale raid on his hideout.
The raid began between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m. The audio leaked to Univision News by police sources linked to the operation was recorded between 11:15 and 11:32 a.m. By that time, authorities had surrounded the home in El Junquito, a mountainous area 15 miles from Caracas, where Pérez, five of his followers and one of their wives were hiding.
During the first five minutes of the recording, authorities give the order to hold fire. Ten times they repeat that they are in control of the situation and are negotiating "face to face" with the rebels for their surrender.
National Bolivarian Guard Maj. Rafael Bastardo, commander of the National Bolivarian Police's Special Actions Force, led the raid. Early in the recording he identifies himself and says he's outside the rebels' hideout. “Bastardo, from outside,” he said.
In the recording, Bastardo and the other law enforcement agents taking part in the raid can be heard using the following phrases to describe the situation:
"Nobody fire, they’re negotiating, it’s under negotiation. Nobody fire. There’s four commandos inside and the rest are in the entrance. Nobody fire."
"Nobody fire, we’re inside. Nobody fire because we’re inside."
"Nobody fire. We’re in the toughest moment because they have a grenade and we are inside the house. We are face to face. We can all die in here."
At that moment, the house was surrounded by about 500 law enforcement agents from four security forces: the Special Actions Force of the National Bolivarian Police, the Bolivarian National Guard, the General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence, and the Bolivarian Intelligence Service – as well as members of pro-government paramilitary gangs known as “collectives.”
The security forces, armed with assault rifles, 20 Russian-made RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), a light tank and two armored cars, fired on the house despite the repeated radio orders to stop. At no point in the recording is there any talk of a gunfight with Pérez or his group, any mention of gunshots from the house or any mention of rebels killed.
Officers participating in the communications identify Maj. Bastardo with the code-name Alpha 6 and report on the negotiations. “There’s a negotiation with Alpha 6, there’s a negotiation with Alpha 6. Nobody fire. Alpha 6, they’re surrendering to Alpha 6.”
“The citizen Alpha 6 is holding a negotiation with the 58 (suspects). Nobody fire, nobody fire,” the recording continues, using police code for suspects. “The house is taken, the house is already taken by the colleagues. Transmitting (inaudible) to the superiors.”
Nearly three hours after the recorded communications, all the rebels were dead. They included: Pérez; José Alejandro Díaz Pimentel, a former military counterintelligence officer; Abraham Israel Agostini, former police officer in the state of Araguaya; Abraham and Jairo Lugo, brothers and former National Guard officers; Lisbeth Ramírez, wife of Jairo Lugo; and journalism student Daniel Soto.
The seven bodies were delivered around 2 p.m. to the Caracas morgue, more than an hour's drive from the hide-out. The death certificates given to relatives three days later show the same cause for all seven – “severe head trauma, wound caused by gunshot to the head.” The certificates are now part of the investigation of the Jan. 15 raid undertaken by the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Hours of negotiations
Even during the raid, Pérez and his group recorded about 20 video and audio messages on their cell phones describing the events and posted them on Twitter and Instagram or sent them to relatives via Whatsapp.
“Here we are, on the new El Junquito highway. We're negotiating. We don't want to clash with the government officers,” Pérez said in the first of 14 videos, recorded at 6:46 a.m.
In following videos, Pérez admitted his group was surrounded and said he and his supporters planned to surrender if they received guarantees, such as the presence of prosecutors and journalists.
In his last message, published at 9:25 a.m., Perez's face was covered in blood as he reported that the seige had increased and that some of his group had been wounded.
“They are firing at us with grenade launchers, with snipers,” he said. “We said we were going to surrender, but they don't want to allow us to surrender. They want to assassinate us.”
"We need the names of the wounded"
Two government officials were killed during Operation Gedeón – Heiker Vásquez and Nelson Chirinos Cruz – and six were wounded by alleged gunfire from the rebels.
During the last 12 minutes of the recording leaked to Univision News, law enforcement officers are heard requesting information about the dead and wounded, who were taken to the nearest hospital, the Pérez Carreño in Caracas.
“Repeat the phone number of whoever is with Heiker, the phone number,” one of the officers is heard saying. He's referring to Heiker Vasquez, leader of the Colectivo Tres Raices, who was killed during the raid. Vasquez was also a member of the Special Action Force under the name of Andrium Ugarte. Interior and Justice Minister Nestor Reverol identified him with the false name in announcing his death.
“Write up the list, the list of deceased and wounded officers. Alpha 1 needs it, with all the names of the wounded who are at the Perez Carreño (hospital) and the deceased. The orders are coming from here,” said another voice just seconds before the recording ends.
Venezuelan police sources told Univision that all the Alpha codes are used by the Bolivarian National Police, and that Alpha 1 is its top chief, Gen. Antonio Perez Ampueda.
The Venezuelan government has offered partial and contradictory stories about the deaths of the two raiders. Maduro declared on Jan. 15 that both were “riddled with shots to the head.”
But his No. 2, Diosdado Cabello, said on Jan. 17 that Vasquez died from a gunshot to the chest. “Heiker went two times to talk to them about surrendering … When Heiker got out of his car, his own friend, Diaz Pimentel, murdered him with a shot to the chest,” Cabello said. He added that two other policemen were wounded by a grenade thrown from the house.
During the last seconds of the recording, a voice orders the raiders to clear the way for forensic specialists. “Garcia, go down in a motorcycle and indicate down there, to let the national director of forensics (Senamecf) in,” the voice says.
By that time, all of the wounded officers were being treated at the Perez Carreño hospital.